Miki Fifita Making Huge Impact at IMG Academy
By Rodney S. Yap
Through the power of prayer and hard work, Miki Fifita has been able to jump start his football future.
Blessed with athletic talent at 6 feet, 5 inches, 290 pounds, the former Baldwin High School all-star offensive linemen and son of a pastor, now lives and plays the game he loves at one of the best prep programs in the country.
In July, Fifita accepted a scholarship to attend the IMG Academy Ascenders in Bradenton, Fla. The decision to move more than 4,600 miles from his 96732 zip code in Kahului was difficult considering his devotion to the Christian faith he’s grown up with.
“Me and my family sat down and talked about it,” said the 17-year-old by telephone from his dorm room.
“We prayed on it and prayed on it,” added Miki’s mother, Laurie Fifita, who traveled with her son to a handful of prep football camps over the summer, including the All-Poly Camp in Utah where he earn Offensive Lineman MVP honors. “It was tough but it was a blessing, too.”
Players hoping to be recruited by college coaches don’t usually transfer to out-of-state schools going into their senior seasons. After deliberating his options for four days, and of course more prayers, Fifita decided to accept the offer from IMG Academy head coach Chris Weinke, the former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback from Florida State University.
“I wanted to make a better future for me academic wise, prep wise and preparing to play college football.”
St. Louis School on Oahu was also interested in Fifita, a unanimous first-team pick to The Maui News 2013 All-Star Football Team, following Baldwin’s 6-2 Maui Interscholastic League season.
“IMG also came to us first. I am very happy with my decision, it has given me a head start. The school is much more advanced than the education in Hawaiʻi.”
The private sports academy added football last year and has the opportunity to better its 2013 record of 9-2 as the team currently owns a 8-1 mark. With three weeks remaining on the schedule, the Ascenders enjoy a bye this week before a road game at Clearwater Central Catholic on Oct. 31, followed by a season-ending matchup at home against Hialeah Champagnat.
On Thursday, Oct. 16, IMG Academy won its seventh straight game by beating visiting Jacksonville Trinity Christian, 28-7. The game was nationally-televised on FOX Sports Prime Ticket and Prep Zone.
“I did pretty well I only got beat once on the inside,” said Fifita, who starts at right guard. “There was a big crowd for the game and our student body was going crazy. It was a big win for us because Trinity was the defending state champions.”
The Fifita ʻOhana watched the game on television for the third time this season.
“We watched it live on FOX and it was awesome,” said Laurie Fifita. “Our whole house was full and our relatives in Washington, Maryland, Las Vegas and Colorado also got to watch it.”
What they didn’t get to see live, but have seen since on YouTube, was the Haka, or Maori war dance, that Fifita taught the team. Nicknamed the “Warrior” by his teammates, Fifita leads the ceremonial ritual with a traditional chant.
“We do it before every game and it really gets the guys hyped and ready for the game.”
In addition to his “Warrior” mentality, the team now prays after games, adding to is customary pre-game prayer.
At the Kickoff Classic on Aug. 23, IMG defeated visiting Tallahassee Godby, 32-13. After the game, Fifita led the team in prayer like he did at Baldwin and with the youth programs he actively served at Ala Lani United Methodist Church and Kīhei United Methodist Mission, where his father, Panepasa, is the minister.
After all, Fifita’s dedication to the game of football can be compared to his faith in God. And although he relocated four time zones to the Sunshine State, he continues to practice his religion as if he never left the islands.
“It’s just a blessing for me to be here. I work hard everyday and trust in God. I try to give my best effort every chance I can and I play every game like its my last,” said Fifita, who was born and raised in Kailua-Kona and played his first two high school seasons at Campbell.
Since he can no longer sing with the church choir, Fifita listens to Tongan gospel music every Sunday — the rhythm makes him feel at home, he says.
Team captain and linebacker Nick Thomas, a senior heading to the University of Wisconsin next season, told the Bradenton Herald last month that Fifita is not shy or soft-spoken when it comes to gospel.
“Yelling gospel music. . . . We have speaker systems, he’ll put it in his room and he will play it so loud the entire floor can hear it. And he will yell and scream the gospel music, and I just feel like it’s just important for him to share the message through gospel music that Sundays are the Lord’s Day and for you to rest. You’re not supposed to do anything else. . . . I just feel that’s good, just keep us all unified and just keep us in check. I think it’s different, it’s different for Miki to do that while everyone else — everyone on the team is religious in their own way — but Miki definitely shows it the most.”
“My dad came from an island that was really, really small, and there was no electricity. . . . I get my motivation from my parents. It is always God first, school second and sports third.”
On the football field, Fifita doesn’t have to look beyond his offensive line teammates for motivation.
“Our offensive line is big. I think we’re probably one of the biggest offensive lines in the nation right now. We have four commits that are starting and our center is trying to work on his first offer. We a’ll come from different places so it takes time to get the chemistry right and now that we are nearing the end of the season we are really coming together.”
Playing along side Fifita are Tyree St. Louis (Miami), Mirko Jurkovic (Nebraska) and Evan Mallory (Cincinnati). Collectively, their elite size has given them the upper hand against most of their opponents.
The Hawaiʻi native and first Polynesian football player to attend IMG Academy will play at Oregon State next fall and will take his official visit to Corvallis in December before returning home.
“Oregon State is a beautiful place, and I just fell in love with it. It’s the best place I can be for the next five years – I love the environment, I love the people there and I love the opportunities I could have there.”
Oregon State was the first school to make Fifita an offer, back in early March. Since then Washington State, who signed Lahainaluna High School’s Hercules Mataʻafa last year, and Hawaiʻi have made offers.
“Oregon State is not only getting a big time player, but even a better kid,” Coach Weinke said. “Miki is a big physical player that understands how to play with leverage. He has a high football IQ and toughness to go along with it.”
“My goal is to make it to the NFL and my Plan B is Engineering. If I don’t make it to the NFL I’m shooting to get my Masters before I leave (Oregon State). I understand the game is going to stop for me one day, so I want to make sure I have a life after football.”
Seems fitting, as Plan A continues to start with the power of prayer and end with hard work.