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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Fonoti Coming into his Own

An article from NMSU--some errors Hawaiian was spelled wrong, Fanoga and Fonoti were referred to as Hawaiian--they are Samoan and there are not 23 Samoans on the team--unless NMSU is hiding some guys as greyshirts.

by Tim Strasser

Aggie Athletics Media Relations

When La’auli Fonoti takes the field this season for the Aggie defense, he will do so as the quiet, but very present leader along with fellow linebacker and outspoken team captain Dante Floyd.

Fonoti, all 6-feet-4-inches and 250 lbs., has been instilled in the linebacker unit where he has worked to perfect his position since the 2006 college football season when he switched from tight end on offense to his position of linebacker.

Last season, Fonoti played supporting role to more experienced linebackers, notching 41 tackles and a blocked punt in 10 games played. It should be noted that last season, Fonoti’s sophomore season, is considered by some as a great step in progress considering he had played the tight end position his entire football career.

Fonoti said it was a tough switch from his more customary tight end position to linebacker, a position he had never played, but nevertheless, he worked hard and accepted his new assignment as his mission.

“Being moved from [tight end] to linebacker was tough,” Fonoti explains. “I didn’t know anything about the linebacker position. I had to learn while playing and sometimes on the field [during my sophomore season] I would feel lost.”

As the old saying goes, ‘practice makes perfect’, and Fonoti has taken that saying to heart. He explains he worked hard and spoke with his coaches, including Aggie defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer and fellow Samoan and Aggie coach Mike Fanoga to help his transition.

“La’auli has worked hard,” Fanoga said. “He has the quality of a great outside linebacker ... has all the tools to be an NFL linebacker. He worked hard to gain weight and [learn the linebacker position]. He is very smart on the field [and] he understands his position.”

Fanoga adds that Fonoti has been a starter since last year and he envisions he will continue as a starter this year.

“I try to get better [at linebacker] every practice and every day and by doing that, I have to give it my all each day,” Fonoti said. “I'm not doing it for others to notice but to make sure I'm prepared for anything that comes during games.”

He said his transition to linebacker has been helped tremendously by Fanoga and Widenhofer.

“Coach Woody and Fanoga are great coaches,” Fonoti explains. “[Woody’s] style of coaching is very tough-love. He’s helped me understand how the defense works and everything that goes into it and only expects the best out of me when I’m playing.”

While he may come off as enigmatic, the better descriptive of Fonoti is reserved and respectful. Unlike most players in the limelight, Fonoti is uniquely humble.

“I don't really see myself [being outspoken]. I'll be the best teammate supporter though and my team always comes first.”

“La’auli is real quiet,” Fanoga said. “He does everything with his pads, not verbally.”

Fonoti adds that if his team needs him to be outspoken, he will if it leads to wins. If his younger teammates, including those 23 players (THIS NUMBER IS INCORRECT) with a Samoan background, look to him for example, Fonoti explains he wants to set a good example.

It is not a secret Fonoti is humble and reserved, but not too reserved to being open to improving and raising his game to new levels. During the games is when he is not reserved, far from it. When he puts his pads, Aggie jersey and helmet on, Fonoti seemingly leaps out of his reserved character and slaps on a different persona.

To get into that part of himself, Fonoti prepares by organizing his teammates, usually his Polynesian teammates, in a pregame ritual dance called a Haka, an ancient war dance from New Zealand used to intimidate opponents before battle. This involves slapping, stomping and screaming. The typical dance they use before the game is used to intimidate and to build courage. If you have not seen it, look for it during the Aggie football games, as the whole team will be performing the ‘Haka’.

With the departures of senior linebackers and captains Tim McManigal and Nathan Nuttall, who were respectively No. 1 and No. 6 on the team in tackles last season, Fonoti, along with Floyd, will be expected to put much more on his shoulders.

“La’auli is being counted on to step up. We lost a lot of good guys last year, so we’re looking at him for big plays.” Part of what makes Fonoti and the rest of the Polynesian student-athlete football players stand out is their work ethic. Fanoga said most of them learn the value of working hard growing up. He said it is part of their lIfestyle.

“They are taught since they are young to work hard and respect others,” Fanoga said. “If they ever got out of line at home, someone, their mom, dad, uncle ... will get them back in line.”

Fanoga added that most of the Polynesian players come from poor communities and poor high schools, such as the high schools on the island of American Samoa.

“The island of [American] Samoa is in the third world,” Fanoga said. “The high schools are poor. They don’t have much exercise equipment so they do what they can by lifting [household items] during chores at home to help their family out. They work a lot ... it is part of the lifestyle.”

Fonoti was recruited out of Hawaii by Fanoga, a fellow Samoan. What Fanoga began by plucking Fonoti out of Kahuku High School was an influx of student-athlete football players coming from a Polynesian background. Currently, there are 22 current Aggie football players, including Fonoti, of Polynesian background, coming from Hawaii, American Samoa, off from the northeast corner of Australia, and even Salt Lake City.

He says it is nice having a coach (Fanoga) and players on the team from his same background.

“It is always nice to have someone to relate to with similar background cultures especially this far from home.” Fanoga agrees: “It’s nice to have somebody you can rely on and who understands your background. The [Polynesian players] really enjoy it here and enjoy the whole atmosphere and environment of Las Cruces.

Fonoti said he thinks Las Cruces is nice. He likes the culture and says it is similar to Hawaii. “Life in Las Cruces is similar to Hawaii ... really Chill,” Fonoti says. “There are a lot of differences but the only bad thing would have to be the hot weather and food.”

Another aspect of Fonoti that makes him an atypical standout football player is his history in the native Hawaiian dance. Fonoti confirms that during his high school days, he was a main dancer, performing every weeknight in front of large crowds.

An interesting fact about Fonoti is his older brothers both played Division I football. His oldest brother, Toniu Fonoti (6yrs older) was an All-American offensive lineman at the University of Nebraska and left school after his junior year to declare for the 2002 NFL Draft, where he was chosen in the second round by the San Diego Chargers. His other brother, Taualai Fonoti (3 yrs older), played at Stanford, and like Fonoti, played linebacker, graduating in 2005.

He said they have given him good advice for football. “The advice was ‘always stay focused and determined’ and always have that 'want to do it' attitude.”

This season, Fonoti hopes to be an even more unique student-athlete and linebacker, on the field. “My goal is to start the whole season and to improve myself from last season.”

You can watch for Fonoti, No. 11, when the Aggie defense takes the field this season.

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