SALT LAKE CITY — As far as Jason Fanaika is concerned, this is the place. The Utah defensive end, a junior, has found a home with the Utes.
The former Pleasant Grove High School star, who played two seasons at Utah State before serving an LDS Church mission in Indianapolis, has earned a scholarship and is battling for a starting job after walking on to the program a year ago.
“We’re excited to have him here,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who noted that Fanaika and Hunter Dimick are competing for the left end spot opposite of Nate Orchard. “Ever since he got here he has worked hard, worked his tail off.”
Things haven’t come easy for the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Fanaika. He came home a little bit early from his mission to help care for his father, Sefita, who has colon cancer.
Jason said that wound up being a “huge deciding factor” in opting not to return to Utah State. He felt the need to be closer to his parents in Pleasant Grove and currently resides in Utah County with his wife Brittney.
“I want to be able to give my father the chance to come watch every single one of my games and also for him to be around my family,” Fanaika said. “I knew I was going to get married pretty soon after my mission so I wanted him to be around if I had kids or whatever. I want him to be around them.”
Fanaika has taken it upon himself to make sure his father goes to his treatments and is getting his medications. He’s the oldest sibling living in Utah from a large family and likes to be around, too, in case there’s anything around his parents' house that needs to be done.
These days, Fanaika reports that his dad is doing well and hanging in there.
“He’s a fighter. He’s that guy I look up to,” Fanaika said. “I know he’s always going to work hard. He’s never going to complain.”
Fanaika added that his parents, Sefita and Navu, are the kind of folks who always put other people before them — making it tough to know how they’re feeling or where they’re at in life. He credits his wife, Brittney, for always being there.
“My wife, she helps me out a lot. I can never stress how grateful I am for my wife because she helps me out with my family. She’s always understanding,” Fanaika said. “If my family needs helps, she’ll drop everything for them, and I’m so grateful for that. She helps out.”
Now, in the midst of camp, Fanaika added that Brittney has helped even more.
“She knows now that I need to concentrate a little bit more on football,” he explained. “So while I’m gone she’s making sure that my family is cool.”
The couple has had difficulties of their own, a miscarriage.
On a far less serious note, Jason also dealt with the temporary departure of his best friend when a little brother left to serve a mission.
“So there was a lot of stuff he was going through but he’s been stellar, just having a positive attitude — just a great kid,” said Utah defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki. “I think his faith just really shows through in the way that he is and the way that he carries himself.”
Tuiaki knows Fanaika well. He recruited him to Utah State, where he said the Aggies saw a lot of special things athletically. Fanaika went on to play in 21 games (starting five) over the 2010 and 2011 seasons. He made 29 tackles, include three behind the line of scrimmage.
Even so, Tuiaki said that Fanaika was really immature at Utah State. Things changed, the coach explained, during the time that he went on his mission and came back.
The adversity Fanaika faced, including having to walk on at Utah, was character-building. Tuiaki said he’s happy he stuck through it and considers it a great story.
“It’s been fun to really see him turn into a man,” Tuiaki said. “It’s been to fun to really see him because you’ve heard of stories where guys face adversity and find a way out and just end up quitting school and getting divorced just going through a lot of stuff, but he’s really, really been good. So it’s really been exciting to see that.”
Fanaika’s transition to Utah has been smooth, Tuiaki confirmed, he’s come in and fit in well with the Utes’ defensive line.
“He’s just one of the guys — a great kid, an awesome kid,” Tuiaki said. “He came and paid his dues here and walked on for a whole year and earned a scholarship. We put him on and it’s been awesome to have him.”
Since Fanaika was at Utah State, he’s matured a lot, Tuiaki continued, and brings a lot of energy and athleticism to the Utes. Fanaika said the change of scenery has been wonderful.
“It’s family. So I love it,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Given the circumstances, Fanaika feels that he’s fortunate that he had the chance and opportunity to walk on at Utah. He noted that he had a lot of people on the team to look up to, including Trevor Reilly, Tenny Palepoi, LT Tuipulotu, Latu Heimuli, Nate Orchard and Seni Fauonuku.
“All those guys kind of took me under their wing and helped me get situated here and then it was just up to me to work hard,” Fanaika said. “It’s been a great, great path for me.”
After redshirting last season, Fanaika is now on the depth. He and Dimick have swapped No. 1 and No. 2 spots at left end on the depth chart during camp and both are expected to see extensive action this season. Tuiaki said it’s a healthy competition and both players know the starting job will be up for grabs every single day.
Recently, though, Tuiaki informed the pair that Dimick had performed better and was going to start. Fanaika’s reaction impressed the coach.
“He leaned over and patted (Dimick) on the back and congratulated him and came back out and is performing and competing,” Tuiaki said. “He didn’t shy away from that. Awesome person.”