With the exception of a Panda Express near the campus of Pima Community College, there isn’t much that reminds Leonard Lee of home in Arizona.
But he’s on the mainland for a reason, and that’s to play college football. And the first two years of that will be for Pima, where he and a handful of other Hawaii products will ply their trades and hope to move up to a four-year college.
For Lee, who graduated from Kapolei just a few months ago, life away from home has been something he’s had to live and learn from.
“I was shell-shocked at first, I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “When you come here, everything is different from the people, to the weather, to the scenery. It’s been a big adjustment.
“Whether it’s D-I, D-II or JUCO, college is bigger, faster, stronger. Everybody’s trying to get somewhere, everybody’s trying to prove themselves. It brings you up. It’s competitive.”
Similar to his days at Kapolei, which included a senior season with 11 interceptions and a spot on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State first team, Lee is competing at safety for the Aztecs.
Challen Faamatau is another Pima freshman who was on the All-State team after rushing for more than 1,200 yards during his senior season at Farrington. However, he’ll be making the switch from running back to outside linebacker. He made the move after discussing it with his parents and coaches.
The transition was a smooth one for Faamatau, who was a linebacker in middle school and made the switch to running back as a freshman at Farrington. At Pima, he’s already a starter.
“It’s really competitive out here in the mainland. You got guys from different areas coming out here trying to fight for the job,” Faamatau said. “For a person like me, I love to compete. Anywhere you go, you’re going to have to compete no matter what. Nothing is handed to you, you gotta work for it.”
Faamatau added that being a running back in high school will help him think like one on the defensive side of the ball. He also says that switching positions hasn’t warranted any changes to his body type. If he gets an opportunity to play at a four-year school, it will be at the outside linebacker spot as well.
Both ended up at Pima because each decided that it was their best option.
Faamatau looked at Division II and III schools as well as other junior colleges before deciding that Pima was his best route to get to his ultimate goal — Division I.
Lee received a walk-on offer from Hawaii after the Polynesian Bowl, but Pima called a couple of weeks later and offered to pay for his housing and tuition. Faamatau received the same deal as well. However, they do have to pay for their own food, and that part has been a “struggle,” according to Lee. At the same time, Lee also says that Pima head coach Jim Monaco “does all he can to help feed us.”
Lee moved into his apartment in late June to do therapy after shoulder surgery. It was an injury he suffered during the first game of his junior season and he played his senior season with it. Nevertheless, he says he’ll be good to go for the season.
Moving away and battling homesickness was only half the battle. Pima’s fall camp schedule had the Aztecs busy all day, with 5 a.m. workouts followed by meetings that go into the early afternoon. The players would have an hour to two to rest before more meetings, practice and film had the players coming back home after 8 p.m.
It took Faamatau some time to adjust to the grind, but he hopes to see the payoff soon.
“I know when people go to college they talk about partying and all that but I’m just gonna stay in my apartment, study and do what I gotta do to take care of school because if I don’t do that, then I can’t play,” he said. “At the same time, I gotta train, get my body right, eat right and just stay in shape and study film.”
Pima is developing quite the Hawaii pipeline. Mililani alums Jordan Agasiva and Andru Tovi were on last year’s team and went on to sign with Utah and Kansas, respectively.
This year’s Aztecs squad features Iosefo Ah Ching Noga from Farrington, Supilani Mailei from St. Francis, Micah Atuatasi from Waianae, and Ronson Young and Michael Tanuvasa from Saint Louis.
“Coming in with the rest of the Hawaii boys, it’s a great opportunity for all of us to motivate each other,” Faamatau said. “We’re from the rock, just a little island. It doesn’t mean that we can’t compete with other guys from the mainland.”
“They talk the same as you, they do the same things as you and eat the same things as you. It makes it feel like home a little bit more,” Lee added.
The Aztecs certainly won’t be lacking in competition this year. On Wednesday, the team will hop on a bus to face NJCAA No. 4 Trinity Valley to open the season in Texas on Saturday. Their schedule also includes two games against No. 1 Arizona Western as well as matchups with No. 10 Mesa, No. 19 Eastern Arizona and No. 20 Snow College.
Like Faamatau, Lee also wants to get to a D-I school. But that’s not his only objective on the gridiron.
“Honestly, every time I play football, I play to have fun. I never guessed that I would have 11 interceptions, I try not to set goals like that,” Lee said. “My goal is to just have more fun than I did than last season, or the last week.
“It was tough not getting any looks or any interest from schools but it puts a chip on your shoulder and some motivation in you, just being doubted. Sometimes I do get caught up in it but I try to just have fun with the game and just try to do what I can do.”