Dec. 26, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
ANAHEIM, Calif. - When Fou Fonoti committed to Michigan State in 2011, it was the understanding that the best chance his grandfather would probably ever get to watch him play in person would be in the Rose Bowl.
Nevertheless, the former junior college All-American at Cerritos College made the 2,000-mile leap of faith and health willing, Filo Masunu will see Fonoti play his final game as a Spartan on Jan. 1 against Stanford in Pasadena.
"Right now he's struggling with walking and walking with a cane," Fonoti said. "It's definitely going to be a day-to-day decision. However he's feeling on game day, we're going to go with that. If he's going to be sitting at home, I'm more comfortable with him being in his comfort zone and relaxing.
"Whenever he's seen me play it's been all on TV, but that's definitely understandable. If it's a blessing for him to be able to make that trip (to Pasadena), it'd be huge. I want to say he's in his late 70s or early 80s, but he looks in his 20s, so he's a good-looking guy."
Fonoti got by far the largest ovation of any MSU or Cardinal player during introductions at the Rose Bowl Team Welcome and press conference Thursday at Disneyland.
His two brothers and two sisters, his girlfriend of five years and her family were among the 15-20 Fonoti supporters in the crowd gathered outside Sleeping Beauty's Castle.
"It's nice that I'll be finishing my career only 20 minutes from home," Fonoti said. "I'm definitely excited for what this week has to offer."
That Fonoti is in this position so close to where he grew up in Lakewood is equal part serendipity, providence and perfect timing.
As he entered his fifth year as the Michigan State head coach, Mark Dantonio knew better than to dangle the Rose Bowl in front any player's face as a promise. Winning the Big Ten Championship depends on so many factors, including many a coach can't control.
The possibility of playing on the West Coast at some point was good enough to lure Fonoti to East Lansing - where his cousins Siitupe and Domata Peko played - even though his family questioned his sanity.
"You know, I kind of got that look of, `Are you sure you know what's going on?' " Fonoti said. "That was huge for me to even say that to them because never in a million years would I think I'd be playing for a school in Michigan, trying to walk to class in some snow and going through an ice storm.
"At that time I didn't see that, but it's been a blessing in disguise." And, it's one that would never have been realized if not for a career-extending injury.
If not for a broken foot sustained in practice before the third game of the 2012 season, Fonoti might be preparing for the NFL playoffs this week. Because he missed the Notre Dame game and the nine that followed, Fonoti was granted a medical redshirt that allowed him to return and help the Spartans beat No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, assemble a school-record number of wins and rise to No. 4 in the nation.
"It was huge thing for him to be able to win the championship this year, and it's a great indication of how God works in mysterious ways," Dantonio said. "Last year he broke his leg and we ended up 7-6. Now here we are 12-1 and we're in the Rose Bowl.
"He graduated (with a degree in criminal justice) at mid-year and comes back to his family. All the pieces of the puzzle sort of fit together. I was very much involved in his recruitment and at that point, when he decided to come to Michigan State, he was a long way from home and ever seeing snow. That risk, and that trust he had in us as people, has paid off."
With Disney movie lights shining on Dantonio and Fonoti as they were being interviewed while sitting in director's chairs, Dantonio fittingly said he couldn't have scripted a better plotline.
"You know, we were highly thought of as a team initially (in '12), and then for him to break his leg two days before the Notre Dame game, and then we lost to Notre Dame, and then to come back and do all this this year is just very exciting for him," Dantonio said. "It's very rewarding to see your young people make goals and accomplish them.
"I was asked how I felt after the championship game and the best word I could find to describe it was I was extremely content because you saw so many people reach their goals, the goals we've talked about for four or five years for some, seven years for myself and for our staff and their families and our administration."
Although Fonoti's journey is 60 minutes away from completion, Dantonio is counting on those who follow to keep the program's momentum going.
"A lot of people invested in this dream, but now that we're here it's important that we're able to capitalize on that and move even further," Dantonio said. "I think it's important that we continue to stretch our boundaries."
The Spartans can always point to Fonoti for how that's done on a personal level. Offensive line coach Mark Staten recalled how in awe of MSU's players Fonoti was during his campus visit.
"We were getting ready for a bowl game and I remember him going, `Man, these guys are huge,' " Staten said. "And I'm like, `You're not small, Fou.' I just remember the humble person, the great attitude and you know his team comes first. He's extremely competitive and we knew that when we recruited him we would have to get all of the toughness out of him that we could, and we have.
"In talking to his old coaches, they keep saying how impressed they are with how he's raised his game and how he's able to do what he's able to do now. That's a tremendous part of his ability to learn and how important it is to him. We talked about this since he first got here - get Fou home."
With Fantasyland located just around the corner, Fonoti was clearly living the dream.
"We've come too far to fall too short," he said. "I'm blessed to be here with my family and my (Spartan) brothers and the mindset is all about finishing. The main thing is just to win this game. Coach D talks about completing your circles, and when I made my decision to come to Michigan State, I couldn't see it in the long run.
"It still hasn't hit me that we'll be playing in that game."