Hebron Tuutai Fangupo (Loni), 21, was born in Orange, Calif., and grew up living with his mother, father and his 8 siblings. The 6-foot-2-inch, 340 pound Polynesian came from the island of Tonga. The Century High School product first started playing football during his sophomore year before coming to Mt. San Antonio College in 2003. Fangupo had a successful two years at the junior college and was sought by many coaches to play for their respective universities. But Loni decided that USC would be the place where he would finish his education and resume playing football.
JC: Talk to me about your childhood … how was life growing up with the family?
HF: We were a very close family growing up. My parents were the kind of parents that were always there for me. My mom was my emotional side. My dad was my beast side. He brought that tough love, beating me at times you know, because I wasn’t a good kid at all growing up. When I was 8, before I moved to Tonga, I burned the garage of our house by carelessly playing with matches. One of my sisters was in the house during the fire and had almost died. It was just bad now that I look back. At school, I was always getting into fights and getting bad grades. I use to forge my mom’s signature when report cards were sent home because I didn’t want to let them see how bad I did with my grades. Most of my family around me was involved in gangs and it eventually looked that I would get caught up in it as well. My parents decided to get me away from gangbanging and go to Tonga, not just from that but also to learn the culture and the language.
JC: How long did you stay there?
HF: I stayed there till 2001 before I moved back here in Santa Ana where I went to Century High School. I started playing football in my sophomore year.
JC: I heard that there were some problems with you trying to play football, tell me more about that?
HF: I didn’t know what football was. I only knew how to play rugby football back in the islands. And over there you didn’t wear shoes or cleats when you were in the field so when I went to run barefoot during practice, the coaches were looking at me like, ‘Loni, what are you doing?’ They would laugh about it. My English was bad at the time so I wasn’t able to communicate with my coaches real well. I had to get use to the American culture because I wasn’t speaking or learning too well. My body was so use to rugby training, the distance training … the agility.
JC: How hard was it not being able to speak English?
HF: There were many things about American culture that I didn’t know. With that my friends and family were laughing at me saying, ‘Look at him, he’s making himself look stupid!’ It made me mad. And because of that I grew apart from them and didn’t get along with many of them so I started to make trouble and become more involved with gangs.
JC: What kind of trouble did you get into and how bad did it get?
HF: During high school, guys who were taller would bully me and try to take my lunch money—you know little kid stuff. I use to fight kids all the time. There was a time in which I realized that I wasn’t doing much with my life. At times, I would go home and my mom would be at the dinner table waiting for me. I would come home, go straight to my room and go to sleep. My mom would bring the dinner to my room and set it next to me before she went to sleep. I just got tired of the hassles from my family and friends and the things I was doing wrong.
JC: What did you do?
HF: I started to learn English and did whatever I can to learn. I would listen to the radio, watch TV, and learn songs to popular music. That’s how I adapted to the people in my community. My English got better during my senior year, but I slipped sometimes. People in the neighborhood use to call me FOB-LOC, FOB meaning “Fresh Off the Boat.” (laughs)
JC: When did you come to Mt. SAC? How did it happen for you to play for the Mounties?
HF: I came in 2003. At that time my defensive line coach at Mt. SAC, Iona Uiagaleilei saw me playing one time and he invited me to the school. I played real well for him and the more I played, the more I became better and I started to realize, ‘I can do this! I can go to the next level if I wanted to.’ That was the turning point.
JC: From there, you started your football right?
HF: No, Coach Fisk (head coach) wanted me to join but my mom wanted me to go on a church mission.
HF: I was immature and didn’t know what I wanted in life. I didn’t know how to set goals to make it in the future.
JC: What is this mission that you’re talking about?
HF: Well, I’m a Mormon and the Mormon Church believes that when you’re young, it’s the best time to go on a mission, to go do God’s work. It’s a two-year process. All males who went would preach the gospel and learn the language.
JC: Where did you go and what were some things you did there?
HF: I went to the Philippines and studied their culture and went to many different places preaching. Going over there was a great experience. It really changed my life. It taught me how to study, how to set goals. It taught me how to adapt to situations to reach my goals.
JC: What kind of things did you do there?
HF: The leader of our mission took me to the many lower-economic areas around the country and had me preach to the people there. When I was involved in gang life, I learned about the importance of never backing down and not being afraid. Much of what I been through at home was similar to what was going on around there. During my life around gangs, I had this mentality towards others thinking, ‘I don’t respect you until you earn my respect.’ And when I went on the mission, I used that negative mentality in a positive way. The mission was a light for me. It changed me as a person.
JC: During your two years there, something happened with your family, what was it?
HF: Well in our mission, we weren’t allowed to talk to family at all except Christmas and Mother’s Day. We spent everyday preaching and meeting with people all around the Philippines—that was all we did. So during one of those days I called my mom and during one of our conversations, I told her that I been praying a lot and I wanted her to tell dad that with the smoking and drinking he was doing, I had a feeling that something will happen to him if he doesn’t change his ways. My mom got angry at me and told me, ‘Son don’t you ever say anything like that about your dad.’ But I said, ‘Mom I’m sorry… but this is what I feel the Spirit is telling me.’ And afterwards, he didn’t heed my word.
JC: So what happened?
HF: One day, the leader of the mission came to me and told me that my dad was in a coma. I called to talk to my mom and she said he had a stroke and later on, a number of heart attacks.
JC: Oh man that’s horrible … what happened after that?
HF: My mom was scared and overwhelmed with everything but I said calmly, ‘Mom, why do you lack faith? Faith is what makes this world go around. Be strong, be there for him. If this is God’s will then let this be done.’
JC: Did you leave the mission?
HF: No, I decided to stay because my father once said to me, ‘You never start something and then stop without finishing it,’ so I stayed.
JC: After the mission, your life must have changed from how you were raised and then hearing the tragic news of your dad. When you went to meet your dad in Tonga, what happened, what was the mood?
HF: When I got off the plane and went to go see him, he was lying in bed and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Son, I love you.’ He told me that he didn’t see his old son from a long time ago—the son that gave him so much sadness. No, he saw a man come to him.
JC: And how is he today?
HF: His condition has improved and he’s happier now. We use to go take walks together—father and son. We never did that before. The change that he’s seen in me was something he was so amazed with. And he said something that almost brought me to tears … he said that the mission I went to was a place, “where boys became men.”
JC: When you reflect on your younger days and how everything turned out, what was going through your mind?
HF: Ohh, I was a bad kid. I didn’t realize the things that my dad had done for me. He would go to work every day cutting trees and working till late nights and coming home tired and exhausted and find that I had been getting into trouble. I didn’t see the sacrifice that he made to help raising me. I didn’t see it. You know sometimes it takes faith to understand it, and one day I was thinking, ‘Who changed my diapers? Who fed me? Why am I still alive today?’ And I realized it was my mom and dad. My father would tell me, ‘You bring dishonor to the family … you are a disgrace to me.’ Those words before hit me in a bad way, it made me think he was the bad guy. But in reality it was me.
JC: And all this must have been a big motivation for you as you came to Mt. SAC to play football?
HF: Most definitely. I told him, ‘I’m a man now. The last guy he doubted was a little boy.’ I took the Fangupo name and I brought it to Mt. SAC and as I walked onto the stadium there, I said to myself, ‘My name will be known here—everyone on this field will respect my name, and when I go on the field, everyone in this league will respect my name, and now at USC, I want America to know my name.’
JC: How did the USC coaches react when hearing about this story?
HF: They said, ‘Loni, I want to meet your dad and I want to shake his hand.’ They were amazed at how mature I was and how fast I was for a guy who was 340 pounds. They knew that my dad was the reason why I am what I am today. Coach Carroll told me, ‘Loni you got big shoes to fill when you come play for us,’ and I said, ‘Well Coach I got big feet so hopefully those shoes will fit me!’
JC: Wow … (shakes his head in amazement) How did you get in touch with USC?
HF: On the night before, I had two schools I was prepared to verbally commit to—Tennessee and Oregon. I got a call from my mom that night and she said to me, ‘Son, your sister’s coming. I don’t want you to leave California. I want you to stay so you can look after her… we’re going to make this agreement. I talked to God, and this is the deal. The first school who calls you, that’s the team who you’ll commit to. If it’s Cal, UCLA, San Diego, even a Division II school, that’s the school that God has chosen for you to go to.’ I was like wow, but I was scared and I didn’t want to do that but my mom told me, ‘Son do not disobey me,’ and I did what she said.
JC: And then?
HF: The next morning at 9 a.m. Pete Carroll called and said, ‘Hebron Fangupo, how would you like to be a part of the USC Trojans football team?’
JC: And how did you react?
HF: I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!!!!!! What the Heck!! This is the sign!”
JC: You actually said that?
HF: No, I just grumbled, ‘Ohhhhhh… heeeeey…’
HF: He woke me up so I was a little tired. Hahaha.
JC: With all this happening, what are your plans for the future?
HF: My plan is this. I will go to USC for a year and a half and pursue in getting my Bachelor’s degree in Sociology because while my body won’t last forever, my learning will. I’ll leave for the NFL and whenever my career’s done, I’ll come back to get my Master’s degree in Counseling, come back to Mt. SAC and be a counselor and coach there.
JC: Have you been always staying in shape?
HF: Oh yeah, I was putting in four hours at Mt. SAC everyday at the gym and on the field. Sometimes I wasn’t able to because I had study groups so I left early to get that taken care of. I want to make sure I stay busy and do things I want to do. You see I want to live life, not watch it.
JC: We’re coming to the endpoint of our interview. One random question that I want to ask you … How important is it to be an American?
HF: Oh, it’s very important to me. For my religion it’s big, I mean this is where it started. It’s a blessing that America provides you the freedom of choice and freedom of religion. A lot of people say that it’s not free, but I don’t see chains tied in anyone’s hands or feet. A lot of people complain about living but you’re free.
JC: How about America as a nation?
HF: To be a good American is a way of honoring the soldiers in the past. I don’t want to be the guy that bends the law or breaks the law that people died for. When I watched the movie “Patriot” it broke my heart, but it also lifted me up because I see people who fought so hard for freedom, freedom that you can’t see, touch or feel.
JC: What do you value most about America?
HF: America is great because they provide us with technology, great people, different customs and culture for us to see and to learn from—everyone brings in their two cents and I think that adds to money in the bank.
JC: With the Tongan culture and its way of life … how do you exhibit yourself here in America as a Tongan-American?
HF: When you go to another man’s house, you’re under his roof, you’re under his rules. But then again I’m still the same person walking thru that door. I come to America. I respect America’s laws and ways and teachings, but I don’t forget who I am when I came here. I’m still Tongan and I’ll forever keep my culture going. I’ll speak my language.
Fangupo is currently practicing with his new team at USC and is accompanied by another Mt. SAC teammate, Jacob Harfman. By having more players getting looks from USC, Fangupo said that he doesn’t want the filter between both schools to be a pipeline.
“I want it to flow through wide open,” he said. “I want to be able to help these student-athletes to be able to move to the next level and with academics, that’s what’s most important about all this.”