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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Faoa looking forward to life in Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS — Asi Faoa wants to get to know you.

The Fairbanks Grizzlies’ massive utility player is trying to be part of the Fairbanks community, not just a mercenary in pads and a helmet.

“As the season goes by here, I’m going to get to know people on a first-name basis,” Faoa said. “I hope I do.”

Less than a week after their marriage, Faoa and his wife, Malia, arrived in Fairbanks for the Indoor Football League season.

The trip to Fairbanks was their honeymoon, and they plan to live here year-round while pursuing degrees at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“We wanted to go somewhere cold,” Faoa said.

The 28-year-old Samoan from Southern California hadn’t even seen snow until he arrived in Alaska.

“As soon as I stepped out of the airport doors, I took a deep breath, and I literally coughed,” he said. “It was so cold it stung the back of my throat.

“But as soon as I saw snow, I was grinning the whole time.”

He kept grinning during snowball fights with Malia and spent hours admiring the white stuff while sitting on the porch of their Sophie Plaza apartment.

“He’s like a little kid in a candy store,” Malia said.

But some of the cold-weather romanticism is out of Faoa’s system now. It left the moment he lost feeling in his fingers during a visit to the World Ice Art Championships.

Malia, a 20-year-old who grew up in Washington state, is in less of a tizzy over the Alaska climate. Even the prospect of 40 below doesn’t faze her.

“I’m actually looking forward to it,” she said. “I’m actually curious how cold it’s going to feel.”

The couple met three years ago on the social networking Web site MySpace — though they tell everyone they met through eHarmony.

They began dating two years ago. Malia, who as a Tongan has similar roots, was drawn to Asi’s outgoing nature. Faoa admired Malia’s closeness to her family, something she proved when he had to meet her father before her, following Polynesian tradition.

She’s applying to UAF to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, further cementing the fact that the Faoas will be in Fairbanks this winter, long after most of the Grizzlies have returned to the Lower 48.

They might become Fairbanksans, but blending in is another matter entirely. The 6-foot-5, long-haired giant will probably turn a few heads as he strolls through the grocery store.

Even Malia thought, “Wow, that’s a big dude,” when they met. It’s typical for guys to exaggerate their height and weight in online profiles and roster sheets. To Malia’s surprise, Faoa wasn’t lying about an ounce.

Word quickly spread about the chair back that buckled under Faoa’s weight on a local radio show. He saw fellow Samoan lineman Andy Endemann leaning back and figured he could, too, until he heard cracking. Endemann laughed at him.

And the name Asi, that’s going to stand out, too. Though the full version — Asiolefolasa Asoau Faoa — is even less conspicuous.

But that shouldn’t keep you from approaching him. How else would you discover that Faoa can dexterously strum the ukulele and hold his own with a guitar in a jam session, or that this quarterback-eater loves curling up on the couch and watching “American Idol”?

Steal of the century

Even on the field, surrounded by other hefty fellows wearing similar jerseys, Faoa is easy to distinguish.

He was the first former Arena Football League player to trickle down to the Grizzlies when the league went dark for its 2009 season.

Fairbanks coach Sean Ponder called him “the steal of the century,” and there’s plenty of evidence to support that claim.

Before the Grizzlies first game this season, the AFL’s farm system, arenafootball2, named Faoa its eighth-best defensive lineman of all time. He might have been ranked higher if he had more than five starts in the league, in which he accumulated 24 tackles and 10 sacks.

Apparently, other IFL teams received the memo.

In an April 2 win over the Maryland Maniacs, Faoa was consistently met by double-teams as a linebacker and lineman, even though he was hindered by a knee strain.

“Asi is one of the better players if not the best player I’ve coached,” Ponder said. “He can play so many positions, and this league hasn’t seen anything of what he can do. He’s at about 80 percent.”

It’s tough to find experience matching Faoa’s three years in the AFL. It’s even harder to plan a blocking scheme to negate the 285-pounder, who’s fast enough to return kicks, while keeping tabs on other pass-rushers.

He didn’t record any tackles, but his role was evident as Endemann and Aaron Brown constantly harassed the Maryland quarterbacks.

“There were times when Aaron came through and there wasn’t anybody on him because they were worried about Asi,” Ponder said. “And that’s great. Asi will take that. Asi doesn’t have to put up big stats. If he gets double-teamed, he’ll just laugh the whole time.”

As a veteran on a young team in a young league, Faoa is already off to a good start as being the face of the 2009 Grizzlies.

“He wants to go out to the community,” Ponder said. “He wants to reach out to all the kids. He wants to talk to them. He wants to be on the radio.

“I wouldn’t say he’s the face of the Grizzlies, but he (represents) the character of the type of players that we have.”

In the realm of the IFL, Faoa is a rarity — a physical and mental specimen, if you will.

Then again, guys like Faoa are in short supply at any level of the game, in any city. Few have been able to overcome the challenges he’s faced — though some trials he has brought upon himself.­­ Humble beginnings

Faoa spent several years of his childhood living across the Pacific Ocean in places such as Okinawa, Japan, while his father, Folasa, was serving in the Marines.

The Faoas returned to Samoa in the early ’90s, where they lived off the land, eating roots and catching their own fish.

Once, while Asi and Folasa were fishing about a mile offshore, both father and son dozed off after casting their lines. Asi awoke to the sound of a whale’s blowhole and noticed that the massive mammal was coming their way.

He stirred Folasa, giving them enough time to battle a stuck anchor and flee before the whale’s wake could flip the boat.

To this day, Asi teases Folasa, “Dad, do you remember that time I saved your life?”

When they moved to Southern California, Asi was just as crucial to his family’s livelihood. He began helping Folasa at work by carrying stacks of wood from tree-trimming and fixing autos.

His mother, Kim Faoa, known as “Big Kim,” said Asi never complained of their poverty. Not when he showed up for class with two different shoes on. Not when he came home to a neighborhood with nightly shootings and squeezed his massive body into a two-bedroom apartment that was crammed with 12 of his relatives.

From the years of lugging wood alongside his father, he added strength to his immense frame, and playing football opened up a whole new world for his large body.

Before his freshman year, Asi had not played organized sports. Youth leagues were too expensive, so he waited until he could join Magnolia High School’s teams in Anaheim, Calif.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to play at first, but once I got the pads on and went through my first week of football, I was like ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do,’” he said. “I love it.”

Asi soon learned to love competition, and he quickly expanded his repertoire to include basketball and track.

“It’s just that adrenaline rush you get,” he said. “You just get hungry to play.”

His star brightened in all three sports, and a local magazine profiled him as one of the top 10 high school sports stars in Orange County. Kim still has a copy.

Football appealed to Asi the most. He began as a tight end and joined the defensive line his junior year, enjoying the one-on-one aspect of the position.

“I was always hungry to beat the guy across from me,” he said.

Asi spent his high school years fitting athletics in with schoolwork and his home life: working with his father in backyards and garages while helping his mother raise a family.

As the oldest brother, Asi became a father figure to his siblings and cousins because of Folasa’s long hours at work. He has four younger brothers and two younger sisters, and his family took some of his cousins under its wing.

“I changed diapers, so I’m ready to have kids myself,” he said. “It was fun. I really enjoyed being the older brother. I loved the feeling of my brothers and sisters coming to me for advice and looking up to me.”

It was fun?

That’s the way Asi speaks of his youth. He’s not resentful of the poverty or any of the things his parents couldn’t give him. He doesn’t bemoan getting dropped off at football games in a pickup truck full of the lumber he’d been hauling since classes ended.

The first thing he would do after Magnolia football games was find his parents in the stands so he could hug Folasa and kiss Kim on the cheek.

“Parents would come up to me and say, ‘You know, I really love how your son, he’s not ashamed,’” Kim said.

Asi moved away for college, but he never fully left home. He cared for his grandmother while she suffered from diabetes during high school and early in his college years until she died.

These days, he calls Kim every day to make sure everything’s all right and the family has money for food. He sends $20 or $40 when they need it. Kim is always floored by the gesture.

Folasa moved back to Samoa two years ago, so Kim tends to the family on her own. Asi convinced her to quit her second job so she can spend more time at home with his brothers and sisters. He’ll take care of whatever she can’t pay, he said.

“I said ‘I’ll probably go to my grave owing you,’” Kim recalled. “He said, ‘Mom, you never owe me. I owe you.’”

Big time

Faoa’s abilities as a defensive lineman earned him a scholarship at UCLA in 1999, making him the first person in his family to attend college.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, a feat that still overwhelms Kim with emotion.

Of about 100 children from his mother’s side, only two have earned four-year degrees.

Faoa hopes to finish his master’s in political science at UAF, and then fulfill his lifelong dream of going to law school.

“It would mean a great deal for him, especially, but it would be a dream for me,” Kim said, “to set an example for his brothers and sisters, to inspire them to have a better life.”

In UCLA’s storied Rose Bowl, what struck him the most was the Bruins’ professionalism.

“Everyone at college had the same drive I did,” he said. “You know how in high school you get some of those guys that are just there to be there? When I got to UCLA, it was the real deal. Everybody had the same mentality that I did.”

For once, Asi didn’t stand out. It took him a few practices to get used to the fact that he was just one of many stars at his position.

“There’s 15 guys as big as you, if not bigger, and you’re like ‘Woah,’” he said.

Admiring the team’s top-level equipment and first-class travel and living accommodations, Faoa bloomed as a player but never reached stardom.

He finished his 45-game collegiate career with 42 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and a blocked kick.

The education and competition were everything Faoa could have asked for.

“It was like a dream come true, really,” he said.

That dream went awry.

Youthful mistake

The man who overcame so much adversity is not a saint. He is flawed — never more so than at a fraternity party in September 2001.

Faoa pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for hitting Rodrigo De Zubria at the party, causing a degree of brain damage.

Faoa was defending a friend and didn’t mean to harm De Zubria to such an extent, his then-attorney Milton Grimes told UCLA’s student newspaper, the Daily Bruin, when a settlement was reached in August 2002.

“I’m not proud of it at all,” Faoa said two weeks ago. “I don’t think anybody would be. I was just young and stupid. Ask the teams I’ve played for since then; anyone could tell you I’m not like that.”

Faoa received a 180-day sentence and agreed to pay De Zubria $100,000 if he signed an NFL contract within three years of the completion of his collegiate career.

Faoa didn’t spend any time in jail, instead performing community service by picking trash off a highway. He never signed onto a NFL team, though he wasn’t avoiding it because of the lawsuit.

To deal with the legal repercussions after his graduation, Faoa had to attend court regularly.

As an undrafted free agent, he said several teams were interested in him, but he couldn’t devote enough time — especially time away from home — to draw any significant offers.

“It’s going to follow me, of course, and it’s not going to stop me from playing,” he said.

It did keep him away from organized football for a few years after graduation. And from there, again, he had to work from the bottom up.

Going pro

He was relegated mostly to practice squad duty on the AFL’s Los Angeles Avengers, while he learned to pass block. After four games, he was cut because of salary cap issues.

He was later signed by the af2’s San Diego Riptide, which had an offensive-minded coach named Sean Ponder whom Faoa quickly took a shine to.

“He put us in a position to succeed, especially individually,” Faoa said.

Ponder was the director of player personnel for the Avengers while Faoa was on the practice squad, and he tabbed Faoa as someone who wouldn’t last long in the af2 before moving up to the AFL.

Ponder was right. Shortly afterward, Faoa followed Riptide assistant coach Ed Flanagan to the Arizona Rattlers, where he played until 2008.

“Any time you’ve got a guy that’s 6-foot-5, 285 and a gunner on the kickoff team, you know you’ve got something special,” said Flanagan, who was the line coach in Arizona.

In Phoenix, Faoa made big impacts at fullback, linebacker and defensive line. He even learned how to snap the ball for field goals and extra-point attempts, though he never did that in a game.

“The only problem with Asi is we don’t know where to put him,” Flanagan said.

But doing many different things may have hurt Faoa’s shot at joining an NFL team, Flanagan added, as front offices may have seen him as “jack of all trades, master of none.”

But the Rattlers fans knew a good thing when they saw it. Faoa became a fan favorite in Phoenix.

After a Rattlers game, Faoa met Alex, a 4- or 5-year-old who wore a homemade shirt with Faoa’s mug shot from the Rattlers Web site ironed on the front.

“Seeing a little kid with my picture on his shirt,” Faoa said. “That was like ‘Wow!’”

He’s hoping to make the same impression here.

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