"Every kid in Tonga wants to play professional rugby growing up."
These were the words of Southern Utah's Sione Fukofuka, one of the few Tongan children who grew up to realize that dream.
Fukofuka wore the number eight jersey for the Tongan national rugby team. For those who aren't familiar, the player in the number eight jersey carries the ball straight into the opposition, and defends the middle. No juking, no cutting, just trucking.
But Fukofuka wasn't destined for the life of a rugby player. He met an American woman named Melissa, married her, and decided to move to her home in Utah. "I realized my wife was just not comfortable [in Tonga], so we ended up moving to America."
It was a big change. His favorite sport isn't nearly as popular in the states, and he didn't have a whole lot of interest in the American sport with the most similarities – football.
"The first time I got here my brother in law was telling me about football, and I was like 'no, that's a sissy game! Why do you guys wear the pads and helmets and all that stuff? In rugby you just wear a jersey and shorts and just start playing. It's so boring, all it is is go, stop, go, stop.' I didn't really watch football before," he said.
But Fukofuka's brother in law convinced him football might be his best opportunity to go back to school and earn a degree. So he met with former Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb.
"I told the head coach I had no experience with football, but he was trusting in me that I could do it," Fukofuka said. "He told me to go get my school stuff and then they would show me how to play football."
His international rugby pedigree was enough to convince the coaches he deserved a scholarship, but Fukofuka was still skeptical.
"When he told me he was going to give me a full ride I told him maybe you should give it to someone else that has more experience than me," he said. "At the time I didn't know what I was doing."
It wasn't easy for him to adapt to a new sport. Any player – or spectator – can tell you just how many rules and intricacies there are to the game of football. Now imagine stepping into the game for the first time at the FCS level – where the players are fast, strong, and smart.
"It was a hard transition when I first got here, I didn't even know how to put on my gear and all of the guys were laughing at me at that time. I just realized that football is a more technical sport, where rugby you mostly just get passed the ball and run," he said. "The rules are so different. My freshman year I was redshirted and it was so good to me because then I had the time to learn. It was a fast transition to get into it, but it was a hard transition."
Fukofuka was significantly smaller back then (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) and started out playing running back. "It was so funny, every time they would call a play I would look back at my coach and ask him what I was doing, and he would yell at me to run left or run right."
He was good with the ball in his hands, but Fukofuka didn't have the frame for running back. He was much better suited for the defensive line. Once he made the switch, and gained about eighty pounds, he owned it.
"Now it's really fun," he says about the position change. "When you know what you're doing it's like rugby where you're out there hitting someone."
So which sport does he prefer now?
"Right now, I'd say football. It's a fun game, when I thought it was a sissy game I was wrong. I just love to go hit people that's the fun thing about it – you don't have to carry the football or anything, you just have to go tackle people."
It started slow, but football is starting to take over as Fukofuka's new passion in life.
"I watch a lot of football right now, it's hard to watch rugby because of the time zone. I love to watch football more now though, because the more you watch it the more techniques you learn and you can learn from all of the best players working."
The former No. 8 for the Tongan National Rugby Team is now No. 99 for Southern Utah football (Southern Utah Athletics)
After graduating at the end of last year, Fukofuka is looking forward to the next chapter in his life. His reason for continuing to play in his final year of eligibility, though, is all about proving his worth.
"The main reason I'm still going is that I want to show my son that I can do it, that I'm not going to quit no matter what. I just wanna let my family and son know you can do it, start in college after never playing. It's not too hard, you just have to give all you have to make it happen."