SALT LAKE CITY » Even at a home away from home, a Hawaii-born player can feel lost.
On the Utah Utes football team, the eight island boys help find each other.
"The Hawaii boys, there's always the older guys, they take everybody under their wing and kind of make them feel more comfortable or at home, to help them ease into it," third-year sophomore linebacker Kepa Gaison said after a team practice. "This year, Nai Fotu was a kid from Hawaii, and as soon as he came, it made the transition a lot easier because you have people to relate to."
Fotu, a true freshman defensive end out of Kahuku, has impressed of late. He got in for two tackles for loss and a sack last week in the Utes' 23-7 win against San Diego State, and also has a forced fumble this season.
But Gaison, a 2005 Kamehameha graduate out of Kaneohe, had trouble adapting to life in Salt Lake City his first season as a walk-on punter. After that rough patch, he's embraced his Rocky Mountain surroundings since, through a change of heart (and position).
It was harder for former Iolani running back Ray Stowers.
Stowers, a junior, was tabbed as the Utes' starting back going into this season. But he was coming off a lifetime's worth of injury trouble: Nagging shoulder injuries dating back to his sophomore season for the Raiders led to four surgeries and little playing time.
º"It's a miracle I'm still playing and stuff," he said. "I just learned that no matter what, if you really want to do something you can do it. I'm still living the dream and I'm healthy right now, so I thank God."
Stowers went for 23 yards and a touchdown on five rushes last season while easing his way back. This season, he's second on the team in rushing with 92 yards, behind Darrell Mack. He hasn't been stopped for a loss yet, and is thankful for the support of his fellow Hawaii players during his prolonged inactivity.
"We all get along. We know that we come from somewhere special and that's the thing we got in common," he said. "The L&L (Drive Inn) we got down the road, I always see someone I know there, another local. It's just a good feeling to have."
Like Stowers, redshirt freshman Daniel Bukarau (Kailua) has also missed the last three years of his football career -- although for an entirely different reason.
The offensive lineman just returned after last season from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to Costa Rica.
"That was probably the best experience of my life, to meet the people and everything," Bukarau said. "You really can't compare the experience to anything else. It really helps you to grow up, move on to the adult level."
The only thing he lamented was not being able to lift weights or run around -- something that his classmate from Kailua, Malakai Mokofisi (now a senior) ribs him about.
"I think it'll come to him," said Mokofisi, a starting linebacker with 20 tackles this season. "There's a few other players who came off of missions, and they worked into it, getting in shape and stuff. He'll get back to his original form when he first came."
It's been a season of highs and lows for 5-3 Utah. The Utes handed a 44-6 spanking to UCLA, then followed it up with a 27-0 loss to UNLV, but rallied to win four straight, including a 44-35 victory at Louisville and last night's 27-20 win over TCU.
Through it all, though, the Hawaii natives have relied on each other.
"It's like another home out here," Mokofisi said. "You got all the local boys you know you grew up with back home."
Senior linebacker Loma Olevao (Kahuku), junior offensive lineman Tyler Williams (Kamehameha) and redshirt freshman linebacker Vilisoni Kotobalavu (Kahuku) round out the local talent on the team.
Koa Misi, of California, is fifth on the team in tackles with 35. He's the son of former Hawaii player Sione Misi.