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Times change, but some things never go out of style. The little black dress, a cold glass of bubbly and of course, a running back that can kick your ass so hard, you see your past, present and future all at once in ludicrous speed, are all timeless. Even classic if you will.
Despite former Utah running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala’s hard-nosed style of play that fans fondly remember, and enemies still wince at, it was head coach Ron McBride’s kind, genuine spirit that sold Fuamatu-Ma’afala along with Taulia Lave, Donny Utu and Kautai Olevao on being Utes. It also didn’t hurt that Fuamatu-Ma’afala’s older brother, Roy, had been on the team from 1991-1994 and had been coaching him up to play for Utah a few years before he ultimately committed.
“You know coach Mac and his charm,” Fuamutu-Ma’afala said with an island chuckle. “He just makes you feel so comfortable. It was also my older brother attending Utah before me. I kind of had an idea of the offense because he would bring home all of his cut-ups. He started for the Utes; he started all 4 years from his freshman year. I knew the offense even before I got there. It was just a good fit for me and again, coach Mac, just his personality—also we had three other local guys I played with in high school. We kind of got together and decided to go do this together.”
“He knew our culture, he knew our protocol if you will—just coming into the house,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala continued of coach Mac. “The parents make the decision even though they say the kids should make the decision. In the Polynesian home the parents actually make the decision. Mac was smart. He recruited the parents, he didn’t really recruit us. We knew he was a great guy and he recruited our parents and our parents so believed in Mac. He definitely took care of us when we were at the U and I’m grateful we got to go there and share our memories with the Utes.”
Fuamatu-Ma’afala did well enough at Utah that he opted to leave as a junior—something he’s not sure those early teams were terribly used to. As Fuamatu-Ma’afala reflected on that decision he noted there were a lot of nerves that went into it, but at the end of the day, with his style of play and the injuries that had accumulated he felt it was best to try and get paid.
“It was definitely nerve wracking because it was a big decision,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “I made the decision based on my family and the injuries I was sustaining during my career at Utah. I felt like if I was going to get injured, I better get paid for it, so I entered the Draft early. I was fortunate to be drafted by the Steelers in the 6th round.”
It’s not lost on Fuamatu-Ma’afala that he came up in a football world made for him in the late ‘90's and early 2000's. Big bodies that move fast and can deliver every bit of the blows they receive right back were the order of the day and that’s exactly what made Fuamatu-Ma’afala special.
“I was very fortunate and came up in a time in the NFL where the big back theory with guys like Jerome Bettis, Eddie George, Jamal Anderson out of the Utes,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “All of those guys were 250 lbs. or bigger. That was pretty much what people were looking for- the next larger back. They wanted me to play fullback but when they saw my footwork, my vision—and again, with my brother playing at Utah, I got to see all of the cuts of Jamal that made me feel like I could do that. I was seen at the right time because most college coaches and NFL coaches were looking for a big back who could carry the ball 25-30 times and try to control the clock.”
Like most rookies who enter the NFL, Fuamatu-Ma’afala had to “about, face” his expectations and even then, he admits his career never panned out how he thought it would. As competitors, it is only natural to want to hit the ground running, but the reality often is that you need to be patient and wait your turn.
“I did a lot of special teams,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “It was an adjustment because you have tochange your mindset. You go in thinking you want to be the starter, but you have to wait your turn. These other guys just got their big contracts. It is what it is.”
Despite not having quite the prolific career he’d always imagined, Fuamatu-Ma’afala earned a special place in the Steelers' hearts with his work ethic and good attitude. In 2016 he was honored by his former organization being named to the Steelers' Legends Series honoring Steeler all-time greats.
“It’s like all of the guys from the ‘70’s,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “I thought it was a joke and then when I was one of the seven guys selected, I was grateful and blessed to be a part of that organization.”
Fuamatu-Ma’afala’s gratitude to the Steelers is only matched by his gratitude to the Utes, another place where he says the love and appreciation he’s felt in and out of the building can’t be matched.
“If I needed something today, I know that coach Whitt would have no problem,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “Even coach Mac. Coach Mac is calling me up about my daughter. He’s not just calling about me. He’s seeing how my oldest is doing at Sac State. I don’t know if there is anything you can measure it by, but it’s just so awesome you can rely on your brothers for anything. Everything is so sincere.”
“I’m so grateful that my brothers Kautai, Cyrus, Lewis, Doug etc. are still up there helping with the program," Fuamatu-Ma'afala continued. "I know that if my kids went to the University of Utah or any place in Utah, they would go and check on them and make sure everything is alright. That’s always what it’s been—one big family.
To this day it’s the relationships Fuamatu-Ma’afala cherishes most and tries hard to keep up on.
“For me it was about hanging out with the guys, you know what I mean? The camaraderie, you just miss it when football is all said and done,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “That’s the number one thing that you miss. You guys go to battle together, you eat together the night before, walk-throughs, all of that. You know the friendships are real when you haven’t seen each other for years but the conversation picks up right where you left off from. I still talk to my running back mates, Omar Bacon, Juan Johnson we still talk to this day, CJ Johnson was our tight end. Everest Matagi I get to see every once and a while when he comes down for the Polynesian Bowl with Jeff Kaufusi. It’s so awesome when you get back in touch with these guys. It’s a special bond.”
Another source of pride for Fuamatu-Ma’afala is the growth and prominence of the Polynesian culture in all facets of football. The way it has been embraced and incorporated is not only a nod to their warrior spirit of the past, but a full embrace of their current competitive nature.
“You always have to give respect to the guys who came before you,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “There were so many guys who came before us and it’s all pride. It’s our culture, it’s in our blood. That’s the bottom line. We come from a long line of warriors back in the day—we could be playing cards and all of a sudden, BOOM! Polynesians are going at it. We are just competitive people, driven people and we bring so much pride when you turn on the T.V. and see so many last names—oh, that’s Tongan, that’s Samoan, that’s Hawaiian etc. You’ve got all of these guys all over the place. You take so much pride as you look at the younger generation and watching Tua [Tagovailoa] and Marcus [Mariota]—all of those guys carry the torch. Manti [Te’o] was carrying it for a while. It’s the next generation. It’s their time.”
Looking at the next generation of Utes and what they’ve accomplished, Fuamatu-Ma’afala says he isn’t surprised in the least. The foundation was there when he was playing and has only grown and benefited from that little bit of luck you need as well.
“During our playing days? Yes. I think Utah was ranked 8th with my brother Roy and Luther Elliss," Fuamatu-Ma’afala said recalling the 1994 season that really set everything else in motion to current day Utah football. “My brother was on that team where they played Arizona in the Copper Bowl and at the end of the season were ranked #8. Coming into my freshman year we had high hopes, never got that far, but definitely knew coach Mac had the right recipe for success. It was just tough with injuries—a lot of things have to bounce your way. You are fortunate to get to that level.”
Life got a little in the way last season for Fuamatu-Ma’afala, noting he didn’t see as much of Utah’s historic Rose Bowl run as would have liked, but he’s proud none-the-less of the immense effort it took for the team to get there. He is also hopeful that the next time around he can make the trip and show his alma mater some support.
“This season, I’ll be honest. It’s been a crazy year,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “I was definitely following them when they hit the Rose Bowl and was cheering for them. I wish I had seen more games this season, but definitely always rooting for the Utes any chance I can. I made my wife a promise that whenever the Utes—which is probably next year—next time they get to the Rose Bowl, the big one, we are going to take a trip and represent the Utes.”
These days Fuamatu-Ma’afala is taking things slower, but is still involved in sports and giving back to his community in Hawai’i.
“Now I run a youth sports program on base for military families,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “We run all the military sports for the kids on post.
“One of my cousins was running the youth sports program and offered me a job when I retired from football. It took me a year to say yes," Fuamatu-Ma’afala continued with a laugh. “I was getting too big, too heavy and I needed to keep being motivated. I think I was 29 at the time? It was definitely too early to do nothing, and my wife told me I needed to get out of the house. I was driving her crazy. It was a great opportunity to give back to the kids and the army families on base. I meet a lot of different people from all over the country. I’m very fortunate.”
As grateful as Fuamatu-Ma’afala is with where he has been and where he is going, it appears everyone he’s encountered feels equally the same. Whether it’s the military families he blesses with his time and effort to provide sports activities for their kids, the fans in Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh or the countless coaches and teammates he’s bonded with forever, to Fuamatu-Ma’afala it’s all family.
“Brotherhood. Family,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said of being a Ute. “Again, if I was to reach out to any one of my brothers, they would do whatever they could to help. I'm grateful for my time there, grateful for my brothers, and grateful to God.”