Six years after entering the BYU football program, Alema Fitisemanu is finally attracting some attention.
He likes it.It's been a long haul. At 24 one of the oldest Cougars, he spent two years as a special teams animal, two years on an LDS mission, one year as a rehab redshirt, and one year on the sidelines thinking he should be starting. Now he's a defensive star at outside linebacker, making the most of his final season as a Cougar.
And despite the extended wait, he's elated to still be around in 1990.
"Everything's just climaxing this year," he said. "If I had known in '88, before I broke my foot, what this season was going to be like, with the potential of this team, I would have shot myself in the leg so I could sit out a year."
Granted, that seems a trifle extreme, especially for a soft-spoken Samoan who'd rather surf than lift weights. But it's easy to forgive the exaggeration, considering the dues Fitisemanu has paid.
Here's how it started: In 1983, Fitisemanu was a senior at Samoana High School in Pago Pago, American Samoa. At 5:30 each morning he got together with a bunch of guys and played basketball, and one of his regular opponents was Mekeli Ieremia, an All-WAC defensive lineman at BYU in the mid-70s. Fitisemanu and Ieremia became friends, and the former Cougar started coming to Fitisemanu's games. What he saw was a kid who played fullback and receiver on offense, and everything from cornerback to nose tackle on defense.
"I was given a lot of freedom to roam around," Fitisemanu said. "I lined up at a different place every play."
Ieremia was impressed. When he came to see the Cougars play Missouri in the Holiday Bowl that year, he told BYU Coach LaVell Edwards about this Samoan kid who could play anywhere. Including in Provo. "LaVell saw some films, but he mostly took me on Ieremia's word," Fitisemanu said. The result was a scholarship, making Fitisemanu the first Samoan to come to BYU without touching down at a junior college first.
At BYU, Fitisemanu chose to concentrate on linebacker. He played some in passing situations that first year, but if fans noticed him at all during the national championship season, it was for his breakneck assaults as a special-teamer.
"Ladd Akeo, Thor Salanoa, Andy Katoa and I, we were called the wedge-busters, the guys who would go down and commit suicide on kickoffs," Fitisemanu recalled proudly. "In my very first game, I knocked myself out running into a wedge. But I knocked down three guys at the same time. I had to be taken to the hospital; they thought I'd broken my neck."
In 1985 it was more of the same, but that's what he'd expected. He was playing behind future NFL players Kurt Gouveia and Leon White in those days, and knew he wasn't ready to start ahead of them.
Then he went on a mission to - you guessed it, Samoa. Two years later he returned a changed man: slower and weaker. "As far as football goes it hurt me," he said, though not regretfully. "I came back and all my reaction skills had deteriorated. Running or lifting, I couldn't do a thing."
That was February '88. By the following fall he had worked hard and was in the best shape of his life. One week before two-a-day practices started, he was making a cut during pass-coverage drills and stepped on the side of his foot, breaking the fifth metatarsal bone. That hurt, and the foot didn't feel too good, either. He redshirted that year.
And if '88 was Fitisemanu's season of disappointment, '89 was his season of frustration. He watched a veteran starter, a senior, play his position all year, convinced he had the tools to play it better.
"The whole year I was just sitting back wondering why I wasn't starting," Fitisemanu said. "The coaches were skeptical about my foot having healed; it had still bothered me during spring drills. And he (the starter) was a senior and had already started a year and they wanted to stick with him.
"It was frustrating, but I knew I would get my turn. I wasn't one to create any bad feelings or anything like that; I never missed a practice."
Now his turn has come, and he's taking it with a vengeance. He has led the team in defensive points (based on tackles, sacks, etc.) for most of the season, thriving in a new, aggressive defensive scheme.
"We used to have to sit back and read what was going on, then react," he said of the old system. "By then the offensive linemen were set up. Now we just attack, whether they run or pass. Whatever happens, we adjust while the play's developing. We dictate to the offense."
He describes his responsibility simply: "Stuff the run and put heat on the quarterback." It's an assignment that gets him noticed, especially since in several games he has spent a lot of time in the opponent's backfield. Generally atop the quarterback.
The result has been a long-awaited appearance in the spotlight, including frequent requests for interviews. "After all those years of waiting around and not being recognized, now people are interested in what I think," he said. "I love it."