The first time Kahuku football coach Sterling Carvalho saw Va‘aimalae Fonoti III, he was intrigued.

It was pandemic times and Kahuku players were busy working out at the park, preparing for Pylon season. Fonoti and family had recently returned to Hawaii after more than a decade away.

“He comes down to Laie Park. Everybody introduced him by his nickname, ’Squints.’ He had glasses and a ponytail,” Carvalho recalled. “He wasn’t as chiseled as he is now. ‘Coach, this is Squints. He wants to play.’ “

Fonoti began playing football, his one and only sport, when he was 5. That was in Anchorage, Alaska, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Army. Fonoti started as an offensive lineman. A year later, he became an running back. By the time he drilled in front of Carvalho, the bespectacled soon-to-be freshman was showing signs of becoming a spectacle with the pigskin.

“He said, ‘I’m a running back.’ Oh, this guy has some pretty good hands, good footwork,” Carvalho said. “So he was on our younger team. A goofy, ponytail guy with glasses.”

Last year, finally on the varsity, Fonoti was a promising, unproven element biding his time. A season-ending injury to Clyde Taulapapa landed Fonoti in the starting lineup, and Kahuku kept rolling. Fonoti finished the season with 815 yards and and 14 touchdowns on 157 carries (5.2 yards per attempt). He also caught eight passes for 82 yards and one TD as Kahuku went 12-2 and captured its second Open Division state title in a row.

Kahuku is 2-0 this season after a 49-0 win over Waianae and a 52-17 victory over Saint Louis. Now 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 200 pounds, Fonoti had a light workload against Waianae, then stepped up with 21 carries for 102 yards and two TDs against the the Crusaders.

“Right now, I think it’s good for us to have that confidence. We have to keep that team morale up. As a team, we have a whole new team basically, have to find a new identity,” Fonoti said. “That is the goal, shut out every team, get that three-peat back.”

Carvalho sees the impact of Fonoti.

“We had great captains last year. Vocal leaders. Alpha dogs. Malae stepped into that role this year. He has a physical presence in the locker room, but his vocal presence is coming out,” he said.

Coaches and media voted Fonoti to the Star-Advertiser All-State team last year. He has scholarship offers from Army and Montana. He wants more. Devoted to the weight room, he bench-presses 315 pounds and squats 405.

“I can get up there. I got hops for my height. I know I can get my hand in the basketball rim,” he said.

The consistency of his work ethic stands out. Former Moanalua coach Vince Nihipali got an up-close look at Fonoti during their game last season.

“As we were scouting Kahuku, I noticed how he just improved weekly, got better and better, and was firing on all cylinders by the end of the season. He’s a well-built running back that runs the ball extremely hard,” Nihipali said. “His field vision has seemed to improve, on top of being bigger and faster. All these improvements have made him the most dangerous back in the state to me.”

Nihipali goes back a generation for a comparison or two.

“He reminds me of a cross between David Tafiti (Waianae) and Mulivai Pula. He has the strength and power of Tafiti as well as the explosiveness and field vision of Pula,” Nihipali said.

Punahou coach Nate Kia was with the Metro Tigers when the roster included a large stable of talent.

“We had Malae on a loaded team. If I recall correctly, he played slot, running back and linebacker. His father, Va‘a, helped coach, too. Excellent family. He was strong, fast and super coachable,” Kia said. “He reminds me of Kanaloa Kaluna.”

Campbell coach Darren Johnson, a former Kahuku standout in his day, sees a certain Punahou legend in Fonoti.

“He’s an awesome player. Awareness, vision and power. He has his own style of running great. A little like Mosi Tatupu,” Johnson said.

Rod York tipped his cap with a remarkable comparison of his own.

“He reminds me of Marshall Faulk. Fast, elusive, but because he is so smooth, he does not seem to be that fast. But if you watch him, he runs by guys and he can also run you over,” the Mililani coach said. “I first noticed him last year because his arms were so defined. He can be a scat back or a power back. I also noticed he is very respectful and always hands the ball to the referee. He worked very hard from JV to varsity in the weight room because he is not the same guy. He transformed his body and his hard work has definitely paid off in his varsity years.”

Carvalho and his staff implemented a passing game that helped Kahuku’s offense evolve. Fonoti is the ideal backfield playmaker in an offense that can flip from four-wide to a pure-power elephant formation in seconds.

“It’s a compliment to Malae from these coaches and how they see his skill set. The best all around. He’s able to run between the tackles, able to run in space, able to catch the ball. That is Malae,” Carvalho said.

Carrying the football, excelling at the running back position — it’s in the bloodline for Va‘aimalae Fonoti III. His father, Va‘aimalae Fonoti Jr., played the position at McKinley back in the day. His uncle, the late Joe Taufete‘e, was another gifted runner with the ball during his heyday at Kaimuki.

Malae Fonoti has added a role of his own. Since last year, with his father transferred to Texas, the Kahuku senior is setting the tone at home for two younger brothers.

“Whatever mom needs, Fonoti is there. Cooking breakfast for his brothers. Making runs to the grocery store. Chores at home. He has taken it all in stride while earning a 3.6 grade-point average as a junior.

“Doing (more) chores is tough, but the workout part, it was really a daily routine for me. That’s what I’ve got to instill inside my two brothers,” Fonoti said, noting that they are running backs like himself. “My dad always took me to the park to do running back drills. When I got to eighth grade, he would take me to lift weights either at home or 24-Hour Fitness.”

SFC Va‘aimalae Fonoti Jr. is at Fort Cavazos, Texas — 2nd Battalion, 12th Calvary Regiment, 1st Arnored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Calvary Division.

“Malae has really stepped up in the household to be a big brother and good son,” he said. “It’s never easy on the family to go through being physically apart, but we believe that the Lord sets struggles in our journey for growth. As parents, we see the benefits through Malae’s maturity.”

Older sister Margaret is at Central Washington playing rugby. Siua, 11, and Mathias, 9, keep Fonoti and his mother, Sao, on their toes.

“She lets me take the car sometimes to hang out with my friends. Sometimes, I would pick my brothers up from school, take them to school. They’re good on walking to practice,” he said. “Siua’s spirit animal would be a panda. He’s real laid-back, a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. Mathias is rugged, a wolverine. They’re good football players. My dad says they’re faster than I was at that age, but I say I was faster.”

Though his father is thousands of miles away, his words echo in Fonoti’s heart.

“The one that sticks for me is, I’ve got to be the man of the house while he’s away. I didn’t really pay much mind to it until maybe a few weeks after he left. Then it started to click, how I have to act, stuff like that,” he said. “It’s still the same, but some things I have to do a little differently. Think about how I have to do it. Think like a parent, and be somewhere in the middle.”

The Fonoti ohana went from Honolulu to Anchorage to Crestview, Fla.

“I just remember I was the only Polynesian in my class. They asked if we rode dolphins to go to school. We’d tell them all these made-up answers,” he said. “It was so funny.”

The moves were not easy.

“Moving away, the worst moments are leaving your friends,” Fonoti said.

When the family came back to the islands, he attended Pearl Harbor Elementary School, then Aliamanu Middle School and St. Patrick School. They moved to Laie, which made it easier for Margaret to practice with Kahuku Rugby Club. The family attends Parker United Methodist Church in Kaneohe.

Va‘a and Sao were high school sweethearts, though Fonoti says he never uses that phrase.

“My dad is from Kalihi and my mom is from Palolo Valley. He played football and did some wrestling. My mom danced Tahitian. Her parents and my dad’s mom were heavy in the church, so they did know each other, but they really met at a summer school program. That’s when it took off,” Fonoti said.

It was life without the internet.

“In today’s world, it’s kind of harder. Back then, there was more effort. You didn’t have all this technology. You had to get out there,” he said.

Teammate Damon Lauaki has memories for life with his pal.

“During football practice, Malae is a great captain and example to me and who would give great advice to me as another running back on the team. Off the field, he’s always down to hang out. I remember him helping me with my chores just so that I was able to cruise with him on the weekends,” Lauaki said. “My favorite memory of Malae was during our trip in California when we played against St. John Bosco. Me, Malae and Clyde roomed together, and every night we would have a rap battle that went on for hours.”

Fonoti’s cumulative GPA is 2.9 as he works off what was a rough freshman year of virtual learning. As that crucial number rises, it is likely the number of D-I offers will, too. There is no number, however, to measure what Fonoti means to his family.

Carvalho keeps a close watch, quietly observing the extra load on his running back’s shoulders.

“When dad is away, he takes care of the family, and has school and football to juggle,” Carvalho said. “Malae is a humble, hard-working player, a coach’s dream to coach.”

VA‘AIMALAE FONOTI

Kahuku senior running back

Top 3 movies/shows

1. “Avatar: The Way of Water”

“That one hit. It’s just something about being in a new type of world with new types of animals.”

2. “Insidious”

“I’m big on scare movies.”

3. “The Flash” (series)

What would your life be like if you had no siblings?

“My life would be pretty boring. My siblings, they highlight my day a fair amount. All the jokes, even the arguments. Siua likes the Chiefs. Mathias likes the Chargers. My dad likes the Chargers. Margaret does like the 49ers. My mom is a devout 49ers fan.

^

Top 3 food/snacks/drinks

1. Horse

“They stopped selling it a couple of months ago, but we used to get it from this Tongan family in Laie. Especially when I’m talking to old mainland friends, they get shocked. The way that they make it is almost like kalua pig and curry mixed together. I grew up eating it. It’s really good for you, high in protein.”

2. Popeye’s spicy chicken sandwich

3. Hamburger with extra sauce, Diner’s (Kalihi)

^

Top 3 homemade foods

1. Ribs

“Mom and dad both make it. Barbecue, dry rub.”

2. Corned beef and rice

3. Panipopo

“My mom makes that on special occasions.”

^

Top 3 music artists

1. J Cole – “No Role Modelz”

2. Makisi – “She Left Me A Letter”

3. Hawaiian Soljah – “Keep It Cool”

^

Favorite class: Chemistry

Future college major: Kinesiology

Favorite teacher: Coach Alvin Mariteragi (weightlifting)

Favorite athlete/team: Bijan Robinson (Falcons running back), Pittsburgh Steelers

Funniest teammate: Manoa Hallums

“The jokes he’s making, he gets you. Especially if you get to know him.”

Smartest teammate: Ammon Vaka

“Ammon, I think he’s in senior classes now. He’s a junior.”

GPA: 2.9

Time machine: “I would visit all my past relatives. I would visit my uncle Joe (Taufete‘e), my mother’s brother. All the stories that my aunties and my mom them told me. He was the real athletic one in the family. I would go back, play football with him, talk story with him. He passed in the 1990s. He was only about 30-something. I would visit my godfather, Keli Sane. He was my mom’s cousin. Us living in the mainland, it cut down on the time before he passed.”

Hidden talent: Gamer

“I used to be top in the nation on the PlayStation 4, Overwatch. I was 15, 16. I did tournaments online for a while, these little leagues. Call of Duty. Right now, it’s too busy with football and school. I play maybe once a week.”

New life skill: Time management

“I’ve been starting to use the calendar app more and my notes, getting notifications.”

Bucket list:

“Go visit (American) Samoa again. I went in 2009. I was a baby. I remember getting bit by a centipede. Family is there, but more so I want to learn the culture more. And Tonga. I’m 50-50. I think it just depends if they are from the islands, straight of the boat, there still are strong feelings. If they’ve been here for a long time, it’s not as big a thing for them. I think that’s just the way it was. There’s differences and drove into something crazier.”

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?

“Do my work. Don’t procrastinate.”

Shoutouts

“To my mom (Sao) and dad (Va‘aimalae Jr.). I’m kind of a knucklehead, hard head, but they always take care of me.”

———

Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser

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