SteelCity Q&A: Loni Fangupo

He was ordered to America from Tonga by his parents, and has since managed to avoid the 'hood, gangs, and even tattoos while chasing a life in the NFL.

Loni Fangupo, NT, Pittsburgh Steelers

Q: How should I pronounce your first name?

A: Please, call me Loni (LOAN-ee).

Q: You and Alameda Ta'amu seem like a perfectly competitive match at nose tackle. Is that how you see it?

A: Of course it's a battle. We've both got to feed our families. But coming from our island background there's an immediate friendship there. He's Samoan; I'm Tongan.

Q: Don't those tribes have a long history of war?

A: Yeah. But now that's mostly people out here that've never been to the islands. They still fight over that. Shoot, in the islands my neighbor is Samoan. There are quite a few Tongans in Samoa. Mostly the kids here who don't even speak the language or been to the islands, they know nothing about it. They just pick it up and started going. I think it's a waste of time.

Q: Ta'amu is a big fan of Troy Polamalu.

A: (laughs)

Q: Do you feel the same admiration?

A: Oh, yeah, I was really excited to meet Troy. When I got here he came over and welcomed me over, another islander. He knows quite a few of us now in the league. Percentage-wise I think we're on the top in our race being in the league.

Q: By a ratio, yes.

A: Yeah, on a ratio we're up there. I think we were born for the sport. This sport is perfect for us. But he welcomed me in, gave me pointers, stuff he learned in the years he's been in the league he told me, about a half an hour, what I've got to do to stick.

Q: What was the main pointer?

A: Hard work. Nothing says it like hard work. I work hard.

Q: The Seahawks waived you late in 2012, but they wanted to keep you, didn't they?

A: Yeah. The manager came over and told me ‘We have to let you go.' They explained the whole reason. I made sure there was no reason to let me go. I worked my butt off over there.

Q: Didn't you play against the 49ers the previous week for first place?

A: Yeah.

Q: So they had to like you?

A: Yeah. I had a great relationship with all of them. There were coaches I had been with in college at USC. It was a great relationship. They know how I work. There were some linebackers nicked up so they needed some just in case, and they also needed them for special teams, so they put up two. They let me go and they brought up a linebacker just to back him up. They told me they were praying no one would take me. I was just thinking if I was there they wouldn't have drafted a nose tackle this year. I guess fate brought me over here. I believe things happen for a reason.

Q: Didn't the Steelers have you in for a pre-draft visit in 2012?

A: Yeah, I came in for a visit. I guess it came down to drafting me or Meda and they chose Meda, which I understand. He had been at one college all four years. I was bouncing around.

Q: Why did you transfer from USC to BYU?

A: I had to leave. My wife didn't feel so safe in L.A., you know, the 'hood. SC's a cool place to be, but it's the 'hood if you walk outside. It's the 'hood. You get shot.

Q: I hear that but when I visited I didn't see it. Someone even told me that locals call the school the University of Spoiled Children.

A: Oh, yeah, within campus. Us football players, we're bigger. So they look at us and they see a target to prove something. So gangsters will target us. I never left campus without SC gear on, just to let everyone know I'm not in a gang. There was one month where my people, about 13 guys, my Tongan people, were shot by Mexicans. So just to make it clear I wore my SC gear to say ‘I don't do that.'

Q: People maybe saw a big target in Mike Adams?

A: Yeah, they feel like they've got to prove something.

Q: Did you live on the islands?

A: Yes. I grew up there.

Q: That surprises me, considering you have such a command of the English language.

A: Oh, I served a mission in the Philippines and they don't have a dictionary for Tongan to Tagalog, so I had to learn English first, so the church did a great job of teaching me English, and then I transferred it to Tagalog.

Q: What made you come to the mainland?

A: I'm the oldest son, oldest child (of 5) and my mom and dad believe I should set a path for my brothers and sisters to come out to America. So they asked me one day. They came with their life savings. I was farming, and they said it was time for me to go to America. I said, ‘Oh shoot.' It's not like a transfer from a college to a college, or a high school to a high school, it is a new lifestyle, a new language. I was terrified. When I got to America I didn't talk to nobody. I didn't understand the language. So slowly I would pick up music, start understanding music, started talking. When I got over the fear I realized I have to talk to get better. My mission also taught me I've got to work hard to learn the language.

Q: Troy's uncle was asked to do the same thing you did and he brought his family over.

A: I was able to bring mine, too. I saved a couple of scholarship checks for a ticket to fly out one of my sisters, one every other year.

Q: What's your family's home base?

A: Santa Ana (Ca.). The family's there. I bring them over, stay in a room, go to college. That's the main thing: We want to get our education.

Q: Again, you're following the Polamalu path. His family was based there. Aren't there a lot of gangs there?

A: Yeah. They tried to get me caught up in those gangs. My momma let me know right away she'd put a whupping on me.

Q: Have you brought her over?

A: No. She let me know from a distance. I could feel (chuckles) I could feel the rage.

Q: I remember your bench press from the combine. You did 36 reps. So I assume you've never had problems with people coming at you.

A: No.

Q: It doesn't look like you have any tattoos.

A: No tattoos. My momma made it clear: ‘I will skin you alive if you have a tattoo. I will cut it off with a burnt knife.' (chuckles)

Q: Your mom sounds like a great lady.

A: She's awesome.

Q: She's in America now?

A: No. She comes out once in a while but she's based in the islands with my dad.

Q: Are you going to Samoa with Troy this summer for his football camp?

A: No, I'm just going to stay with my wife. She's just coming. I don't get to see her a lot.

Q: So, you are listed as a defensive tackle, built like a nose tackle, and played 3-4 defensive end in college. Exactly what position suits you best?

A: I work out with (Chris) Hokie a lot and he tells me ‘The more you can do, you'll stick,' so I learned end. At times I get a shot to walk-through at end and just show coach I can play end, but I haven't had a rep at end, except during nickel. But I played end all at BYU. I played out of position and played end at BYU.

Q: Why didn't you play NT at BYU?

A: They had another guy. He was a big kid but coach said I'll fit better because they didn't have anybody else to hold the point at end. In certain situations they put me outside. They said I had some kind of athleticism.

Q: I saw you running after Bruce Gradkowski once. I didn't want to be him.

A: (Hearty laughter).

Q: So what are your chances here? Is it between you and Alameda?

A: Honestly, I have no power, no understanding of that. All I know is I come to my locker, get my mind right, and go out there and battle. That's all I know.

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