Mosese Fifita didn’t even know the Air Force Academy existed before being contacted by the school’s football coaches during his senior year at Glacier Peak High School.
Now he’s not only on the brink of being a key figure for the Falcons in a college football bowl game, he’s also ready and willing to serve his country.
The senior all-conference nose guard is about to play in his final collegiate football game when Air Force faces Washington State in the Cheez-It Bowl on Dec. 27 in Phoenix. But Fifita’s story is just beginning as he prepares to embark on his career in the armed forces — or even get his shot at professional football.
Fifita became a force on the field during his senior season. The 6-foot-1, 330-pounder has started all 12 games for the Falcons, ranking seventh on the team with 45 tackles and leading the squad in sacks with five. He was named first-team All-Mountain West Conference, the only Air Force defensive player to earn that distinction.
It was a significant step up from the previous two seasons, when he had 20 tackles and one sack as a sophomore and 25 tackles and a sack as a junior.
”I’m happy I can help my team win,” Fifita said via cell phone from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the Air Force Academy is located.
“I think I’ve grown a lot from last season, not just on the football field but as a teammate and a leader,” Fifita added. “Sometimes leadership takes a lot of courage, it can be difficult to be the one who has to step up. You have to get used to that uncomfortable feeling.”
With Fifita helping lead the way, the Falcons have had a banner season. Air Force completed the regular season 10-2, one game behind conference champion Boise State in the MWC’s Mountain Division, and the Falcons haven’t lost since Oct. 5.
That’s a far cry from the previous two seasons, when Air Force finished 5-7. The Falcons were 10-3 when Fifita was a freshman in 2016, including a 45-21 victory over South Alabama in the Arizona Bowl. However, Fifita did not appear in a game that year and did not travel with the team to the bowl game, so this will be his first bowl experience.
“I don’t know that there’s been a defining moment this year, but last year coming off a 5-7 season it started in November after our last game,” Fifita said. “We showed up Monday after the last game ready to work, knowing that something had to change. That would be my defining moment, the way we worked in the offseason.”
This is a long way from where Fifita found himself as a high school senior. Fifita was a star athlete at Glacier Peak, being named The Herald’s 2014-15 Boys High School Athlete of the Year after terrorizing opposing Wesco offenses on the football field and winning a 285-pound state championship on the wrestling mat.
And the Air Force Academy? Not even a blip on the radar when the school year began.
“I’d never even heard of the Air Force Academy before,” Fifita said. “But once I visited I learned it would be a great opportunity to get my education, play football and serve my country.”
At the Academy Fifita and the other cadets who play football have a difficult balancing act. A typical day for Fifita consists of waking up at 6 a.m. and spending the entire morning in class or participating in military formations. Then from 1-7 p.m. it’s all football, all the time.
“I think it’s really just about time management and being disciplined with your academics,” Fifita said. “You have to separate your day, you have to be able to compartmentalize your football from your school and military obligations. You tackle each challenge at a time, one after the other.”
Part of Fifita’s cadet responsibilities include a specific assignment within his squadron, and that job changes from semester to semester. This semester he’s serving as his squadron’s security and safety officer. Taking on these kinds of responsibilities has been a good learning experience for Fifita.
“The things I’ve learned most are leadership, teamwork and discipline,” Fifita said. “It’s just being able to work on a team, work with others and be a good wingman.
“I think those things translate a lot (to football),” Fifita added. “Football is a team. The Air Force is a team. The military is a team. You have to learn how to work with people, how to lead and how to follow, it all goes hand-in-hand.”
Playing Washington State in the Cheez-It Bowl means Fifita is playing against his younger brother Ma’ake’s team. Ma’ake is an offensive lineman who’s redshirting in his first season with the Cougars, so there will be no on-field confrontation between the brothers. But it was still a happy coincidence.
“I was in a study session for a final when I got the notification on my phone, then my mom texted me,” said Fifita, who added that there hasn’t really been any back-and-forth banter between the brothers. “I was excited to see whoever we were going to play against, but it’s cool that we’re playing against my brother’s team.”
And once Fifita’s college football career is over? He doesn’t know yet. The cadets won’t receive their post-graduate assignments until January. At 330 pounds, it’s safe to say Fifita won’t be cramming himself into the cockpit of a fighter jet. But he will find himself assigned to other duties, such as acquisitions, cyber or intelligence.
“I don’t have a preference,” Fifita said about his assignment. “Any job they give me, I’ll be happy to serve.”
Academy graduates incur a five-year commitment to the service, but that could be deferred if a professional football opportunity presents itself. Fifita isn’t someone who’s been listed high on NFL draft boards. But one has to think a 330-pound all-conference performer would at least be worth a look. And if he gets a look, Fifita will pursue it.
“I love football, so I’ll play as long as I can play,” Fifita said.
If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.