Only faith and family were more important than football to William "Junior" Fifita, he had told a coach at Mount San Antonio College, where the freshman hoped to play fullback.
Fifita, 20, was fatally wounded early Sunday morning by a barrage of gunfire in Hawthorne as he was driving home a cousin and two teammates from a church dance. The shots came from a vehicle that pulled alongside at the intersection of Rosecrans and Crenshaw, according to Los Angeles Sheriff's homicide Lt. Steve Jauch.
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The two teammates were also wounded, but are expected to recover. A suspect has yet to be identified, and the motive for the attack also remains under investigation.
"This has hit very hard for all of us," Audrey Yamagata-Noji, Ph.D., Mt. SAC Vice President for Student Services, said.
She, counselors, and coaches met with the football squad Monday afternoon in a session that replaced the scheduled practice.
Three of the football coaches had traveled to the hospital Sunday after learning of the attack.
No one was surprised to learn from the two wounded that Fifita had shielded his cousin from the gunfire.
"They said he told the cousin to lean down. He leaned over her, and that's when he got shot," Iona Uigalelei, the football team's defensive coordinator, said.
Fifita grew up in Adelanto and received athletic scholarship offers during his senior year of high school. But as a devout Mormon, he decided to serve his faith as a missionary for two years, and deferred college until after traveling to Guatemala, associate head coach Evans Roderick said.
"He was focused ... he had a plan," Roderick said.
This was Fifita's first semester at Mt. SAC, and he began spring workouts with the football squad just last month.
"He wanted to be great," said Bobby Purcell, the team's offensive coordinator who took the aspiring fullback under his wing. "Kids just gravitated to him because he was so positive."
"I can't emphasize how much of a positive influence he was during the short time he was here," said Junior Tanuvasa, the linebacker coach.
In recent decades, Mt. SAC has become a favored community college for student athletes of Polynesian ancestry. Fifita was of Tongan ancestry, and the two wounded — one of Tongan, the other of Samonan ancestry — had come from Utah to attend.
Coach Iona Uigalelei, himself of Samoan ancestry, said Mt. Sac's football program has strived to be a family in which athletes from different cultural backgrounds learn to be teammates.
Sheriff's investigators were probing the possibility that the shooting attack may have been motivated by ethnic animus.
It was the second time in half a year that the Mt. SAC football team had lost a member.
In November, George Steward, 18, and his girlfriend Sabrina Castillo, also 18 and both of Los Altos,
were killed when a car on the 60 freeway went out of control, became airborne, and struck their small pickup truck.
Monday the coaches vowed that, like Steward, Fifita would be remembered.