Skip to main content

Island survivor

Jonathan Fanene

Before Chris Henry died late last season, he and Jon Fanene talked about it. How they were the only guys left from the Bengals class of 2005.

Now since that grim day in New Orleans when the team said goodbye to Henry, it has taken on even more significance for Fanene and shows how this high stakes dice game disguised as the NFL Draft tumbles and spins and flips across a narrow velvet strip of fate.

"We had talent in that class. For some reason, I'm still here," Fanene wondered recently. "It's a blessing. I always pray to God, 'Thank you for putting me with the Bengals.' The last pick still survives. I thank them for believing in me."

How do you believe that the 233rd pick of the 2005 draft that wasn't invited to the NFL scouting combine is still playing here and getting better, coming off his best season in his fifth year with a career-high 10 starts and six sacks?

How do you believe that when the 83rd pick (Henry) has been gone four months? And the 17th pick (David Pollack) hasn't played after his career ended in his 16th game with a broken neck? And the 48th pick (Odell Thurman) played just 17 before drugs sentenced him to obscurity and then the UFL? And the 153rd pick (Adam Kieft) never took a snap because he tore up his knee the first week of his pro career in pads? And the 190th pick (Tab Perry) played just 20 games when a dislocated hip derailed his career?

Just like you believe that Fanene's bottomless work ethic could bring him from the house by the stream that is a couple of football fields beyond a dirt road, where he lived with his parents and 12 siblings in the Samoan village of Nu'uuli.

And where he didn't hear about the NFL Draft until he was a sophomore in high school. He didn't fathom it all until his junior season at the University of Utah when his friend and linemate, Lauvale Sape, went to the Bills in the sixth round. Even until Draft Day, Fanene thought he would be a free agent or not play football again. He didn't know what the Wonderlic test was until it was thrown at him the week of an all-star game in Las Vegas.

"We know football and we know how to play football in Samoa," Fanene said. "But we don't know the inside."

The only member of that '05 class still in the league is center Eric Ghiaciuc.

"He signed with Cleveland last week," Fanene said. "Good for him."

How about good for Fanene?

Here's a guy who came off the bench last year to replace NFL sack leader Antwan Odom at right end in the last 10 games after starting five in his previous four seasons. Here's a guy that responded with not only six sacks but 49 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown. He has played in all 32 games the past two seasons for a very good defense that rose from 12th to fourth last year.

"He's become more than a backup," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "He's started (14 games) the last two years, been productive and has been a very solid guy on the field and in the locker room."

Fanene's draft story may be just coming to fruition, but it comes from the last century and a few decades ago. This is the way the draft used to be. Maybe the way they should be still.

"He didn't have an agent. He didn't go to the combine. He didn't go someplace to work out after the season," recalls Bill Busch, the former Utah safeties coach who found Fanene when the Fanenes' neighbors directed him to a path off the gravel road. "He lifted some weights. He hung out with his friends. Then he got a phone call from Cincinnati saying he was drafted."

Fanene's arrival took a little more work than that, but you get the idea.

Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel who scouts the west region, began it all back in early November 2004 when he wrote a very positive report on Fanene after his school visit to Salt Lake City charted a Utes team that would finish 12-0 and set the BCS on its ear.

Tobin liked Fanene's athletic ability and strength and thought he could give the Bengals some versatility along the defensive line as a tackle that could also slide outside and rush from the edge. Tobin thought Fanene to be a younger and more athletic version of a veteran the Bengals already had and respected in Carl Powell. There was no question. Fanene was a guy worthy of more scrutiny as the draft drew closer. 

Fanene was the kind of guy that could have fallen through the cracks. He came straight from the Samoan culture and a foreign dialect to junior college at College of the Canyons in California and he ended up not going to the other school that recruited him in Salt Lake (BYU). And he didn't play very much as a junior, when he had just six tackles.

"I doubted myself," Fanene said. "When I got to Utah, I doubted myself very much. There were guys there already starting. Big guys with speed. They had the mentality. The way they worked, they were trying to get to the next level. So when I got there I felt like I had to work harder than them."

Watching Sape get drafted hooked Fanene on two goals: Getting his degree and getting drafted. Both would happen, but not until the scouting process clicked at its finest. And Fanene gave every fiber of his body, which became a harbinger of his pro career.

"Urban Meyer was my head coach," Fanene said, "and he told me that I already had the desire and the talent and that I just had to go out and do it. He believed in me."

Meyer believed in him even before he met him because he believed in Busch. Now the defensive coordinator at Utah State, Busch became known as Utah's pipeline to the rich Samoan fields of football talent. While on one of his recruiting trips for Meyer in 2002, Busch got wind that Fanene hadn't finished his academic program at the Canyons, which would void his agreement with BYU.

After getting directions to Fanene's home, Busch found himself off the beaten path and into the woods by a stream. His first look at Fanene was memorable but also given what Busch learned about his relentless approach, it was fitting. Fanene was working, wearing work boots and a native robe while holding a weedeater.

"I'm thinking, 'Holy cats, this guy is chiseled,' " Busch said. "I got on the phone and I told Coach Meyer that he had to get on the plane and get out there. I know it was a 10-hour flight, but I told him, 'I found a physical freak.' He flew out. Jon didn't really know what he was going to do. He thought about staying on the island and finding a job and not playing anymore. I told him, 'Let's sit down and talk and see if we can put together a plan.' "

Once Tobin saw Fanene that November, the Bengals had a plan even though Fanene didn't get invited to the combine. It didn't matter. They saw him play in the Vegas all-star game in January and it confirmed the initial findings. It was recommended that the coaches work him out at Utah's pro day and that's how Hayes found himself in Salt Lake City in the spring of '05.

"I think it was just Jon, if not, maybe there was another lineman," Hayes said. "He probably didn't get invited to the combine because there wasn't that much information about him. He was from Samoa, he went to a junior college, he didn't play much as a junior and it was the first time Utah had a season like that. In hindsight, yeah, he should have been invited, but at the time…"

Hayes liked him. He did drills to see if Fanene could flip his hips and rotate them through and that was no problem for a high school quarterback and tight end. Hayes saw on tape his 76-yard interception return from that season, which would foreshadow last year's 45-yard pick for a touchdown off Michael Johnson's tipped ball against Detroit.

Apparently Fanene didn't have an overpowering Wonderlic, not surprising since he came from a different culture and didn't get a chance to prepare for it since he didn't even know what it was until he put his name on it. But that was no problem for Hayes, who found him to be quite knowledgeable about football and able to communicate.

"I think that was a concern initially, but Jon knows football and he had been over here since he was a college freshman," Hayes said. "I had known Samoan players, but none really off the island. But Jon seemed to be pretty well adapted."

There was one last step in the process, one that the Bengals and all NFL teams do every April and one the Bengals did earlier this week.

They brought Fanene to Paul Brown Stadium in one of the three tiers of visits. They are allowed to bring in up to 30 prospects, and that year they brought in Thurman and Henry among the group because they had such severe character questions. They can also bring in 30 local players that either played at the University of Cincinnati or went to high school in the area. And, non-combine players like Fanene because they need to get a physical if they're going to draft or sign someone.

They found Fanene to be healthy and in their day with him the Bengals staff noted that he wouldn't have trouble learning the defense or the pro game, which had backed up the scouting reports and on-field observations that he was a well-coached player and possessed solid fundamentals.

"I remember meeting Coach (Marvin) Lewis on my visit and he told me they were impressed with me and maybe I would be back," Fanene said, "And I remember thinking, 'Wow. The Bengals. This may be it.' "

Of course, Fanene wasn't quite sure what to think. Cincinnati was just one of his 15 visits. But he felt good because he was leaning on his parents and his college coaches. His parents knew nothing about the draft except that it meant a job in the NFL and whatever questions they asked, he could run it past Busch, Meyer and defensive line coach Gary Anderson.

Busch thought the Bengals would be a great fit as the process whirred. As fate would have it, he and Hayes have been the best of friends since they worked together at Wisconsin. When Busch was once between jobs, he remembers that Hayes was the only guy that called him every week to check on him.

"Jay's a great guy. He really cares about people and that's the thing about Jonathan," Busch said. "If he trusts you and he knows you, he'll go all out for you no questions asked. If he had a guy screaming and getting in his face, I'm not sure Jonathan would respond to that."

When Fanene went back to Los Angeles to watch the draft with friends, he still thought he would end up a free agent. Until late in the first day when another linemate, Sione Pouha, went to the Jets in the third round, five picks after the Bengals took Henry.

"When I saw him go, I began to think it could happen," Fanene said. "When they said the draft was over for the night and they would start again in the morning, I had to do something. I went to play basketball with my friends."

When he woke at 9 the next morning, the draft was already going and the calls were starting to come. The Raiders called around the fifth round and told him to get ready; they were going to take him. San Diego and Seattle called in the sixth round, but nobody took him. Hopes were up, but Fanene's name was not.

At the top of the sixth round, the Raiders took a defensive tackle from Wisconsin, Anttaj Hawthorne. According to that charts anybody that played an NFL game, Hawthorne played in 18 games and hasn't played since 2006. In the sixth round, the Chargers took Oklahoma guard Wes Sims. According to the Web site, he played only two games as a rookie. Seattle took Iowa running back Tony Jackson, a name not listed.

"In the seventh round, Jacksonville called and then I got a call from a 513 number. I had no idea where that area code was," Fanene said.

The Jags were picking 237, four slots behind Cincinnati. With Fanene gone Jacksonville went with Michigan defensive back Chris Roberson. Seven games played in 2005 and 2008.

The Bengals, too, had talked about Fanene in the last couple of rounds, but they hadn't called until then. By the 233rd pick, he was clearly the best player on their board. And Hayes had been on the horn to Busch.

"I remember I was on the treadmill in my basement watching the draft and Jay called," Busch said. "He asked me who I would take between Jonathan and another guy. I told him there was no question. Jonathan was going to play."

Later, Hayes made another call. 

"Someone said, 'Mr. Fanene, this is the Cincinnati Bengals. We're going to draft you. Turn around and watch,' " Fanene said.

Fanene thinks it was Hayes on the phone. Hey, who can remember? It was five years ago and as Hayes says when asked about his recall of that day, "I feel a little like Oliver North."

But Fanene remembers exactly the way he felt when he saw his name come across the screen.

"I've never felt that way in my life," he said. "My heart was beating wildly. I told them, 'I'm so excited. I can't wait to get there,' and then I had to go outside and catch my breath because it was like I couldn't breathe."

Yet Hayes didn't call Fanene into a game until more than six months later, Dec. 4, 2005 in Pittsburgh when the Bengals took control of the AFC North. On his first NFL snap, well, let Hayes tell it.

"I'm watching him like a hawk and he doesn't get the call," Hayes said. "It's typical Jon. It doesn't stop him. He just keeps going. He knocks over two offensive linemen and gets a tackle for a loss (on running back Willie Parker). That's the point. It doesn't matter what happens, he's going to go all out all the time."

Then on the next snap Fanene chased Ben Roethlisberger out of bounds and dragged him down on a play that reinjured the quarterback's throwing thumb. Later Roethlisberger babied an interception to Thurman that set up the Bengals' insurance score with just under seven minutes left.

Since then, Fanene has always seemed to find a way to contribute.

Just think about that day.

Thurman had the big pick. Pollack sacked Roethlisberger on the last series. Henry had a huge third-down conversion in the winning drive. Perry tilted the game with 197 yards on kick returns.

It looked like the class would be the class for a long time to come.

But the only guy on the field making big plays four Decembers later for a division title was the seventh-rounder and that play against Detroit, four years and two days later.   

A long time in NFL years. That phone call began a tight relationship with Hayes, who admits "we've been through a lot. He's my guy. We've been together now six years and that's more than you're with anyone in college."

Fanene has been through what any young person goes through in those five years. A marriage. A baby son. Settling down, for him in Northern Kentucky. Along with his parents, he has built a new home in Samoa no longer in the woods by the stream. He is told it is one of the nicer homes ever seen in Samoa.

"I'm blessed," he said, and Hayes believes it is well earned.

"He'll stay after meetings and work with me and get it right," he said. "Whatever has to be done."

In the last couple of years, Fanene has emerged as a team leader. He was particularly instrumental in Henry's return to the team, taking him under his wing and setting up play dates with the two families. One of the most memorable moments of the '09 season is after a home game Fanene carrying Henry's look-alike two-year-old son into the locker room and presenting him to his father.

Fanene admits it all seems so long ago now that he is the only one left.

"I'm grateful to the owners and the coaches," he said. "But I'm not satisfied."

Maybe those old-fashioned drafts weren't so bad after all.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content