Christian Folau, the son of immigrants from the South Pacific, has a bashful smile and sweet disposition that belie a tenacious will for success, detectable only by the clues he leaves along the way and a pattern of achievement: the late-night study sessions in his home; the weight-training regimen; the AP courses; the A average; the preparations for a church mission and the ACT; and the Eagle Scout award.
He is captain of East High’s football team for the second straight year.
He is East High’s student body president.
He plays the piano.
He has a black belt in taekwondo.
Oh, and he can play a little football, too.
Folau, a 6-foot inside linebacker who somehow is slender at 240 pounds, has scholarship offers from Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Utah, Utah State, Washington, Oklahoma State, Cal and, his dream school, Stanford.
There’s just one sticking point in all of this: that darn ACT.
Last summer he made a verbal commitment to play football for Stanford, a brainiac school that requires a minimum score of 25 on the ACT, even for someone who owns a 3.9 GPA and can sack quarterbacks. He is stuck at 18 after two tries.
Folau has wanted to attend Stanford since he was in middle school. He wants to study engineering or possibly pre-med, and play football for the Cardinal. He mentioned this to Brandon Matich, his prep coach, last summer: “What do I have to do to go to Stanford?” he asked.
His coach passed along this information, as well as video, to Stanford coaches, who suggested that he attend the school’s summer football camp.
A week after the camp ended, they offered him a scholarship and will honor his desire to serve an LDS Church mission immediately after his graduation from high school.
“I fell in love with the campus, the facilities, the coaches, even the professors,” says Folau. “It’s a great environment for academics and football.”
Now all he needs is that test score.
“The Stanford coaches told me getting into Stanford is harder than being at Stanford,” he says. “I’ve got three more chances to take the test — one in September, one in October, and then one in December. That’s when I find out where I’m going to college.”
His second choice is Wisconsin, which is led by former Utah State coach Gary Andersen.
Folau (FOL-ow) is half Tongan, and in Tonga the game of choice is rugby — football’s cousin without the pads. Many Tongans come to the U.S. seeking better jobs and an education for their kids. Football is viewed as a path to both.
“Tongans look at football as a way to get a free education,” says Lono Folau, Christian’s father. “Sadly, we have a lot of good football players who couldn’t make it because of school. They don’t get much help or encouragement from home. You see the kids hanging around in the hallways at school. As long as they make grades good enough to play football, they’re satisfied, which means Ds.”
“That’s what boys rely on those Friday nights,” says Christian, one of three boys in his LDS Tongan Ward who have received a football scholarship in the past year. “A lot of them forget that football is a platform for an education.”
The Folaus would have none of that. Lono and Melsihna Folau came to the United States for the reasons mentioned above. Lono, whose father worked for the LDS Church to support his wife and 13 children, grew up in Tonga, although he spent a few years living in Hawaii as well. Melsihna, one of nine children, spent half her childhood on Pingelap, a stepping stone in the Micronesian Islands that is so small it isn’t officially considered an island — it’s an atoll. It is 455 acres total with an elevation of 8 feet and home to about 800 at the time.
Melsihna moved to Saipan when she was 11 and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Later, she moved to Virginia to live with her brother, who was serving as an ambassador in Washington, D.C.
Both of their families preached education. All eight of Melsihna’s siblings and most of Lono’s siblings have college educations. Lono and Melsihna met while earning degrees at BYU-Hawaii. The Folaus settled in Rose Park in Salt Lake City and produced three daughters, Lisa, Carlene, Kehaulani, followed by a son, Christian. Melsihna is a school teacher, while Lono worked as an environmental inspector for a company in Salt Lake City for two decades before losing his job a couple of years ago.
Like their parents before them, Lono and Melsihna emphasized education and achievement in the home.
“We had a routine,” says Melsihna. “They’d come home from school, snack and then do their homework. If they did their homework, they could watch TV and play. To get along in this world, education is a must. And as members of the LDS Church we believe what you gain in this life you take with you. It’s the only thing you can take with you.”
The children knew they needed to pay their way for a college education since family finances were tight. All three daughters earned academic scholarships. Two of them have master’s degrees and the youngest is just beginning a master’s program.
Then there is Christian. The walls of his room tell his story. There is a poster of the solar system. There is a poster of “My Gospel Standards,” which lists his religious beliefs. There is a large poster of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. There are football trophies and photos of his family and of Haloti Ngata, an NFL star from Utah and the son of Tongan immigrants. There is a Stanford football poster and a mounted plate on which is inscribed, “I know the Scriptures are True.”
Christian created some animosity among his neighbors when he passed up nearby West High School to attend crosstown rival East, but he believed it was best for his academic and athletic pursuits. He took AP calculus last year and this year he is studying AP statistics and AP psychology. He typically stays up until midnight or later to complete his homework.
“I’ve always been expected to have a 4.0 and was pushed to do my best,” he says. “I can’t sell myself short. My parents know I have a higher potential than what I sometimes show.”
He lost his perfect 4.0 GPA last year.
“When I was elected (football) captain it put more stress on me,” he says. “I tried my best and got a 3.9 or 3.8.”
He faces other stresses as well. Health issues have hindered Lono’s ability to find another permanent job, which has forced the family to dip into savings. Christian’s sisters, whom he calls a main source of encouragement and motivation, provide rides to school and help pay for school and football costs. He focuses on his goals.
“I have a lot of things to do — the ACT, student government, football, school and get ready for mission,” he says. “There’s a lot of stress.”
He copes by playing the piano for relaxation and by focusing on his beliefs.
“My faith helps with the stress,” he says. “Prayer is a huge thing for me. Religion has helped me and my family so much. I don’t know if I’d be the student or player I am if not for this gospel we have.”
There was a time he wondered if he could interrupt his football career to serve a mission, but he concluded, “I can’t go to school without serving my mission. It would feel wrong. I prayed about it. I felt it was best for me to serve my mission before I go to school.”
Meanwhile, he studies and tackles with an eye on the future.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org