Fanua tears through opponents on the field

His nickname is Simba. And just like in "The Lion King," Steven Fanua has grown up from a small cub to become king of his jungle.

The hard-hitting senior linebacker from Milpitas (Santa Clara County, Calif.) even has the characteristics of a lion. His long mane of thick brown hair sways wildly from the back of his helmet. His quick feet and strong legs help him quietly stalk his pray. His big paws snare anyone who runs in his vicinity, while his powerful arms slam them to the ground. Then he lets out a triumphant roar, pumping up his teammates.

Big hit delivered. Big Simba roaring.

"I think the nickname fits me pretty good," says Fauna, who at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds is one of the state's top linebackers. "A lion is a powerful animal, and I do like to live up to my nickname."

The two-year captain has more than lived up to it. Fanua has shown a knack for getting to the ball and delivering devastating hits. He's leveled so many people, he can't choose just one hit as his biggest throughout high school.

Let's just say phrases like "his feet were flying in the air," "smashed him" and "laid him out" are all part of the conversation.

Steven Fanua's favorites

TV Show: "Heroes"
Movie: "The Butterfly Effect"
Actor: Heath Ledger
Musical Artist: Lecrae

"I have no fear," Fanua says. "When I'm out on the field I try not to think. If you think, you're thinking too much. It's mostly instinct and pregame preparation."

Those instincts and prep work have served Fanua well. He averaged 200 tackles per season as a sophomore and junior, recording 17 sacks in all.

Fanua's junior season numbers went down from his otherworldly sophomore year -- 227 tackles and 11 sacks -- but he still managed to record 173 tackles (15.7 per game) and six sacks despite every team scheming against him.

Such gaudy numbers have impressed all sorts of top-tier college programs. Fanua had been offered full scholarships to 14 schools as of press time, including Cal, Arizona State, BYU, Colorado and Oregon. But while the offers continue to roll in, Fanua is searching for the right fit.

"So far it's been a really tough decision," Fanua says. "I'm pretty much in the same place that I was when I started the recruiting process. I just have to find the best fit academically, socially and, as far as football, the best program to make me a better player."

Whoever wins the Fanua sweepstakes is getting a special talent. He has the speed, power, instincts and leadership every coach covets. Including his own.

"There's not really a whole lot of kids who compare to him," says Milpitas coach Kelly King, who played football with Fanua's dad at Milpitas. "He just has a natural ability to hit those gaps quicker than anyone else. He's an impact player. Some kids take plays off. He doesn't take plays off. He goes from snap to whistle on every play. He looks the part and plays the part."

While Fanua is a beast on the field, he's more subdued off of it. He much prefers spending time with family and friends than going out. And he never misses a barbecue at his grandparents' house -- his grandmother makes the best Lu, a Tongan dish.

Fanua has always been close to his family. He credits his work ethic to his father, Sam, who is from the Kingdom of Tonga (a series of islands in the Pacific Ocean), and mother, Doreen, who is Swedish.

Fanua's family extends to the football field, too. His little brother, Sammy, and cousin, David Fanua, both play on the JV football team, while Steven's older cousins introduced him to the game. To this day, they still remind Fanua that he wasn't very good at first.

"I played line when we first played," says Fanua, who picked up the game at age 9. "The people who I played with when I was growing up never let me forget that."

Fanua works hard to remind his cousins and everybody else just how far he's come. He also understands that work ethic is the key to success at the next level. A trip to see one of the best linebackers in the NFL this summer reaffirmed the notion that hard work pays off.

While visiting the San Francisco 49ers training camp, Fanua watched Patrick Willis play with a fiery intensity usually reserved for practice squad players. Willis, who led the NFL in tackles as a rookie in 2007, ran to and from every workstation and went through drills with a purpose, giving Fanua a purpose in return.

"No matter what level you're playing at, you have to work hard," Fanua says. "If you're the hardest worker, it's all going to pay off."

That's certainly been the case for Fanua. He earned All-State underclass honors his sophomore and junior years and was also the SCVAL De Anza Division defensive MVP both seasons.

But all those accolades haven't slowed down this workaholic. Fanua helped lead offseason workouts this summer with the goal to get Milpitas back to the Central Coast Section championship, which the team won his sophomore year.

"Being a leader is the most important role I have right now," Fanua says. "If I go out to practice and I'm not doing my job, it shows them a bad example. I like to think of myself as someone who leads by example."

Fanua has done that his whole life. His hard work helped him grow from little cub to big lion. His instincts, talent and preparation helped him become one of the top linebackers in California. And his untamed hair helped him earn a nickname that has stuck: Simba, king of the jungle.

Brian A. Giuffra covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.