HAMMOND — It was the last leg of a 4,000-mile trip from his home in Wailuku, Hawaii, when Southeastern Louisiana’s Miki Fangatua was blindsided by the warm August welcome.
“I was drenched when I stepped outside,” Fangatua said of the humid conditions in Hammond. “It was 80 degrees when I left and it seemed over 100 when I got here. It took me two months to get used to the weather.”
The adjustment to his new surroundings in a small college town, and to his new team, have been relatively smooth for Fangatua, who has overcome a variety of injuries to become a valuable member of Southeastern’s defensive line rotation.
Fangatua, a 6-foot, 290-pound junior-college transfer, enjoyed his most productive game, finishing with four tackles, one sack and contributed to a safety in the Lions’ 22-7 victory at Houston Baptist.
“The more he gets to play, the better off he’s going to be,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said. “He’s an all-conference-caliber player. He had a great game last week.”
Fangatua offered a hearty smile at the thought of becoming SLU’s second defensive lineman this season to score a touchdown, joining Ashton Henderson.
On the safety that gave the Lions a 2-0 lead in a driving rainstorm, Fangatua initially recovered a fumble only to lose control of the ball once his elbow hit the ground, allowing Houston Baptist to recover it in the end zone.
“I was there at the right time. Nothing spectacular,” Fangatua said. “I had it, but at the end of the day we came out with the win.”
The distance Fangatua traveled to Southeastern mirrors that of his football journey that began with a non-descript career at Baldwin High School.
“I wasn’t all-district or anything like that,” he said. “I didn’t get good until my second year of junior college.”
That never dampened his spirits, or that of his family and those at his church, to pursue playing at a Division I school.
With a high school teammate already ticketed for Riverside (Calif.) City College, word of mouth helped Fangatua, who credits two defensive line coaches for his development.
Fangatua — who was limited to three games as a freshman because of a broken radius bone in his arm — earned All-California Community College honors as a sophomore, with 44 tackles, 11½ tackles for loss, nine sacks and two fumble recoveries.
“Since my freshman year in high school, it was my dream to go (Division) I,” Fangatua said. “Everybody was telling me to put my faith in God and everything would fall into place.”
SLU began recruiting Fangatua a year ago with former secondary coach Patrick Toney, who is now at Sam Houston.
The Lions were also recruiting Riverside tight end Ryan Ramirez, who wound up signing, before defensive line coach Brandon Lacey took over Fangatua’s recruiting process and began selling him on the rise of the program and the role he could fill on the defensive line.
Lacey also appealed to Fangatua’s cultural side during a phone conversation, placing fellow Tongan and defensive lineman Tupou Aleamotua on the phone who spoke on the family-oriented nature of the team.
Fangatua was sold, sight unseen. Without benefit of an official visit, he signed and after completing his degree requirements over the summer, arrived for the start of preseason camp and has rotated with starter A.J. Bowen.
“(Hammond) kind of reminded me of home, where everything’s chilled and it’s country,” said Fangatua, whose hometown of 15,000-plus is on the island of Maui. “The environment was so positive after meeting the team and coaches. They treat you like brothers.”