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Student-Athlete Afemui Driven by Education-First Values

February 3, 2017, 11:15 AM HST (Updated April 26, 2017, 3:58 AM) · 3 Comments
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Feleti Afemui poses for a picture with his dad, Penisoni, and mom, Lani, along with Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason last Saturday at Vanderbilt University. Photo from Feleti Afemui.

By Rodney S. Yap

Never under estimate the power of goal setting or the value of education.

Thanks to a strict up-bringing and the support of his late grandmother, Maui High school student-athlete Feleti Afemui accepted a full-scholarship Tuesday to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., considered by some to be the “Stanford of the East Coast.”

Afemui made his decision official on Feb.1, the first Tuesday of the month, which is annually reserved for high school student-athletes committing to extend their athletic careers at the college level. Recognized as National Letter of Intent (NLI) Day, Afemui was one of the Maui Interscholastic League’s only recruits to sign a NLI to play NCAA Division I football next fall.  Another was Baldwin’s Finau who signed with BYU.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound inside linebacker chose Vanderbilt over University of Hawaii and Washington State University. Although he received interest from more than a handful of other schools, like BYU, UNLV, Arizona and Washington, Afemui said Vanderbilt’s strong academic history prevailed over the opportunity to stay home and play at Aloha Stadium for second-year head coach Nick Rolovich.

Not bad for a guy who just turned 17, on Dec. 22, and dominated on the defensive side of the ball last season playing as a 16-year-old senior.

“The main thing for me was the academics, and Vanderbilt has the highest academics in the SEC (Southeastern Conference),” said The Maui News’ 2016 Defensive Player of the Year. “I wanted to go to an academic school because I felt throughout my years the most important thing for me was school, it’s always been about school first, and I wanted to keep it that way.”

Football is a bonus, and will continue to serve as the means to his end goal, which is to get a masters degree in Education before returning to the Valley Isle to become a teacher. Ideally, Afemui would love to comeback home and work with Maui’s youth, giving back to the Kihei/Waiehu communities where he was raised or the school he plans to graduate from in May.

The turning point in Afemui’s official visit to Vanderbilt last weekend, came during a question-and-answer session with an academic administrator.

“We talked to an administrator and he was telling us about all the things that we can study. It was nice hearing about the many opportunities they have available.”

Feleti Afemui at the NIKE Combine last summer in Oakland, Calif. Photo by 247/Sports.

A charter member of the Southeastern Conference for a half-century, Vanderbilt remains the conference’s only private school. It’s also the smallest school in the SEC, with an estimated 6,600 undergraduate students. The next-smallest school, the University of Mississippi, has nearly twice as many undergraduate students.

With annual tuition and room-and-board expenses around $60,000, the value of Afemui’s scholarship, which allows him five years to play four seasons, exceeds $250,000.

Although the Commodores have athletic ties to the Bay Area Cardinal, as current Vandy head coach Derek Mason left Stanford in 2014 after coordinating its defense for three seasons.

“I am so excited to be at Vanderbilt,” said Mason, following his hiring. “This university combines the best of what’s good about college athletics and academics. We expect to be competitive and look forward to competing for an SEC East crown.”

The Commodores notched wins over Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee last year, finishing the regular season 6-6, 3-5 in the SEC.

Maui High junior linebacker Feleti Afemui (17) against Lahainaluna last year. Photo by Rodney S. Yap.

Afemui was stellar in the classroom long before he became a force on the football field.

“Going into intermediate school (Lokelani), I began setting goals for myself,” he recalled. “That’s when my mom told me you better get all A’s, no B’s. So I made that my goal each year, and I’ve kept striving for that since.”

After more than six years of straight A’s, Afemui was dealt two B’s during second semester last year.

“One was in Analytical Geometry and the other was in Business.”

Afemui said he anticipated the B in math, and felt like analytics was not his cup of tea, but the B in Business was the result of a group project and could have been avoided he said.

Until the pair of B’s last year, Afemui’s class ranking on his report card showed him ranked No. 1 in his class of more than 400.

After seeing his class ranking fall to No. 34, Afemui adjusted his goal to be class valedictorian to finish with a 4.0 cumulative grade point average instead.

Lahainaluna quarterback Enele Scanlan (5) is taken down by Maui High’s Feleti Afemui (17). File photo by Rodney S. Yap.

After adding a couple more Advance Placement Classes, he earned a 4.2 GPA on his first semester report card and currently holds a 3.979 cumulative GPA.

“I saw the value in education early and my mom used to tell me not to be like them, because they didn’t take school seriously. And she said if I wanted to get a good job, I needed to make education first.

“Growing up, my mom was strict with me to get good grades, because she felt the way to be successful was to get good grades, so that’s all I knew growing up — focus on school and get good grades.”

Later he realized he liked sports, too, and I started trying different sports.

“I was supposed to go to Baldwin, all my family went to Baldwin, but my mom felt that Maui High’s education was a little better, so that’s why I came here.”

The other primary influence on Afemui’s solid work ethic and strong educational values came from his grandmother, Elizabeth Malafu, a veteran Kihei Elementary School teacher.

“My mom was a teacher and my brother is a teacher,” said Iolani Afemui, or “Lani” as she is known to close friends and family. “It was always instilled in us, from day one, that education is the only way to go for your future. She is the reason why he is like he is. He lived with my mom the majority of the time growing up, because we had to work, so she would take him to school and pick him up after school and we would come home and pick him up on our off days. She lived in Waiehu Terrence and everyday she would drive to Kihei and pick him up and take him home.”

Feleti Afemui at the NIKE Combine last summer in Oakland, Calif. Photo by 247/Sports.

“I lived with her half my years, too, and she was strict, too. . . . At home she helped me with my school work. My mom disciplined me, but she couldn’t help me with my school work like my grandmother could, actually helping me solve problems.”

Afemui said he was able to juggle all of his class subjects and sports after learning how to manage his time, and establishing a daily schedule.

“I try and do my homework during recess and lunch. My main thing was to try and finish all of my homework at school, because I hated going home and staying up late to finish my homework. And if it was really serious and I had a lot of work, I’d stay up sometimes to 2:30 a.m. Otherwise, I would get up early and do it in the morning.”

Afemui warned freshmen and middle school students of the many pitfalls — like procrastination — that deters people from accomplishing their goals.

Maui High’s Feleti Afemui (17) leads his Saber posse into the end zone after returning a fumbled football 89 yards for touchdown against Lahainaluna last season. File photo by Rodney S. Yap.

“Procrastinating and not taking things seriously, like not thinking it’s that important.”

Once he developed a time schedule and adhered to it, Afemui said he would know right away when something was off. “Oh no,I hate this feeling,” he’d tell himself.

“My biggest reason for setting goals initially was to avoid getting lickings from my mom, and then later I learned the importance of it.”

His goal to get straight A’s won’t change when he gets to Vanderbilt next fall.

Not surprising, said classmate and cousin, Mahonri Anitema.

“As a teammate he’s outstanding and has always been a good example for our program. He’s just been the guy, and we could rely on him for school work, we could rely on him for all of our coverages, our rushes, all of our defensive schemes — he’s just the perfect teammate.

“He excels at everything he does, whether it’s church, school or sports, he does it all.”

Click here for highlight videos from last year on Feleti Afemui.

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