Fangupo is said to be the strongest player on BYU's team. He spent five years of his childhood in his native Tonga before moving back to California. (Photo by Jonathan Hardy/BYU Photo)
He didn’t even want to play football.
The 6-foot-1, 331 pound, senior defensive lineman from Santa Ana, Calif., never would have stepped onto a football field without the strong encouragement he received from his mother.
In fact, Hebron Fangupo, or Loni as he is known by friends and family, only played one year of high school football.
“I came from the islands,” Fangupo said. “Halfway through my senior year of high school I got to play some football and told my mom I didn’t like it.”
After high school, Fangupo was extremely excited to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. During the year in between high school and a mission, Loni went back to the islands to help his father with work and save up for his mission. Fangupo served in the Philippines Manila Mission and upon his return was again encouraged by his mother to pursue football.
Through connections with a family member, Fangupo was able to contact the coaches at a local junior college, Mount San Antonio College (Mt. SAC). He was put on the team and despite his limited experience, Fangupo thrived and was named to the All-Mission Conference first team in 2007. The following year he was a SuperPrep JUCO 100 and named to the All-Central Conference second team. After such a successful stint in junior college, many Division I schools came knocking on Hebron’s door.
One of the many schools that recruited Fangupo was Brigham Young University.
“BYU recruited me and I told my mom I was really interested in BYU,” Fangupo said. “Being a returned missionary I appreciated that I was surrounded by temples and church. But, I prayed and fasted and the Lord told me there was somewhere else I needed to go.”
Fangupo continued to try and decide what school would be the best fit for him. A friend suggested he look into the University of Southern California. Although the list of schools interested in him was long, Fangupo had never been recruited by the Trojans. So Loni decided to take matters into his own hands.
As the story is told, Fangupo went to a USC practice and jumped the 10-foot wall surrounding the practice facility and crossed the field to go and talk with defensive coordinator Nick Holt.
“I jumped down and I looked at Coach Holt,” Fangupo said. “They had a player who was a senior who was going to the league (NFL), and I told him I’m here to replace Fili (Moala). I just told him straight up. He kind of brushed me off and I grabbed him by the arm and I said, ‘I’m the man,’ and he said, ‘Well, if you come in you have big shoes to fill,’ and I said, ‘Well, I have big feet.’ “
The next day Holt and a few other coaches came to watch Fangupo practice at Mt. SAC and were impressed with what they saw. The following day Fangupo received a phone call offering him a full-ride scholarship to USC.
Fangupo accepted the offer and called to tell BYU he would not be suiting up in the blue and white.
“I went to USC and met some great people there,” Fangupo said. “I played a lot but then got hurt and broke my ankles.”
There were many experiences unique to USC of which Fangupo was able to be a part. The team was regularly visited by celebrities including Snoop Dogg, Magic Johnson and especially Will Ferrell.
“Will Ferrell came every time,” Fangupo said. “He would call me by name. I remember at OSU he had a nice suit on and next thing I knew he had his shirt off with a Trojan painted on his chest. I was like, ‘How did you get there?’”
As a consequence of the environment at USC, Fangupo was given the opportunity to share his religious beliefs often with teammates. The unique differences in the way Fangupo lived his life were noticed by everyone, including the coaches.
“At SC Pete Carroll would call up a surprise practice on Saturday,” Fangupo said. “He knew everyone had been drinking the night before. So he’d run us and everyone would start throwing up and Pete Carroll would say, ‘You should’ve been with the Mormons last night. Loni what do you call it? The Word of Wisdom? Yeah, you guys need to learn about the Word of Wisdom.’ Over there I got a lot of opportunities to teach people about the gospel.”
Another important part of going to USC was a fortunate meeting that changed the rest of Fangupo’s life.
One day Fangupo’s sister coincidentally met a girl named Rebekah.
“Rebekah met my sister because they were in court for speeding tickets,” Fangupo said. “Her grandma asked my sister if she had a brother and my name came up and they looked up my recruiting video on YouTube.”
Soon after that meeting, Loni and Rebekah started dating. According to Fangupo, the main reason he went to USC was to be able to meet his wife. The couple was married on June 19, 2010 and is expecting a baby in March 2012. Fangupo loves his family and is excited for the new addition.
One day during practice at USC, an event occurred that would change forever the path of the Fangupo family.
“I was at practice and someone ran in and told me my wife was calling,” Fangupo said. “She was scared and she was telling me a guy was trying to break into the house.”
“So I ran over there with Tyron Smith (who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys) and I walked in and she was just scared and terrified and from right then I knew I had to get out of SC.”
After a lot of discussion, Rebekah suggested looking into playing at BYU. Fangupo contacted a friend who knew defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi. His friend was able to learn a little bit more about Fangupo’s options because of the sanctions imposed on the USC football team.
“I waited till the season was over,” Fangupo said. “I packed up my little family, left a lot behind. We came here [to Provo] and didn’t know if they would accept us or not.”
“After practice I had to gather up my courage because I heard it wasn’t easy talking to Coach Mendenhall. I walked up to him knowing I denied a scholarship to him and knowing that he doesn’t give scholarships to anyone.”
“I was really shy and scared and I said, ‘I brought my little family, the little money I have to play for you. This is the best place for my family.’ “
Coach Mendenhall told Fangupo to meet him the next morning at 9 a.m. in his office. Fangupo was there waiting at 8 a.m.
“He told me about the program,” Fangupo said. “He said we’ll let you in but you gotta work hard.”
“It’s been really tough. I left a full ride scholarship over there. I’m a walk on right now. It’s a struggle but what’s worth doing isn’t easy. I’m having a great time learning a lot and meeting great people.”
Instead of meeting famous celebrities, at BYU Fangupo has enjoyed meeting other people of importance.
“Better than seeing Will Ferrell and all of them, I got to meet President Uchtdorf and listen to him at team meetings,” Fangupo said. “And that was really cool meeting him.”
An experience that characterizes Loni’s fun personality happened during the Texas game.
“President Samuelson came and was on the sidelines at Texas,” Fangupo said. “I was just excited but I chest bumped him! And I started saying ‘ahhh’ and he said ‘ahhh’ back. I didn’t know he was the President of the University, I didn’t know he was a member of the Quorum of the Seventy. Then someone told me, ‘Loni, you just chest bumped the Quorum of the Seventy!’”
Coaches and players have appreciated what Fangupo brings to the field.
“He has been a great addition to the team,” Coach Kaufusi said. “He got here last January so he’s been here two semesters and played spring ball with us. He worked hard through the first couple of games and earned a starting spot.”
“He is a fun guy,” Kaufusi said. “Sometimes we have to calm him down, but he has a lot of talent.”
Fangupo loves the defense he now plays with and cherishes the relationships he has built with his new teammates.
“One thing I love about our defense is we never give up,” Fangupo said. “They’re crazy but I love playing with them. Our D-line is a bunch of goofy guys but you can’t move us. We really enjoy playing defense and we really take pride in stopping the run.”
Fangupo is proud of what his teammates have accomplished so far this season, but knows they need to continue to progress.
“I don’t really care what they’re going to run,” Fangupo said. “All I know is I’m going to do my best to stop them. I really enjoy this team. It’s a lot of fun.
“We better beat everyone from here on,” Fangupo said. “I didn’t plan on losing. We all want to have fun together and we don’t have fun losing. We’re all trying to win every game.”
There have not been significant differences between the two football programs (USC and BYU), but Fangupo has noticed differences in other areas of life.
“Anywhere you go you will die running,” Fangupo explained. “You will be physical. The main difference is the priority of spiritual growth here. That is one thing I really enjoy.”
“Me and my wife made a priority of what we’ll do here,” Fangupo said. “First we’ll serve God, and in everything we do represent Heavenly Father whether on the field or off. Anything we do, represent. Second, play for family. After that just play ball and win games.”
Though his initial reaction to playing football was unfavorable, Hebron Fangupo now looks back on his life and realizes what a blessing his natural gift for the game has been.
Hebron Fangupo (see story on page 4) follows in a long line of Tongans to play football at BYU, including several on this season’s squad.
Among the first is Vai Sikahema, who became the first Tongan to play in the National Football League.
At least four of the early Tongans in BYU’s program hail from the island of Tongatapu where the main town is Nuku`alofa: Lakei and Hema Heimuli, Andy Katoa, Peter and Tom Tuipulotu, and Steve, Rich and Henry Kaufusi.
Ross Apo, WR, 2010-2011
Henry Bloomfield, DL, 95-96
Tefua Bloomfield, RB, 93-95
Hebron Fangupo, DL, 2011
Elias Faupula, OG, 94-95
Ray Feinga, OL, 2004-08
Alani Fua, LB, 2010-2011
Inoke Hafoka, FB, 2007
Sala Hafoka, WR, 04-07
Spencer Hafoka, WR, 08-11
Alema Harrington, RB, 1984-88
Tau Harrington, DB, 1984-88
Anthony Heimuli, RB, 2009
Hema Heimuli, RB, 91-95
Lakei Heimuli, RB, 83-86
Solomone Kafu, OL 08 | 11
Andy Katoa, LB, 1984-1987
Fotu Katoa, TE, 86 | 88-90
Fred Katoa, NG, 1989-1990
Bronson Kaufusi, DL, 2012*
Corbin Kaufusi, OL, 2012
Rich Kaufusi, DT, 89-90
Steve Kaufusi, DL, 85-87
Moses Kaumatule, DL 2011
Teu Kautai, DB, 2011
Uona Keveinga, LB 10-11
Robert Lapuaho, DT, 85 | 89
Ului Lapuaho, OL, 2014*
Tevita Liava’a, DB, 1997
Reno Mahe, RB, WR, 98-02
Devin Mahina, TE, 10-11
Naki Maile, OL, 1999-2002
John Moala, TE, 1996-1997
John Moeaki, LB, 1994
Larry Moeaki, OL, 1996
Ofa Mohetau, OL, 2003-2004
Stan Moleni, LB, 1997-1998
Kelepi Ofahengaue, LB 1996-97
Tevita Ofahengaue, TE, 1997-2000
Vaha Ongoongotau 1994-1995
Hala Paongo, DL, 2003-2006
Temana Paongo, DL, 2006
Manoa Pikula, LB, 2011
John Raass, DT, 1993-1995
Stan Raass, LB, 1994-1995
Kapi Sikahema, DB, 1988-1992
Vai Sikahema, RB, 80-81 | 83-85
Kalani Sitaki, RB, 94 | 97-00
T.J. Sitake, DL, 98-00 | 04-05
David Tafuna, DB, 2004-2008
Fahu Tahi, RB, 1999 | 02-05
Kesni Tausinga, DL, 2014*
Manase Tonga, RB, 2005-09
Matangi Tonga, DL, 2006
Peter Tuipulotu, RB, 1989-91
Tom Tuipulotu, RB, 1983-1987
Harvey Unga, RB, 2006-09
Uani Unga, LB, 2011
Victor Unga, DL, 2008
Fono Vakalahi, OL, 2009
Fui Vakapuna, RB, 2002-03 | 06-08
Kyle Van Noy, LB, 2010-11
Manaaki Vatai, OL, 07 | 10-11
Simote Vea, DL, 2009-2011