Minoneti Mafua readily admits it's athletics that keep him in school.
"Being able to play sports is the thing that motivates me to do good in school," Mafua said. "When I'm not playing sports, I just find myself in trouble. My mom agrees. She'd rather have me playing football than smoking and drinking."
Which is why the Mafuas are so distraught that the 17-year-old senior was denied eligibility to play football at Cottonwood in two separate hearings with the Utah High School Activities Association. Mino Mafua played football and attended Highland High for most of his high school career. Then in October of his junior year, he and Rams head coach Brody Benson had an argument about the fact that he'd failed three classes. Mafua said he'd actually improved his grades in two of the classes, but teachers hadn't yet posted the information, something Benson confirmed at the hearings. Still, when the coach talked with Mafua about letting his teammates down, the teen said he wanted no more to do with the team.
Benson said it was the fourth time Mafua had quit the team. Mafua said he was ridiculed by teammates and coaches for his poor academic performance, which at times improved significantly thanks to tutoring and study hall programs organized by the Highland coaching staff. Mafua continued in school at Highland until mid-February, when he said an incident involving a snowball being thrown through a window and landing on a teacher's desk was blamed on him. After that, he said, counselors told him they wanted to send him to Horizonte, an alternative high school. Highland officials contend the move to Horizonte was strictly academically motivated.
"My mom tried to see if there was anything I could do to stay, but they said if I went for three weeks and did well, they'd let me back in," Mafua said.
The paperwork from Horizonte states Mafua could return to Highland if he did two things make up a ninth-grade credit and be current in his academic progress. Highland principal Paul Schulte said Mafua did neither.
"Kids can always come back from Horizonte," Schulte said in Mafua's original hearing. Most return at the end or beginning of terms when credits are made up.
But the teen didn't want to attend Horizonte an entire quarter. Mafua said he hated Horizonte and his mother claimed it was a bad environment for her already struggling son. So she began looking to get him back in Highland or another school.
Before Mafua even transferred to Horizonte, Benson said he was approached by a teacher who asked about sending Mafua to Judge. Another Highland student who'd struggled academically transferred to Judge, which is a private school costing around $9,000 per year, and went on to do very well in school.
Benson said he agreed to sign paperwork to allow Mafua to go to Judge because it would be better for him academically. He said sports wasn't mentioned in those conversations, none of which included Mafua. Judge football coach James Cordova did call Benson and tell him Mafua had come to Judge, which is a 3A school, to talk to him about playing football for the Bulldogs. Benson said he agreed to a transfer but never received paperwork on the subject and didn't consider that transfer athletically motivated.
Benson then heard rumors that Mafua planned to return to Highland this fall, but instead, his mom showed up with transfer papers to Cottonwood.
"I said I wouldn't sign the papers for him to play at Cottonwood," Benson said in the original hearing. "I put three years into this kid, and now he's going to play for our crosstown rival? It's not for academic reasons."
Benson said on Tuesday, after Mafua was denied the opportunity to play in his appeal last week, that he firmly believes the transfer was athletically motivated.
"I definitely think it was from what the mom told me," Benson said. "She said she wanted him to go to Cottonwood, but he would only go if he could play football."
UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner said both panels relied on what the mother said and the fact that he'd quit the football team at Highland to make their determination.
"Despite everything else, there was a statement made by his mother that could reasonably be characterized as an admission that he was going to Cottonwood to play football," Van Wagoner said. "Also on appeal there was truly nothing introduced to take away from that statement that had been made."
Helen Mafua doesn't dispute that she said that to Benson, but said it's been misunderstood. Her son, she said, is one of those students who does better in school when he's deeply involved in athletics.
"Sports wasn't the issue," she said. "He cares about that, but it was about school. I saw him getting down. He said he felt like a loser. My oldest daughter dropped out of Horizonte. ... I just wanted him back in a normal school. I didn't want him to drop out."
The Mafuas looked at West, Judge and Cottonwood when trying to find the best situation for Mafua. Helen Mafua said she never anticipated she'd be questioned about the move by anyone at Highland.
"I was surprised they wouldn't let him play because they kicked him out of Highland," she said. "They didn't want him back. I didn't think it was going to be that big of deal because they wouldn't take him back. ... The transfer wasn't about football. It was about him feeling comfortable and going to class and getting his work done."
And would Benson have felt differently if Mafua was transferring to another region or classification? The coach said that didn't matter to him.
"I would have said it's athletically motivated (no matter where he wanted to go) because of what the mom said to me," Benson said.
The Mafuas aren't sure what their next move will be, but the teen, who plays defensive end and right tackle, said he plans to continue with school and working out with the Colts' football team.
"If I can graduate, I will be the first person in my family to graduate from high school," he said. "My parents and sister dropped out, and I really want to graduate. But it is my senior year and I would like to play sports."
And regardless of whether or not the UHSAA allows him to play, he said he's grateful he wound up at Cottonwood."It would make me really sad not to play," Mafua said. "I was so scared that everyone would turn their backs on me because I couldn't play. ... But the guys still want me to be here. Working out with them is probably the best part of my day."