WASHINGTON TERRACE — Jantz Afuvai played football for Bonneville High School back in the late-1980s, and he was an integral part of the Lakers’ great winning tradition under their longtime head coach, the late Thom Budge, who won 237 games in a career spanning more than three decades.

But it wasn’t until Afuvai took hold of Bonneville’s coaching reins himself last year that he really began to grasp just how important the Lakers’ program is to so many people.

And that’s why he is so determined to get things back where they once were and, in his mind and the minds of so many others, back where they belong.

But while winning football games is extremely important to the Lakers’ second-year coach, it’s even more important that his players become good, productive citizens off the field as well.

“The biggest thing I wanted to change here is it seems there’s been a sense of mediocrity and complacency,” Afuvai said. “Not only in athletics, but in the little things — in how important it is to go to school, how important it is to get to school on time and to go to every class, and to find value in getting an education.

“I have my expectations of what we need to do to take Bonneville back to where it was for years. I firmly believe in not only hard work — you have to put in the work, you’ve got to lift, you’ve got to run, you have to dedicate yourself to try and reach your potential. ... But the mental change that has to take place is that the kids have to say, ‘I want to be the best that I can be.’ That’s been our goal, that’s my goal after last year — and last year was a great learning experience for me.”

Indeed, last year was a rough one for the Lakers’ once-proud program. They won just one football game, going 1-9 in Afuvai’s first year at the helm, and there was definitely a learning curve for Afuvai, his staff and the players after he became their fourth head coach in four years’ time.

But he started seeing signs toward the end of last season that things were gradually improving, even if the Lakers’ win-loss record didn’t reflect it. The coaching staff all got on the same page; the players began to gel, and their performance improved.

Still, that was not the only positive sign Afuvai wants to see.

“On the flip side of that, school is a priority, and I want our kids to be a student first and then an athlete, and I want them to value their education,” he said. “I want them to graduate and be successful members of their community.

“Apart from how many wins we get, it’s how are we making these young men better — not just as football players, but as people. ... I really feel the responsibility that we do this thing right.”

Afuvai, who followed up his prep career by becoming an all-Big Sky Conference linebacker at Weber State, is so grateful for people in the community who have been such loyal, faithful fans through the good times — and the bad times — at Bonneville.

Those fans include Larry Neves, who served as the second football coach in the school’s history (1968-71). Neves, 82, who came and watched practice daily all of last season, offering critiques and encouragement, is now struggling with serious health issues.

“He gave me a full history of the Laker program,” Afuvai said. “... Talk about loyalty, as I’m learning how to be a head coach, man, there’s a lot of vested interest in seeing our kids succeed.

“I knew for myself playing here and I knew how big the tradition was, but talking to Mr. Neves, he really drove that point home.

“It’s so nice to be able to be in the position that I’m in and to recognize how big of a deal this is,” Afuvai said. “There’s so many people that want to see these kids succeed. What a tribute to Larry Neves. I tell you what, he’s made a difference in my life and showed me the importance of what it is to be a Laker. My heart goes out to him and his family. What a neat guy.

“You see a man of that stature and a man of that experience, still invested and caring about what’s going on over here. It’s so big, bigger than I realized. I’m so humbled by how much this program means to people that I owe it to the community to do the best that I can. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

Seeing the passion he has for this program, you can’t help but want to see Afuvai succeed.

email: rhollis@deseretnews.com

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com