On a Wing and a Prayer, Article by Katie Ryan, MHCS Alumni
We are so proud of MHCS alum Katie Ryan, USC Assistant Sports Information Director, who wrote this article about Trojans running back Vavae Malepeai, a devout Christian. This article originally appeared here.
"You're where?!" she said.
"It's okay, mom. I'm at LAX."
17-year-old Vavae Malepeai had just flown across the Pacific Ocean from his home in Aiea, Hawaii to visit USC in Los Angeles – without telling his parents.
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Though people may not know it, football is a way of life in Hawaii. High school football in Hawaii could even be compared to Texas high school football.
"It's huge!" said Malepeai. "The communities are really involved with the games. Everyone in town comes out and the stores will shut down so everyone can go to the games. They treat high school football like an NCAA Division I team. The stadiums will be completely full for every game."
The Islands have produced many notable players, most recently Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. In fact, Malepeai grew up playing football with two 2018 Heisman contenders from Hawaii: Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Central Florida's McKenzie Milton.
"Tua and I used to sleep over at my uncles house together when we were little kids," he said. "We used to have sleepovers and then his parents would take us to the park, and I would run routes and he would throw to me. We were only in like 3rd grade. I played against him my whole life. And then McKenzie Milton was my high school quarterback."
It's true. Hawaii has no shortage of talent, which included Malepeai. In addition to being named the 2015 Gatorade Hawaii High School Player of the Year, he still holds the record for the most career rushing yards in the state (4,549 yards) and the most career rushing touchdowns (71 touchdowns).
During his outstanding high school career, Malepeai verbally committed to Oregon. Three of his uncles were Ducks players back in the 90's and he grew up cheering for the team.
"I committed to Oregon during my junior year", he said. "Because it was my dream school my whole life, I figured that was where I was going to go. I grew up seeing a lot of Oregon stuff around the house. Marcus Mariota and Jeremiah Masoli were Polynesian quarterbacks that played there so everyone would be rooting for them."
The Saturday afternoon before National Signing Day, Malepeai and his family prayed about his commitment to Oregon.
"We prayed on it, I decided on Oregon, and they left the house to go grocery shopping," he said.
After they had left, Malepeai continued to ponder his decision, and suddenly had a change of heart.
"Faith brought me to USC," he said. "I prayed to God to take me where He wanted me to be. I told Him to drag me there. And that's exactly what he did. I called up Coach Nansen who was recruiting me at the time and told him that I didn't need a trip, and I'd just sign the papers. He was like, 'No, you need to come out to LA.' Literally, the Lord dragged me here."
So Coach Nansen set up a flight for Malepeai to come to Los Angeles that same day.
"My parents were out shopping, and they left their phones in the car," he said. "I was trying to call them because I had a change of heart, and to let them know that I had a flight to catch in an hour. They never answered! I had family that lived next door, and I walked to my Auntie's house and asked her to take me to the airport. She was like 'Why?' and I told her 'I'm going to USC!' She had my uncle drive me to the airport. Meanwhile, I was still trying to call my mom and she wasn't answering. I ended up on a flight to Los Angeles out of nowhere and I committed to USC days before Signing Day"
So Malepeai flew across the Pacific Ocean alone to visit his future home in Los Angeles. A last minute decision that was completely based on faith.
"I credit God for bringing me to USC," he said. "Everything fell perfectly into place in a decision that happened so last minute."
Malepeai's faith is the foundation of who he is.
"My faith stems from my family. I grew up in the church. They stressed the importance of putting God first before anything else in our lives. It's a good foundation. It's nice having so many teammates who have similar values and keep me on the right path. [Sophomore running back] Stephen Carr did this when he told me that he takes prayer walks. I was like 'What's that?' and he said 'You're just walking but you're talking to God too.' So when I'm by myself walking home, I'll be talking to God and it's my prayer walk."
Faith has given Malepeai and his family strength in other ways as well. His younger brother Loa is severely autistic and needs 24-hour care.
"Loa has our house active 24-7. He won't go to sleep until 2am and wakes up at 4am. My parents are really understanding people. They have to be because of Loa; you have to be really patient with him. It's always hard for my mom to make the games out here because if she comes out to California, he still needs to be taken care of. I can't picture my life without him though."
Even if she can't attend his games, Malepeai always talks to his mother before he plays.
"I call my mom every time I get to the field before the game. We Facetime from the field. Before every game, she always tells me to talk to God. I'll be on the sideline saying a quick prayer. I'll be talking to Him like he's right next to me having a conversation like 'Thank you for keeping me safe' and stuff like that. God is right there. My mom has told my brothers and I this since we were little and playing sports."
With the mantra of "Faith, Family, Football" being the centerpiece of Coach Helton's philosophy, Malepeai has always felt very much at home.
"That was one of the biggest things that caught my attention when I chose to come here was Coach Helton," he said. "He is strong in his faith and he made it clear that we will pray before every game. He values that same thing I value and that's putting God first before anything."
The name Vavae means "to separate from the rest." And that's exactly what he's doing. This season the redshirt sophomore has rushed for six touchdowns and is USC's leading scorer. He's rushed for 154 yards on 29 attempts (5.3 avg.) this season.
"It's a blessing. I pray to God to continue to pour His blessings on me and keep me safe. He says in Philippians 4:13, 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.' I really pray on that. I set goals and I know that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. God wouldn't bring you a situation if He couldn't get you through it.
"I'm glad that I'm healthy and that the other running backs are healthy. We have to maintain focus and stay driven and keep getting better than we were yesterday. Coach Helton brings the mindset that you have to be able to compete everyday. I treat every day like its game day. I take every rep like it's a game. It all starts in practice.
Malepeai hopes to continue to help the Trojans "separate from the rest" of the Pac-12 teams this season and win the conference title.
"Any time I get an opportunity to make something happen, I want to whatever I can to make the team better. I want to be the best player I can for this team."