Sitting on the 45-yard line in Lucas Oil Stadium, Fou Fonoti rested away from the celebratory chaos that consumed his Michigan State teammates.
The brand new Big Ten Champions hat spun backward on his head, tags still attached, was perched on top of his signature hair.
The senior sat. Soaking it all in. Speechless he stared at the rose-filled celebration.
Then with a running, partially diving hug from assistant strength coach Tommy Hoke who offered up three simple words, Fonoti was thrown into the revelry and pointed a finger to the sky.
”We’re going home!” yelled Hoke.
For the California native, the goal was always for him to get home to play in the Rose Bowl.
”We’ve talked about it since he first got here, get Fou home,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said.
And some 2,000 miles from home, on a snowy Saturday in Indianapolis, “Get Fou home” became reality.
”You could see it in his eyes that he was like we did it and we are going back to where he’s from,” Jack Allen said.
Staying close to home
The north side of Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, is where the 6-foot-4, 298-pound Fonoti grew up.
He ventured slightly farther north to play football at Mayfair High School, where he was named league offensive lineman of the year and garnered second-team all-state honors as a senior.
Upon graduation, he again didn’t go too far as he headed to Cerritos College, a junior college near his parents’ house in Lakewood.
Frank Mazzotta coached Fonoti at Cerritos and said he saw strong leadership in the young offensive lineman from down the road.
”He’s just a local kid and went to high school within a mile away from our college,” Mazzotta said. “The thing that I saw was No. 1 his charisma and leadership ability and the way kids just kind of attached to him was really important to us because he became really a team guy for us.”
That leadership ability helped Cerritos to an 18-5 record in Fonoti’s two seasons.
”We were really good when he played for us and part of that was him and his leadership ability to get everybody to get on the same page,” Mazzotta said.
The team success also put him in the spotlight and major universities started to take notice as UCLA, Rutgers, Arizona and Michigan State were among the schools to offer him a scholarship.
Paying the price
Used to playing in front of family and friends – Mazzotta said Fonoti “brought an entourage to games” – Fonoti was face to face with the prospect of going away from home to continue his career.
He took official visits from coast to coast, from Washington State and UCLA to Rutgers, and the inbetween: Michigan State.
Staten recruited Fonoti for the Spartans and said he remembers the humility of the lineman and how he had a focus on family during his December visit in 2010.
”We were getting ready for a bowl game and I remember him going, ‘Man, these guys are huge, coach, these guys are huge,’” Staten said. “I was like, ‘Well, you’re not small, Fou.’ I just remember the humble person, the great attitude and just that his team comes first.”
He took a visit to UCLA, close to home, but Michigan State had stood out and it came down to Staten and Mark Dantonio.
“It all started off with Coach D,” Fonoti said. “With him being strong in his faith and with the way he carried himself, to understand that if that’s the head coach of a Big Ten program, an elite program, you can only imagine the guys underneath him. That stayed true when you go with coach Staten and meet the players and the staff. It’s definitely family here.”
In finding family in East Lansing, it meant leaving his family behind in Lakewood and to play football so far away from home entailed a big sacrifice – on both ends.
“He knew his family was going to have to travel to get here and see him play games,” Dantonio said. “He's got a very close girlfriend that's been with him through the entire thing. So his family has done that.
”It's a huge sacrifice not just for him but his family as well. He's paid that price.”
Fonoti’s career almost led him back to California to play in the Rose Bowl two years ago, but the Spartans fell short in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin.
Then paying the price took on a new meaning when Fonoti broke his foot early in the 2012 season. What was meant to be a two-year stint away from home turned into a three-year journey as he took a redshirt and returned for 2013.
”My family has told me many times that when I initially got injured that I know it’s hard for you to see now, but understand it’s definitely a blessing in disguise,” Fonoti said.
That meant telling his family and his longtime girlfriend, Brook, that he would have another year away from home.
“Obviously, being the homebody that he is, I thought that might have something to do with how he would handle it,” Mazzotta said. “He handled it really well and I think it’s made him a better player.”
Staten also saw a better player emerge from the added year and the opportunities it provided – and could provide – for Fonoti.
”It allowed him to take minimal classes this semester and graduate,” Staten said. “It allowed him to become a better football player, thus the next level will give him looks. It’s allowed him to form greater bonds with his teammates. It’s been exciting.”
Mazzotta saw a person and a team that seemed on the cusp of greatness and a path that wasn’t what Fonoti wanted, but a chance to do something special.
”I think Michigan State knew in the middle of last year that this year was really going to be their year,” he said. “I think it worked out perfectly for Fou.”
As it was, an extra year brought him home anyway: To play in the Rose Bowl.
”To see it now, man, from that turnaround of being injured and walking on crutches to playing in the Rose Bowl, it’s crazy how time works,” Fonoti said.
Or as Allen, one of Fonoti’s roommates since their first summer on campus in Snyder Phillips dormitory, described him heading home: “I feel like the stars have aligned where it all went right for us.”
”This is his dream”
As time saw it fit, Fonoti’s opportunity to go home and play in the Rose Bowl came after so much time talking about it with teammates like Allen and Travis Jackson.
”This is his dream,” Jackson said. “It just worked out for him and there’s not a better guy it could have worked out for.”
The excitement when the Spartans knocked off Ohio State in Indianapolis left the pair, who share a Twitter account and have been close since Jackson hosted Fonoti on his official visit, sitting in the locker room just taking in the moment.
It also had Mazzotta texting Fonoti – as he often does during and after game – and getting a reply in the wee hours of the morning.
”I said, ‘Congratulations, see you in the Rose Bowl. I’m happy for you,’” Mazzotta said. “He replied, ‘Thanks so much coach, love you.’”
Now, Fonoti will wrap up his college career in front of his loved ones after three years of small groups seeing his games.
”I get texts from my brothers just saying, ‘How’s practice going, we’re excited for you to get out here,’” he said. “As much as I’m excited for me, I’m more excited for them and just that they are able to experience the game.”
The depth to which many experience the game will vary – his list for tickets numbered 85 – and he realized he won’t be able to add enough tickets to his allotted six to get everyone in the stadium.
”A lot of people were saying they just want to come for the tailgate and they would rather be outside than be inside,” he said. “I hope a lot of people will have that understanding. It’s going to break my heart to tell some people I’m sorry.”
But just to have everyone in the same spot will be enough for him and for those who have watched his journey bring him back home.
“I was talking with my son about that,” Mazzotta said. “For him to come back to the Rose Bowl, what an awesome journey. It’s unbelievable.”
And at the end of the day, getting home in such a way is something Fonoti said he couldn’t have imagined.
“I’ve definitely looked at some old pictures recently,” Fonoti said. “Just seeing from out of high school and doing the junior college route and then coming here and seeing the evolution things changing and seeing that it all ends back where it all started.
”I’m just blessed. To know that we are playing in the 100th Rose Bowl is crazy to even fathom. I’m definitely excited.”