Whether it was lifting steel in a warehouse, selling home security systems, installing fences, or overcoming a family illness, Jason Fanaika is no stranger to hard work as he embarks on the NFL.
Updated: April 24th, 2016 5:20pm
Updated: April 24th, 2016 5:20pm
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
Sweat pours down the face of a young Jason Fanaika as he labors heavy steel and sizes it for a customer visiting a steel warehouse. Fanaika is no stranger to hard work. It runs through the veins of the Utah NFL Draft prospect. Growing up in a family of eight, he understood the principles of humility, patience, hard work, and the importance of helping others. Working six different jobs in a six-year span brought the young athlete’s life into perspective. Now, he is just days away from joining a team in the NFL.
Coming out of high school, Fanaika played against elite level competition every week. In fact, his brother Brandon was recruited by Stanford as a sophomore. At the time, Jason was a senior and still hadn’t received an offer from a college program.
“It lit a fire under me because if my brother was going to college, then I wanted to do so just like him,” said Fanaika.
He went to a camp at Utah State and that led him to the college scholarship he had been working towards. Fanaika was initially offered as a tight end, but under a new coaching regime with Gary Andersen, he was converted to the defensive side of the ball.
“If Coach Andersen tells you something, you have to listen. When he told me I could be a talent in the NFL, I had to listen to him [and switch].”
In his first game with the Utah State Aggies, Fanaika clearly remembers jawing with Oklahoma Sooners running back DeMarco Murray. Little did he know, he was messing with a future NFL star.
“[Murray] was my first tackle. He was so good and still is. I remember when I first hit him and I said something to him. The very next play, he took it 80 yards to the house. I’ll never forget that,” he laughed. “Sometimes I think if I wouldn’t have opened my big mouth he wouldn’t have scored, you know?”
The next year, Jason Fanaika would become an LDS missionary, leaving Utah State to pursue his dream. After deciding to delay his mission, he returned as a starter at Utah State in time for week two of the college football season. Fanaika took a conditioning test and passed despite missing all of fall camp. He immediately played and never missed a game for the remainder of the season.
Fanaika would accomplish all of this while working to support himself and his family. He accumulated grueling hours in the steel warehouse fitting pieces of steel together. For two months he worked at a home security company selling systems. He credits his ability to attend college and his early success to former Utah State head coach Gary Andersen.
“The type of relationship Coach Andersen and I had was amazing. He is one of the best guys I’ve ever met in my life. If it wasn’t for him, I probably would have never gone to college because I would have been paying for college tuition. It’s pretty rough. Especially coming from a family of eight. There’s not a lot of resources, especially that expensive,” explained Fanaika.
After the season at Utah State, Fanaika was struggling in school and was losing the passion and fire to play football. He knew he needed a change and ended up leaving the program after Utah State’s 24-23 bowl game loss to the Ohio Bobcats in 2011. He decided to again try to join a mission trip to find himself again.
While he was waiting to leave for the trip in March, he went back to working at the steel warehouse.
“I was moving steel around. If people needed a metal rod or a beam to put up, they would come to us. We would sell it to them and they would do whatever they had to do. We would cut pieces to certain lengths or whatever they needed,” said Fanaika. “When you hear about people putting in 60 hours a week in their job and I mean 60 hours alone is tough work. When I was able to go and put in 60 hours a week working in a steel warehouse – that was tough for me.”
Fanaika spent nine months on a mission trip in Indianapolis before hearing news that would change his life forever -- his dad, Sefita, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Fanaika has seven brothers and sisters in total, but several of them already had families of their own. Additionally, three of his siblings were still in elementary, junior, and senior high. His mom, Navu, worked an extra job to offset Sefita’s income while he received treatment. Jason knew he needed to return home to help the family make ends meet.
He got another job a month later at a credit repair call center. He worked the phone lines for seven months consulting customers about why they needed credit repair.
“Trying to sell credit repair was tough to do. It was tough to try to sell people on spending their hard earned money on a company that will help repair their credit,” explained Fanaika.
On the side, he installed vinyl and wood fences on the weekends. Fanaika went to work in the morning and labored all day on Saturday and Sunday. Not to mention, he was blending in additional hours installing fencing during the week. Fanaika was accumulating as many hours as possible to support his family during this difficult situation.
After spending time with his family, Fanaika decided he wanted to be close to his family to resurrect his football career. He toured BYU, but decided Utah was the best fit for him to play football again. He attended fall camp and quickly started to learn the defensive system. Since he wasn’t traveling as a walk-on, he continued to install fences on the weekends to earn money.
During his first year at Utah, another development occurred in his life – he got married to his wife, Brittney. As he juggled his new life, he was not only working every free moment, but was preparing to earn a starting roster spot in the spring. He eventually was awarded a scholarship in 2014 and saw his first extended amount of playing time the same year
Early in his first season at Utah, he flashed his versatility as a defensive player. He started at defensive end in week two, spent the following week at nose tackle, and a few games later, made the transition to middle linebacker. Fanaika finished the season playing in all 13 games, while tallying 55 tackles (9.5 for loss) and 5 sacks.
After his first season, he had a successful spring practice session and over the summer had his first child, Loumaile. Before beginning a senior year that would set the stage for the future of his football career, Fanaika started a family of his own.
“It was an amazing blessing. She is full of attitude but has character,” Fanaika boasted.
His senior senior was the most successful campaign of his college career. He was named Pac-12 Honorable Mention at defensive end and led all Utah defensive lineman with 53 total tackles. His relentless motor, power, and versatility has captured the eyes of NFL scouts.
However, as he embarks on this new journey in his life, he hasn’t forgotten about the past and how it has shaped him into the man he is today.
“Doing those things has helped me grow humility, patience, not taking anything for granted, and helping others who have the same types of dreams as you,” explained Fanaika. “My experiences helped me realize how much of a blessing it is to play football.”
As he prepares to enter the NFL Draft, he isn’t letting himself get caught up in the emotions. Fanaika is most ready to help others, including his family.
“I’m trying not to get too caught up in daydreaming about the possibilities. I saw both of my parents work and struggle to do whatever they could to make ends meet. I’m excited to see how my wife and I raise our kids,” stated Fanaika.
Fanaika participated in the NFL Scouting Combine in February and he called the experience stressful, but one he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“The combine is so stressful. You just want to perform and be at your best. There’s always teams that are pulling you away and asking you questions. I definitely had fun and it was great to meet some of the top players in the nation,” Fanaika said.
While at the scouting combine, Fanaika had the chance to work with a potential top-five draft pick. Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa was an athlete Fanaika developed a relationship with during the on-field workouts.
“Joey Bosa is a cool guy. He’s a man of few words, but you see the passion he has. To see such a talented dude like him motivated me,” Fanaika added.
When asked what he can contribute to an NFL team, Fanaika quickly responded with two strengths.
“Longevity and also versatility,” said Fanaika. “I haven’t missed a game that I’ve played. If I started a season, I finished it. I’ve played at every position in the box, I have started at every positon in the box, and I’ve produced at every position in the box. Those two things go hand-in-hand in my eyes. That’s what I feel like separates me between every other player in this draft.”
During the interview process, Jason received feedback from NFL coaches and GMs about the strengths and weaknesses of his game. He has used that criticism to improve his skills as he prepares for the NFL.
“When I was able to come back home and train, I focused on the weaknesses they told me to get better at and I feel like I’ve really solidified those weak areas that they had,” Fanaika explained.
As Jason Fanaika was getting set for the NFL Draft, he had to choose his agent. Early in the process, he knew Priority Sports was the right agency for him. He particularly enjoys the relationships he has already built with their team.
“I’m so very happy with Priority Sports and the types of relationships I’ve been able to form and shape. My first experience with Priority Sports has been amazing. All the people I’ve been able to meet and all the high character guys they sign is special,” Fanaika reiterated.
Fanaika will be at home with his family as he awaits the news regarding his new football home. His parents will be hosting a barbeque for his siblings and he will be playing with the kids while he awaits the phone call of a lifetime. He is open to every opportunity, but he would particularly love the “408” area code to flash across his phone. His favorite team growing up was the San Francisco 49ers and playing for them would allow him to stay close to his family.
“My dad was a big 49ers fan, so I was too. We were 49ers fans back when they had Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and even Jeff Garcia. If there was one team for sure, I think would choose the 49ers.”
No matter where Jason Fanaika ends up, he’ll never forget where he came from and the man he was raised to be. All of those nights putting up fences until dusk, or lifting steel across a warehouse, are experiences that transcend his abilities on the gridiron. No task will be tougher in the NFL than Jason Fanaika has already endured.
He is already battle-tested in the game of life.