Welcome to a defensive tackle’s nightmare. Hunkering down into his three-point stance, DT Ryan Gillenwater flexes his fingertips into the spongy carpet, fully prepared to defend Baylor’s home turf against the rampaging visitors from Nebraska. Gillenwater slowly raises his head. Then his eyes bulge and his heart skips.
Day-yamn! Look at the size of this guy’s friggin’ face. Sitting on a huge torso on the other side of the line is a melon that looks like it’s about to burst through the thin red bars that bind it. Gillenwater blinks away the disbelief, regains his composure and glares at the ball, watching for the snap. But when it comes, Gillenwater, a mere waif at 263 pounds, is lost before he can even react. A huge flash of red crashes into his chest like a fire truck, sending him flying from the line. And as Gillenwater lies on the turf, his senses scrambled, a deep menacing belly laugh draws him back to reality. Welcome to the world of Toniu Fonoti.
To his opponents, Nebraska’s 6'4", 363-pound guard doesn’t even appear human. He’s more like a rhino with a goatee. His head is as big as a beer keg; his calves are Virginia Hams. And the rhino part? Milt Tenopir, the Huskers’ crusty OL coach, has seen his linemen collect six of Nebraska’s record eight Outland Trophies, and says Toniu (ta-NOO) is the school’s best ever. “His level of intensity is overpowering,” says Tenopir.
As a sophomore last season, Fonoti set the school record with 155 pancake blocks, inspiring awestruck teammates to nickname him God. It’s a mark he’s already passed this fall. And if his 20 pancakes against Baylor on Oct. 13 and his 32 against Texas Tech a week later aren’t enough to re-circuit your brain, consider this: The greatest lineman in Nebraska history and the most devastating force in college football is just 19 years old.
To understand Toniuolevaiavea (ta-NOO-la-VAY-a-VAY-a) Satele Fonoti, you need to head 6,000 miles west of Lincoln. In the middle of the South Pacific floats a tiny string of islands that covers just 77 square miles and is known as American Samoa, or simply, The Rock. It’s among the most mysterious spots on earth -- balmy and beachy, but with one of the world’s highest per capita suicide rates. American Samoa, the tuna capital of the world, reeks of fish and poverty.
The U.S. annexed American Samoa in 1900 and maintained a naval base there until 1951. Sailors brought American football to the islands and immediately saw gridiron potential in many of the thick-necked, nimble-footed Samoans. Descendants of warrior tribesmen, Samoans practiced ritualistic cannibalism into the 19th century but say their massive builds are the result of a diet centered on taro, a.k.a. the Samoan Steroid, a sweet potato-like vegetable that is loaded with carbohydrates. Their agility, they say, comes from traditional well-choreographed tribal dances such as the fast-paced lapa lapa. Toniu actually chuckles when he recalls how his grandfather literally danced himself to death, collapsing of a heart attack while getting his groove on.
After the naval base closed, many Samoans, who are U.S. citizens, settled in Hawaii, Southern California and Utah. Even though Samoan kids struggled with culture shock, any coach worth his whistle could see the connection between football and the us (pronounced oos, it’s short for uso, Samoan for brothers).
Fonoti believes that Samoans are hardwired to excel at football: “The stereotype is that Samoans are aggressive and ill-tempered people. I think that stuff is true. Most of the guys in our culture are aggressive automatically. That’s just the way we are.”
It’s certainly the way he is on the field. Fonoti epitomizes the brute force of his culture more than any other Samoan football player, including the great linebacker Junior Seau of the Chargers. Fonoti mercilessly bludgeons opponents, inflicting a punishment that requires him to withstand pain even as he’s dishing it out. Only two true freshmen -- Will Shields and Jake Young -- were good enough to play for coach Tenopir, but he immediately knew Fonoti was special. “He is blessed with all the physical ability in the world,” Tenopir says. “But it’s rare to have a kid understand how intense you have to play. Toniu had that right from the get-go.”
Fonoti was raised to be intense by a father who is royalty on The Rock. Though small, at least by Samoan standards, Fonoti Satele Fonoti stands 5'11" and weighs maybe 250 pounds. But the locals say he is one of the toughest men the islands have ever seen, which is why the elders named him chief of Fonoti, one of the biggest villages in American Somoa.
The elder Fonoti was 5 when his father died, and he went to live with an uncle. The little boy did all the cooking, cleaned the hut and never uttered a word, just as he was ordered. But that didn’t stop the beatings. Samoans believe in discipline -- brutal corporal punishment. Every day, Fonoti Fonoti got whaled on for something. “He was his uncle’s whipping boy,” Toniu says of his dad. Some days it was because dinner was two minutes late. Other days it was because it was served cold. And some days, it was just because his uncle wanted to make sure the boy had some fear in his heart.
Whether he could help it or not, Fonoti Fonoti instilled -- and beat -- that roughneck spirit into Toniu. Once, when Toniu was 6, he disobeyed his dad by playing on a trampoline. He tried one back flip, then another and another. Out of control, Toniu lost balance and banged his skull on the metal frame. Blood poured from his forehead, but tough little Toniu never cried -- at least not until his father beat the boy with a broom when he realized a trip to the hospital was necessary. “My dad was huge into punishment,” Toniu says. “I got hit every day. His work belt was the worst, man. It was a big thick leather one. It went on until I was old enough to know the meaning behind it.” Says Fonoti Fonoti, “Toniu was a rough kid. I kind of used whatever I had at the time.” The Fonotis moved to Hawaii when Toniu was 10, after his father took a job with a construction company. Toniu soon developed the body of an NFL nose tackle -- and the pent-up ferocity of a trained Rottweiler. Says his mom, Emma, “Toniuolevaiavea was so competitive and impatient. And he had such a tolerance for pain. He was just like his father.”
Toniu started playing organized football at 13, and loved it. “I wasn’t the nicest kid around,” he says. “All that hatred I was feeling inside, I took it all out onto the field. I didn’t think my parents were real happy with me, and I wanted to do them proud.” So he did. Even though the Hawaiian Islands are loaded with 300-pounders, Toniu’s agility and intensity turned heads. He flashed so much promise in his first two seasons at Kahuku High on Oahu that his family suggested he move in with his aunt in Oceanside, Calif., to get better coaching. He played at El Camino High and made honorable mention all-state. His parents also noticed a change in their boy. Toniu had not only matured, he’d also mellowed. “He was able to channel his aggression,” says his father. “Football made him grow up more.”
Someday, Toniu might follow his father as head of the family’s village in Samoa. Fonoti Fonoti, who remains chief though he still lives in Hawaii, is certain that his boy is worthy: “He has the heart to be the leader. I’m proud of him. He’s a very disciplined, selfless person. I think he could hold the title.”
Toniu says the discipline and work ethic his football coaches demanded were just what his father had been driving into him all those years. “He prepared us to be tough,” says Toniu. “He’d always ask me, ‘How you gonna get your food? How you gonna get this? How you gonna get that?’ He wouldn’t let me forget that nobody gives you anything in this world.”
The mellowed-out Toniu had done little weight training before he showed up in Lincoln in the summer of 1999. On his first trip to NU’s sprawling weight room, Fonoti nonchalantly (he does everything but play football that way) threw six plates on the bar and blasted out eight reps of 315 pounds with ease. Stunned teammates started calling him Max, and began speculating about his pro readiness. “Physically, there’s no doubt,” says ex-Husker center Dominic Raiola, who witnessed Fonoti’s weight room debut and now plays for the Detroit Lions. “Toniu could have dressed for some NFL teams at 17.”
Nebraska, which had never fielded a Samoan before 1999, illustrates just how far island fever has spread. Including Fonoti, five Samoan names dot the Huskers roster: sophomore Dan Vili Waldrop is NU’s other starting guard; 290-pound soph guard Junior Tagoa’i, 300-pound freshman NT Manaia Brown and 245-pound junior MLB Tony Tata are all reserves.
But you can’t tell a Samoan simply by names on a roster. At the end of Nebraska’s 27-10 rout of Notre Dame on Sept. 8, the Huskers were milling around the field congratulating each other. Most of the linemen took turns whacking Vili Waldrop on the shoulder pads as a reward for a dominating game. Then Notre Dame’s best player, defensive end Anthony Weaver, approached. “Great game, us,” Weaver said, prompting a double take from Vili Waldrop. “I’m proud of you.” Weaver popped off his helmet and smiled, flashing a hint of Polynesian features before explaining that his mother is Samoan. “I’d been blocking him all game and never knew,” says Vili Waldrop. “We’re everywhere now.”
Nebraska’s five Samoans have formed a tight clique on the Lincoln campus. Gathered around a makeshift card table in one or another’s room, they spend nights dealing out sweet pea (a Samoan card game), ripping each other in their native language, and bobbing their heads to the island music of groups like Three Plus and Fiji. Sometimes Fonoti lounges in a lava-lava, the traditional Samoan wrap. And more times than not, Tagoa’i pulls out his ukulele and breaks into song. “It’s like we are all family,” says Vili Waldrop.
Actually, they are family. Vili Waldrop says he and Fonoti found out they were cousins when they met at an awards banquet a year before they came to Nebraska. Fonoti says he also is related to Brown, while Tagoa’i is related to Vili Waldrop. Fred Matua, one of the nation’s top prep DTs and a possible future Husker, went to Vili Waldrop's high school.
Growing up in the middle of the Pacific, Samoan kids never see SportsCenter or Seinfeld. The Fonotis received two channels -- CNN and a local station. The family tradition, not the television, is the natural focal point of the household. “My family name means more to me than anything else,” Toniu says. “Samoans take their names very seriously. It represents their families and the people that came before you. So if I don’t put forth the extra effort, I’m putting my name down. But if I’m putting in that extra effort on the field, I’m raising my name up.”
He’s raising the Huskers’ name, too. Behind Fonoti, Nebraska is on pace to lead the nation in rushing for the second consecutive season, and is steamrolling toward the Rose Bowl. Fonoti is also making a serious push to bring Nebraska its ninth Outland: His new record for pancakes stands at 157 through his first ten games, and he hasn’t allowed a sack or been whistled for a penalty.
His parents don’t quite understand what the big deal is about their boy, or what it means that he could be the greatest lineman in Nebraska history. Toniu himself laughs a little at the notion that he is college football’s most intimidating presence. After all, he says, he is nothing compared to his old man. “You know, every time I look at him, I still get scared,” he says. “But when I see him smile, I know I’m doing something right.”
This article appears in the November 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The Blitz: Buy a vowel?
American Samoa may be a small ...
The Blitz: All-Samoans
Toniu Fonoti anchors Bruce ...
The Blitz: Bob and weave?
A curious e-mail fuels ...
Life after Crouch
College Football Front Page
The latest news and notes
Who's on the cover today?
SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...