California Linebacker Chooses Faith

It is a common thing to see in today's sports world: athletes being lifted up by adoring fans on the world's stage, showered with praise and glorified by rich endorsements. For one recent convert to the LDS faith, God has become his endorsement.

It's always a breath of fresh air to hear Coach Mendenhall talk about how no football player within his program is given a personal sense of entitlement. Even BYU's $80 million facilities once drew the ire of Coach Mendenhall because he felt it could give football players the impression that they deserve it.

The thinking is, it is much easier to teach athletes to become better when they don't already think they are the best, and likewise it is much easier to mold the character of young men when they are humble and teachable.

What is even more disheartening is when good LDS athletes give up so much after being lured away by false recruiting perceptions. Perceptions that if one is going to be successful one must be tied into specific conference affiliations, have all the glitter and gold of certain college programs or are led away by whispers of greatness from media darling coaches who promise instant stardom if they will but ink their names on the dotted line.

For Steven Fanua, a future top-rated linebacker wrecking machine out of Milpitas, California, seeking out what is most important and real has become a recent priority for him over everything else.

"The missionaries came by our house one day and they started teaching me about the gospel," said Steven. "I felt really good about it every time they came through. It just felt good and I accepted it."

Steven and his younger brother Sam were both taught the missionary discussions and decided to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We both wanted to be baptized," said Fanua. "Me and my younger brother Sam Fanua were both baptized last December. It was just me and my younger brother that were baptized, but my whole family is Mormon.

"It was a real spiritual experience for us. It just felt really good the whole way through. I don't really know how to explain it. There were just a lot of feelings, you know?"

"As a father I wanted to teach my boys that they have a purpose in life," said Steven's father, Sam Sr. "I wanted to teach them as best I could and to let them know that the Lord has a plan for them. It's their job to find out what that plan is and go forward."

By being baptized and learning more about his faith, Steven feels his life has changed. He now has a newer and broader perspective on life.

"It has helped me to want to be a better person," said Steven. "It's not about just me anymore. It's kind of turned things inside out, where it's about helping the people around you."

"I'm proud that my boys have decided to make the Lord a priority in their lives," said Sam Sr.

While Steven is learning more and more about principles of his faith, one thing he knows all too well is the sport of football. As a sophomore linebacker, he led the entire state of California in tackles.

"Right now I'm 6'1" and I weigh around 215 pounds," Steven said. "I'm not quite sure what my forty time is but I think I just have a lot of game speed. I was able to rack up 227 tackles this past season and I had 11 sacks. I didn't have any interceptions but I did have around four forced fumbles."

While Steven may be learning about kindness, charity and brotherly love from his priesthood leaders, he also understands there is a time and place for practicing such principles. He understands that on the gridiron it is neither the time nor the place to practice the age-old principle of "loving thy neighbor."

"If I were to describe my style of play, I would say that I put it all out on the line and play like a savage out there on the field," said Steven. "On defense I just try to make the biggest hit and hit people hard. I like to play like a savage, I guess.

"I like to hype up the defense and get my players excited and hyped up. When I've got my defense hyped up it just makes me want to hit someone even harder. It gets the crowd going and the adrenaline flowing."

As a top California linebacker prospect just in his sophomore year, many high-profile Division I college programs have taken notice of Steven's on-field accomplishments.

"I've received some interest from a whole bunch of schools," Steven said. "I've received interest from Cal, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, BYU and USC too. They're just throwing out some love right now, you know."

One school that has caught Steven's attention is the school sponsored by his new religion.

"I think BYU is a great school," said Steven. "I've heard a lot of great things about it. There's no doubt I have some interest in BYU."

Steven has a close cousin, in whom he is very proud of, that currently plays on BYU's football team.

"My cousin is Fui Vakapuna," said Steven. "My Grandma Tafua is Fui's grandpa's [Villiami Vakapuna] sister. My grandma is a Vakapuna. We're really proud of what Fui is doing up there at BYU. I think the last time I've seen him is when he came down for my birthday when I was around 12 years old. I hear he's doing some good things up there and tearing it up on the football field. We're really proud of him and what he's doing up there."

As a recent convert to the LDS faith, Steven has been involved in church activities outside of the normal Sunday services in order to gain a greater understanding and to further strengthen his beliefs.

"Recently I went to a fireside over there in Sacramento about a week ago," said Fanua. "I was able to listen to BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall speak and two other players that are on his team. They were brothers Zac and Austin Collie, and their dad also spoke as well."

Austin Collie spoke to the congregation concerning a promise he made to Heavenly Father. The promise was that if God would bless him on the football field, he would serve a mission.

As a true freshman wide receiver at BYU, Austin Collie was named as the Mountain West Conference's Freshman of the Year, named a Second Team All-American by the Sporting News, holds the BYU freshman record for touchdown receptions (eight) and receiving yards (771). He led BYU in receptions with 53 catches and caught a 42-yard touchdown in his collegiate debut against Notre Dame. Collie was blessed with success, but the lure of success almost caused him to miss the bigger picture. He almost didn't live up to his part of the bargain.

"[Austin] spoke about how he was scared to go on his mission," Steven said. "He was talking about how he was a Freshman All-American and stuff. He was saying how good he had it and how he felt that if he left now he wouldn't be able to get it back.

"He said he remembered how back in high school he made a covenant with God. He said he made a covenant that if God would allow him to be successful with football that he would promise to serve a mission one day. He was talking about how hard it was for him because he was doing so good that it was hard for him to just leave it all. Then his older brother [Zac] told him to stop being selfish and to go on his mission. You know, sometimes you have to make those sacrifices.

"Now that he is home he talked about how it was worth it. He talked about all the experiences he gained while he served a mission, and how his experiences helped him to become a better person and all."

So what did Steven learn from the fireside and what did he take away from the experience?

"I mean, that's a cool thing, you know," said Steven. "I think that's a really good thing. I mean, to go out there and do God's work. I mean, there are a lot of advantages that can come to you by making those sacrifices like that. There are a lot of blessings that can come from God if you put him first over everything else. It was great to hear that these guys would set aside their opportunities they have to go out and share their experiences with other people everywhere. I think that's pretty cool."

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