By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (August 17, 2016) — Folks around Tarleton State can’t remember a single NCAA athlete ever to come to the Stephenville campus after graduating high school in Alaska.
But the story of linebacker Azizullah Fifita (Ah-shi-shu-lah — Phiph-esha) doesn’t begin in the great northwest. Fifita was reared on the tiny Polynesian island of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean, closer to New Zealand and Australia than the continental United States.
Fifita, or ‘La’ as his teammates have dubbed him, moved to Juneau, Alaska in 2008, and was a football star at Juneau Douglas High School. From there he played at El Camino College before landing at Tarleton for his junior season this fall.
“This is cool, it’s a neat experience,” Fifita said following the fifth practice of preseason camp and the first in full pads Wednesday morning. “It’s a lot different going from Alaska to JUCO, and then from JUCO here to Tarleton State. Everything here is faster, so I’m still getting used to it.”
Stephenville football fans got a taste of Alaskan football when South Anchorage visited SHS three seasons ago. The Yellow Jackets dominated every facet of the game, and as those who witnessed it would correctly guess, not many Alaskan high school players continue their careers collegiately.
“Not that many, not that many at all,” said Fifita, who has been working consistently with the first-team defense in camp. “I’m very blessed to be one of the few people to make it from there.”
He left Juneau for Los Angeles, the second of three culture shocks he has already experienced, the first coming with the move from Tonga for Alaska and the latter, of course, being the move from LA to Stephenville.
“It was one of my cousins, she introduced me to El Camino and I ended up playing there in L.A., so that’s how I got there,” Fifita said.
He didn’t need a family member to introduce him to Tarleton. After standing out at El Camino, the Texan staff went looking for the 6-0, 235-pound linebacker.
“Tarleton came and recruited me to come here, so now I’m here and I love it so much,” he said. “The coaches, I enjoy them. Everyone here, all my teammates, they welcome me.”
And he is a welcome sight flying all over the field, stuffing holes and making plays sideline-to-sideline.
“My biggest strength is definitely run stop,” Fifita said. “I’m working on my pass cover right now and I still have to get better at that, so yeah, run stop is definitely what I’m best at now.”
Fifita plays linebacker with what coaches and football analysts call a “motor,” and hearing that is humbling for the former Alaskan star from Tonga.
“I hope so, I hope that is true,” said Fifita with a smile. “That’s what I try for is to be that type of player.”
And Tarleton is trying to become that type of defense after finishing dead last in the nation in total defense in 2015.
New coordinator Marcus Patton has come from Colorado Mesa, and last season’s leading tacklers – Colton Burtscher, a linebacker from Glen Rose, and Chase Varnado, a defensive end and hometown product from Stephenville – find themselves surrounded largely by new faces.
Faces such as headhunting safety Diamonte Wiggins from Compton and hard-hitting linebacker Marquis Lomax from Harbor City, two of five newcomers to transfer to Tarleton from California junior colleges this summer. There’s even Dominique Martin, who is transitioning to cornerback after three seasons as a receiver for the Texans.
For certain, everything about this defense is different from a year ago. Or even just a few months ago, according to Varnado.
“The defense is ten-fold different than even in the spring,” said Varnado, who sure enough called his new teammate ‘La’ while visiting with him after practice. “The chemistry is amazing; I’m excited.”
So is Fifita, who says the Texan defense is improving every day.
“The coaches, they are working to get us to play together and to be physical,” he said. “They want us to run downfield, make plays in the backfield and get turnovers to give the ball to the offense.”
Those are the things that make defenses great, and help teams win. Regardless if they are playing in Juneau, Los Angeles or Stephenville.