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He Found a Field of Dreams in Iowa : Football: Hausia Fuahala, a walk-on linebacker at Southwest College, will continue his playing career with the Hawkeyes. The native of Tonga says the state is 'a little like my island.'

April 18, 1993|BARRY BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On an April afternoon two years ago, Hausia Fuahala had just completed shopping at a K Mart store in South-Central Los Angeles when, while walking to his car, he noticed a sign across the street: "L.A. Southwest College."

Fuahala, who was 20 at the time, had been in the United States for two years and was itching to play college football. A former rugby player in his native Tonga, the 6-foot-3, 224-pounder had never played American football. But he was bored working for his brothers in construction.

He crossed the street and looked for the football coach.

"He just wandered out here one day and asked me if he could play," Southwest Coach Henry Washington said. "I said, 'Fine, come on, we take all comers as long as you do as you're told.' "

In February, after two standout seasons playing outside linebacker for the Cougars, Fuahala signed a letter of intent to play football for the University of Iowa. He will join another transfer, John Pequa of Snow College in Utah, to become the first Tongans to play football for Iowa.

Fuahala enjoyed his visit to Iowa City in December and felt comfortable with Hawkeye Coach Hayden Fry. But what really won him over was the winter weather. This from someone who grew up in the balmy South Pacific and now resides in Inglewood.

"I love the cold weather," said Fuahala, who saw snow for the first time on his trip. "When I'd wake up in the morning, I would play outside in the snow and make a snowman. Also, the city has no crime. My island, there's no gangs, no crime. That's why I want to go to Iowa, because it's a little like my island."

Fuahala left Tonga in 1989. On the way back from a rugby tournament in Taiwan, his team stayed a week in Hawaii. When his teammates went back to Tonga, Fuahala decided to call his brother in Inglewood for a plane ticket to California.

He arrived with a Tongan high school degree, but spoke little English. Slowly his language skills improved, and in the spring of 1991 Fuahala took a physical education course at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

That summer, Fuahala worked out with Southwest's football team, plunging into an unfamiliar sport with rules curious to a rugby player.

He watched and listened, and by September was a starting outside linebacker.

"From what I've seen of those rugby guys on television, that's the kind of attitude he carried out there (on the field)," Southwest defensive back Darnell Hendricks said. "Just wild and crazy."

Fuahala, who was one of the Cougars' leading tacklers the past two seasons, helped lead Southwest to a 9-2 record and a victory in the Southern California Bowl in 1991. Last season, with a less experienced team, the Cougars finished 3-7.

"His greatest strengths are quickness and speed," Iowa recruiting coordinator John Austin said. "The Polynesian kids are extremely tough, hard-nosed kids. They have a reckless abandon."

Fuahala spends much of his time practicing football, lifting weights and studying. He said he has a 2.8 grade-point average, which Washington said is one of the highest on the team.

And although he gets along with his teammates, he doesn't spend much time with them away from the field.

"He doesn't go to parties with us," Hendricks said. "He doesn't hang out on campus with us either. But once we get down to the locker room, he knows it's just football players so he really lets loose. He feels more comfortable here around us."

Fuahala said his visa has expired, but Austin said that the Iowa foreign student's office will help him get a new one.

Fuahala said he is not nervous about leaving his brothers when he heads for Iowa. He just doesn't know what to expect.

"I'll just try to be friendly with everybody," he said.

As for Washington, he occasionally peers across the street at the K Mart.

"I wish I had more kids wander over here like him."

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