The hunger is always there for Alaka‘i Yuen.
As a 10-year-old, he spent many of his days riding TheBus from one part of Oahu to the other. His love for football was the fuel. His father, Christopher Yuen, remembers it well.
“While I’m working, as soon as school was done, he caught the bus from Redemption Academy on Kamakee Street (in Kakaako) to Kailua for practice with the Windward Tigers. Then he walked to Castle hospital, caught the bus back to town, then transferred to the Makakilo bus, then walked another mile-and-a-half up the hill to get home on the days I couldn’t pick him up,” Yuen said. “He developed that relentless mindset at that age. Football meant the world to him. It wasn’t every day, but at least a couple times a week, carrying his helmet, pads, backpack. That’s how it went.”
The hard way turned out to be the right way for Alaka‘i Yuen.
The former Moanalua standout quarterback committed to Fresno State last week, adding a new chapter to what has been nothing short of an odyssey through a post-high school landscape. At 6 feet, 4 inches and 205 pounds, Yuen had been committed to Tarleton State, an FCS program in Texas, and also had offers from Missouri State and Northern Iowa before Fresno State made a late, successful run.
“Alaka‘i is a great example of perseverance, chasing your dream and having the right mindset,” former Moanalua coach Arnold Martinez said. “The JC road is a grind. There have been some great success stories like (former Moanalua receiver) Jason Sharsh, who became a big-time contributor for UH. But the JC grind will chew players up. Many of them just aren’t built for it. For Alaka‘i, we’re super proud of him.”
Yuen, who recently turned 22, has three years of eligibility left with the Bulldogs. He had multiple opportunities to call it quits, but each bump on the road turned into a positive for his future. He still has the speed and agility that made him a playmaker as a 6-2, 170-pound high school senior in 2016.
“I’m glad that I went through everything I did, even sitting out the two years and sitting out this year (2020-21). It sucks at first, but I always found the positive out of it. What can I do during this time to get better? So I was lifting, running, making sure that my diet was good, gaining weight,” he said.
His passing coach, Keli‘i Tilton, sees a high ceiling.
“He’s 6-4 and athletic. This kid can run, he’s very shifty, a quick step. He fits all the tangibles that are needed for today’s game. It’s athletic quarterbacks being back there,” Tilton said. “He has always put forth the work.”
As a senior at Moanalua in the fall of 2016. Yuen passed for 2,391 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior, rushing for four more scores. His ability to get the ball out quickly against athletic OIA Division I defenses was key to Moanalua’s success. Na Menehune reached the state tournament, losing to ‘Iolani 17-14.
The team was a modest 5-7 overall that year, often outsized, yet scrappy as any program. Yuen’s junior year was also impressive as he racked up 2,409 passing yards and 27 TDs through the air in a schedule that featured Waianae, Farrington, Kapolei, Campbell and Mililani — prior to the start of the Open Division format.
“That’s what I love about Moanalua. We always came to play, whether it was Farrington, Waianae, Kahuku. There were times we were up. Against Farrington, I got hurt and they scored that last touchdown. We went to OT against Waianae (in 2015),” Yuen said.
A stellar performance in the Polynesian Bowl opened eyes, but a rough senior year in the classroom limited his choices. As a non-qualifier, Yuen’s first year without football since elementary school was spent on construction sites. It’s the tipping point where some players call it a career.
“That year was a good growing year for him,” Christopher Yuen said. “He got that hunger back. Got a little more disciplined. He’s watching people in his class or close to it like Kekaula (Kaniho) and Tua (Tagovailoa). They’re friends and he’s watching. Christian Mejia and all those guys.”
He got the itch to play again in 2018 and enrolled at Garden City Community College (Kan.), one of the premier junior college football programs in the nation.
An injury to his meniscus stalled progress. Rather than accept a grayshirt, Yuen transferred to Ventura Community College (Calif.) in August of ’18.
“Ventura hit me up. They followed me on Twitter. I followed them up and did some research on the school. They throw the ball a lot and do a lot of running. More RPO, a lot of spread, a lot of tight end,” he said. “I got there so late and I didn’t play. I redshirted and was taking some classes. I wasn’t full-time, though,” he said.
The difference in California was huge. At Garden City CC, players have scholarships and housing. At Ventura, no such thing.
“In California, you have to pay for everything. No dorms. You pay for rent, utilities, WiFi, so I was working at the Canyon Club, doing security,” Yuen recalled. “My dad was helping me out with some bills.”
In spring of ’19, Yuen showed up and competed every day.
“In week three, I got the starting job,” said Yuen, who had a 3.3 grade-point average at Ventura.
“Grades, talk about a turnaround. He drove us crazy senior year, but in JC, sometimes they grow up,” Christopher Yuen said. “He made a lot of changes.”
Yuen was preparing for his second year in JUCO when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down in the spring of ’20.
“I was supposed to go back, but we didn’t have a season. I graduated,” he said.
Prior to the first lockdown, Tarleton State offered Yuen a scholarship.
“I took a visit there and I got offered. A couple weeks after that, I got offered by Missouri State,” he said.
In May of ’21, Northern Iowa made an offer.
“My coach (Steve Mooshagian of Ventura CC) just got me out there. Schools contacted him, watched my film and offered.
It was just one week after UNI’s offer that Fresno State set its sights on Yuen. It didn’t hurt that Mooshagian played at Fresno State, but the Bulldogs weren’t alone in the late hunt. San Diego State, UTEP, Montana and Northern Arizona had also picked up the scent.
“(Fresno State) offered me. I was still on Tarleton. I was going to leave and go to Tarleton (on June 20). I decided to cancel my trip that morning,” Yuen said. “Then the next day, that’s when I committed to Fresno State.”
The logic is simple. Choosing a Mountain West Conference school that has produced pro quarterbacks makes sense. Tarleton State jumped up to Division I — and the Western Athletic Conference — only one year ago. That didn’t mean it was an easy process. In the end, the decision came down to a dream.
“I really want to play in the NFL, so I think this gives me a better chance to get there, to reach my goal,” Yuen said. “I think they’ll shape me into a better man. I’ll grow in every aspect of life.”
Though Yuen is technically a sophomore, Tilton senses a clock ticking and ticking.
“When he was making his decision, I questioned it. I know Fresno is in a better conference, but where are you going to make a difference now,” said Tilton, who works out with Yuen on a near-daily basis. “Or is it a step back, waiting your turn and step in after another year? You’re not getting any younger. Your time has to be now. So I guess they told him he’ll have a chance to compete as the starter.”
Yuen doesn’t disagree, but the possibility of being a 25-year-old college quarterback doesn’t faze him.
“I do kind of feel old, but this is something I wanted to do. I didn’t want to play football after high school, but one day I decided I want to play. I said, God, show me what your plan is for me. I fell in love with football again. My dad invested so much time in me,” Yuen said.
Tilton has studied Fresno’s offensive scheme.
“They do some RPO, some slide-step drops. We’ve definitely been working on Alaka‘i’s quick twitch, shortened up his release. He’s probably throwing the ball the best he’s ever thrown it. He’s getting ready to play D-I ball now, so everything has to be quicker and more precise,” he said. “To me, he’s a starter. His growth in the game, what he’s been learning over the years, matured a lot more than ever. It’s a matter of getting game situations. He was sharing time at Ventura even through he was breaking records.”
Yuen is apparently willing to be patient. Again.
“I never thought I’d be at Fresno. I thought I’d be at an FCS or Division II (school). It’s crazy. I can’t even tell you how I feel. And playing Hawaii, that’s going to be fun, playing at my home, the love and support that’s there,” he said.
When Yuen talks about the future, the optimism and experience of his unique journey shine through. He has a similar vibe as one of his favorite athletes, Max “Blessed” Hollaway.
“A lot of people are shocked. I’ve really improved since high school. I’ve been perfecting my craft in this whole COVID season,” he added.
He is a sponge on the field, learning more, fine-tuning his mechanics with Tilton, one of the state’s top go-to, QB gurus.
“I didn’t have a quarterback coach at Moanalua, and our running backs coach, Nate Ilaoa, taught me a lot. He’s probably the one who taught me the most then. Everything he taught me in high school is exactly what I’m learning now. I also learn a lot from Coach Keli‘i. He helps me with my reads and throwing mechanics,” Yuen said.
Being on his own, Yuen learned to pare down his food choices. He has his cheat days and cheat snacks, but he is largely in control and hopes to get to 210 or 215 pounds soon.
“I still drink soda and juice sometimes, don’t get me wrong. In 2019, I was like 185 pounds, taking protein shakes and lifting. You get older, you think bigger. There’s things you have to cut out for your own,” he said. “I pound brown rice, chicken breasts and veggies. Skinless chicken. I just like it better. I do the cooking myself because I was living by myself. I knew how to cook Spam and rice, so I had to learn how to add some spices and cook myself breakfast, lunch and dinner. In JUCO, there’s no meal plans.”
Now, it’s a fresh start.
“I told him because you don’t know if you’re the man there, your work ethic is going to have to continue to be the force,” Tilton said. “Whoever’s returning is going to get that first look, so you have to bring that work ethic every day so your coaches see this. You have to go in there thinking you’re going to be the guy. If you go in thinking you’re taking a back seat, you’re going to perform that way. His time is ticking.”
Yuen knows there are plenty of former high school standouts who wonder about their dreams. He’s one of the few who took the hard path and thrived.
“I’m going to start making some noise on that level,” Yuen said. “A lot of people thought I wasn’t playing. ‘Ho, brah, you’re still playing? You’re committed to Fresno State?’ It kind of shocks me,” Yuen said. “I didn’t think I was going to play again either.”
Alaka‘i Yuen’s Lockdown Staples
Top 3 movies/shows
1. “All-American” (Amazon Prime/CW)
“This is the third season. I’m on episode 15 or 16.”
2. “Godzilla vs. King Kong” (HBO Max)
3. “Mortal Kombat”
“That movie is crazy.”
Top 3 food/snack/drink
“Dad’s spaghetti or Auntie Rachel (Yuen)’s spaghetti. Auntie puts in cream cheese and brown sugar. She puts in Portuguese sausage. I don’t know why, but I like spaghetti more the day after.”
2. Rockstar energy drink (orange creme)
“I drink that once a day. There’s definitely caffeine, there’s a lot.”
3. Oreo cookies (double stuffed)
“I throw it in the freezer, let that sit overnight, and the next day I can almost pound the whole thing in one day. I eat it like cereal. Put in a bowl, pour in the milk.”
Top 3 music artists
1. Fiji – “Jowenna”
“My uncle Fiji. I love all his songs.”
2. J Boog – “Coldest Zone”
3. Bitty Mclean – “Let’s Just Fall In Love”
New life skill: None.
“I didn’t learn anything besides work out, go to school and play War Zone: Call of Duty.”
“Shout out to my quarterback coach, Coach Kelii, for everything. My dad, of course, my family. My girlfriend (Kayla Russell). She played softball for Kaiser. My coaches at Ventura. Coach Jason Cauley and Coach Martinez. They’ve always been in contact with me. Coach Martinez and coach Rich Miano have been helping me, sending video out (to college coaches). And absolutely, shout out to God. I definitely wouldn’t be here without him.”