KEARNS — Sese Felila Jr. is not comfortable in the spotlight.
Unfortunately for him, he happens to be one of the state’s most talented prep running backs, and with success in sports, attention is inevitable.
We can debate — forever — whether our society should revere those with superior physical skills the way we do, but the reality is, we come pretty close to worshipping them.
That attention means athletes wield considerable influence.
All of this makes someone like Felila excruciatingly uncomfortable. The senior is naturally shy, reserved and self-effacing to the point that it borders on insecurity.
“He’s a great player,” said his high school coach Matt Rickards. “He’s a really hard worker and very talented. He really, truly doesn’t believe he’s that talented.”
Felila is THAT talented.
The Kearns running back has a long list of awards, honors and records. He holds Kearns High’s all-time records for rushing yards and touchdowns, and he ranks seventh in the state for career rushing touchdowns with 59. “He’s done such a good job in his career for us,” Rickards said. “But he gets uncomfortable with the attention. You can see him visibly get uncomfortable when people talk about what he does.”
Pay him a compliment or point out an accomplishment, and he’s quick to deflect any accolades to his teammates.
“People will say, ‘Hey, man you scored five touchdowns in that game’, and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, but my line,’” Rickards said. “I’ll say, you’re one of the best running backs in the state, and he’ll say, ‘No, I don’t think I am.’”
His father, Sese Felila Sr., said he comes by his humility naturally.
The sixth of 10 children, young Sese is the last one to draw attention to his accomplishments.
“He’s always been quiet,” said his father, who immigrated from Tonga 25 years ago. “He’s just a humble little kid.”
Football is perfect for a guy like Junior. It is so critical that players submit to the interests of the team, it allows him to be comfortable seeing himself as a supporting member of the cast, even if the show would crumble without him. His commitment to his team is surpassed only by his commitment to the classroom and his community. He’s been on the high honor roll his entire high school career, and his list of community service is longer than his list of athletic accomplishments.
His father credits their tight-knit family, LDS values, his involvement in Scouting and his passion for football for his son’s accomplishments, which were impressive enough to earn him a distinction no other football player from Kearns High has ever received.
On Tuesday, Sese Felila Jr. will be one of 12 young men to be recognized by the Utah chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. As a member of the Utah chapter’s board, I know how incredibly accomplished these young men are, and how they’ve used the platform their talent affords them in profoundly moving ways in their schools and neighborhoods.
His father was so proud he wanted to tell the world.
“I almost wanted to get on Facebook and let the whole world know,” he said laughing. But that humility his son possesses comes from his dad and his wife, Matavai, so there was no social media announcement. Just quiet gratitude from a father who has seen how sports can provide structure and opportunity for a young man.
“Football has kept him busy,” he said. “Football kept him away from trouble. Since you have to have good grades, he works hard, stays late and does study hall.”
The entire family feels a desire to serve their community, and that’s likely why it feels like it isn’t just Junior that is being honored at Tuesday’s banquet at UVU.
“I think it’s huge,” Rickards said of what it means to the Kearns football program for Felila, who will play football for Southern Utah after serving an LDS mission, to be honored. “It shows our program puts academics and community service just as high, if not higher, than football. It tells the community what our kids are capable of doing. A lot of people are really proud of this.”
Rickards said the program aims to help the boys find more than great football skills. “Our No. 1 objective is to make these boys into men that are responsible, have integrity and serve their communities for good,” Rickards said, noting that the team constantly looks for service opportunities — small and large.
“It’s important that they realize there are things bigger than themselves and bigger than playing the game of football,” he said. “Football players are put in the spotlight, everything that they do, their actions are seen. Players can’t escape that. So if you’re going to be a part of that, we need to lead the right way, give service and by doing the right things on the field, in school and out in the community.”
When a player like Felila Jr. buys into that philosophy, it makes it a pretty easy sell.
“As the younger kids go through the program, they see his name on the state sheet, and see that this kid is getting great grades,” Rickards said. “And not only is he doing that, but he’s out there serving in the community. It burns a pathway for them to follow. He speaks with his actions.”
The other scholar-athletes being honored at Tuesday’s event are: Zachary Hoffman, Juan Diego; Dillon Petty, Morgan; Preston Covey Pitt, Viewmont; Chase Fowles, Delta; Dallin Holker, Lehi; Mike Petty, Alex White, Juab; Bronson Barron, American Fork; Jarom Miller, Union; Austin Kirkby, Orem; and Parker Collins, Kanab.
Barron, a quarterback, will speak on behalf of the scholar-athletes at the banquet.