THERE ARE MOMENTS
in life so meaningful that their gravity can be staggering. Brandon Fanaika
felt this as he stood in the driveway with his father one morning at age 16.
Fanaika, a fifth-year offensive guard who plays his last football game for Stanford at the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Dec. 31, always saw blessings in small things -- a new pair of shoes for Christmas, different clothes to wear, food in the refrigerator after a long bus ride from practice.
Brandon's father, Sefita, and mother, Navu, left Tonga because they valued education. Sefita, with three children, lost his wife in a car accident. Navu was at the funeral. Sometime after, they fell in love, married, and had four more, settling in Pleasant Grove, Utah.
Though neither was able to further their own education, they valued it for their children.
Brandon felt left out when hearing of all the things his friends had. He pretended to be sick because he was self-conscious about wearing the same clothes to school. He squeezed his feet into shoes much too small because he didn't want his parents to pay for new ones.
Fanaika started to get some recruiting attention as a sophomore. It helped that scouts came to look at quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who would start at safety at Stanford. Brandon had an offer from Utah State. But when an invitation to a camp came from Stanford, his parents told him, "You have to go."
The morning Brandon was to leave, he packed his gear and waited by the car for Navu to drive him to the airport. Sefita opened the kitchen door, walked through the open garage and stood by Brandon. He handed Brandon a check for $300, to cover the expenses.
"This is everything I have," he said. "Go out there and give it your all."
Brandon, stirred with emotion, couldn't look his father in the eye, "because I could tell the sacrifice he was making."
It was humbling – the hope and faith they put into their son. Brandon did not want to fail them, though he arrived with much self-doubt. He was a year younger than most of the other players, and had never been tested outside Utah.
The first day was terrible. Linemen were pitted against each other in the "Oklahoma Drill." Fanaika was driven out of the circle in a one-on-one battle. But the day ended on a high note when Fanaika leaped to make a one-handed interception, drawing attention for his athleticism.
In the dorms, Fanaika and his roommate talked deep into the night. Fanaika made a decision, saying, "A lot of people have sacrificed so much for us to be here. I'm going to come out and dominate. I don't care how old or how good these guys are."
The next day, Fanaika played without fear. When it came time for the Oklahoma Drill, Fanaika called out the player who dominated him, and turned the tables.
After practice, coach Jim Harbaugh thanked everyone for their efforts and asked Fanaika to stay. Harbaugh offered a scholarship.
"The first person I called was my mom," he said. "I remember saying, 'Mom, I have a full-ride here to Stanford.'
"She said, 'No you don't.' She couldn't believe me.
"I said, 'No, I promise, I do.'
"She went quiet for 15 or 20 seconds. I hear tears.
"'Mom, it's OK. Don't cry. It's OK.'
"That was one of the best moments … It's something I'll always remember, just the joy and the comfort she felt from all the sacrifice that they had made.
"I remember getting home. They picked me up from the airport. Both my parents were crying. They were so happy."
Fanaika came to Stanford after an LDS mission, married the former Hannah Hyde
, is starting at left guard and working toward a master's in media studies. At home, Sefita battled cancer, but his condition has stabilized. There were as many as seven children in the house. Now, there is one -- 13-year-old Kaylene, who was adopted and is a companion to Navu.
"I think of my mom," Brandon said. "I never saw her receive anything, but I always saw her give things.
"I'll always be grateful. I grew up the way I did for a reason. I wouldn't change a thing."