PROVO — The sudden onset of winter-like weather around the state last week brought back unpleasant memories, and served as a warning, too, for BYU wide receiver Spencer Hafoka.
As Hafoka, a sophomore who hails from the tropical paradise of Hawaii, started to leave the indoor practice facility after a workout last week, the bitter-cold wind and snow flurries blasted him in the face.
"It was a reminder, a flashback of what had happened," Hafoka said. "The first thing that popped in my mind was remembering when I was sick."
Last January, Hafoka contracted a cold, which turned into the flu (not the H1N1 variety), then pneumonia. To make matters worse, he suffers from asthma. His condition got so bad that he had to see a variety of doctors and specialists, and he had to withdraw from school and sit out of spring drills. It wasn't until April that he started to feel good again, only to go through a relapse for a couple of weeks in May.
"I have a pretty bad history with pneumonia," said the Kahuku High product. "Being up here in the cold is different from being where it's humid and warm. Coming up here, my body wasn't able to take it."
After recovering and working hard during the summer, Hafoka returned for fall camp, though he was unsure that he was ready for the rigors of the season. He wondered if he would have to redshirt. Despite the setbacks, Hafoka has held up well this season, having caught 11 passes for 118 yards and one touchdown for the Cougars.
Mostly, he's happy to be healthy again.
"Looking at the other way it could have gone, I could have been elsewhere — not on the team, not in school this year," he said. "I could be in the hospital. Who knows? I'm just grateful to overcome the sickness and just be alive."
Hafoka's contributions this season have been a pleasant surprise for coach Bronco Mendenhall.
"I had written him off in my mind, with his illness," he said. "The guy has just battled and battled and battled, and it's fun to see him finally be able hit the field and have some success. He's kind of started to break out and be reliable and productive."
During BYU's victory over Colorado State in September, Hafoka was rewarded for his efforts, catching a 24-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Max Hall.
"It was amazing. It didn't really hit me until I got to the sidelines that it was the first touchdown of my college career," Hafoka said. "It had been a while since I had felt that kind of feeling."
Having Hafoka in the receiving rotation has helped the offense, Hall said, especially with McKay Jacobson sidelined the past month with a hamstring injury.
"Spencer has made some big plays for us so far. He's a great athlete," Hall said. "He has great hands and he's very coachable. He's gotten better and better as the season has gone on. I think he's going to finish the season strong."
To avoid becoming sick again, Hafoka is taking the necessary precautions, washing his hands frequently and staying away from anyone who is ill. Meanwhile, several of his BYU teammates have had bouts with the swine flu this season.
"I'm trying not to push anything," Hafoka said. "I'm crossing my fingers and doing the best I can to stay healthy."
From January to April of this year, Hafoka spent most of his time trying to recover. "If I went out of the house, it was to the doctor's or to the specialists. I didn't do much at all," he said. "I just stayed home. It wasn't fun. It was a little depressing, knowing that your team is out working hard every day. I was lying in bed, helpless, not able to do anything. I knew I wasn't going to be able to make up for what the team went through, but I was going to try. I feel like I've got a ways to go."
Hafoka credits his wife, Crystal, for helping him conquer his ordeal.
"I owe her a lot. She pretty much took care of me throughout that time," he said. "We got married in December and I got sick in late January. It was hard, but she stuck next to me throughout the whole time I was sick."
Trying to get back in shape after his illness, Hafoka said, was similar to when he returned home from his mission in Ventura, Calif.
"Physically, it takes a toll on you when in your mind you know how fast you are but your body's not ready. It's frustrating," he said. "During fall camp, I wasn't at my full potential, but I wanted to be something close to that so I could contribute to the team — no matter if it was backing up or helping out with the scout team. Anything. I just wanted to contribute. I decided I was going to make up the ground that was lost and give whatever I have. No matter if I'm 100 percent or 90 percent, I'm going to lay it out there for the team."
Hafoka appreciates the lessons he learned during that period when he was bed-ridden.
"It's great to be part of a program that's successful. Not only on the field, but personally — the things we learn, not just with football but throughout life," he said. "Without getting sick, I don't think I would be as grateful as I am now of the opportunity I have to go to school, be healthy and enjoy football and school and my wife. It's made me a lot more grateful."