Want to get Fife High School football coach Kent Nevin gushing?
Ask him about his senior quarterback and safety.
Nevin is in his 15th season coaching the Trojans. But when asked about Falani Jennings, he thought back to his time as a middle school coach, when he had an eventual NFL All-Pro fullback on his team.
“He’s one of the best character kids I’ve ever been around in my 26 years of coaching,” Nevin said. “He reminds me a lot of Mike Karney in his character. He’s such a great leader.
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“He’s that kid I would adopt. I would legally adopt him if I could. That’s how much I love that kid.”
But Jennings said this is what he’s needed to be.
On the football field, he’s a team captain of undefeated and fifth-ranked Fife (7-0), which has already clinched the 2A South Puget Sound League’s Mountain division title. And at home, he’s the oldest of three. His mother, Becca, has been out of work because nine years ago one of her kidneys failed.
She receives dialysis treatment three times a week. She said she occasionally has seizures and is hoping to be cleared to receive a kidney transplant.
“We are struggling, but in everything we have we give thanks to God every day,” Becca said. “I just thank God I’m still here.
“I told Falani that whatever you have, you might not be rich like some kids, but give thanks for everything. You are a leader to all your teammates. Appreciate everything you have right now.”
Jennings’ younger sister, Veronica, is a sophomore who takes special needs classes at Fife and his younger brother, Sione, is a seventh-grader with diabetes. Sione also plays football and Becca said it’s because he tries to emulate his older brother, the famous Fife quarterback.
“I think the adversity he’s faced, he doesn’t dwell on anything,” Nevin said. “He just overcomes things. And I think that goes back to his family. They are so tight-knit, and he’s a kid who is just so great. Always considerate of other people. He will always come up to you and just tell you what’s going on.”
But you won’t hear Jennings complain. He said his upbringing has shaped him into the person he is today.
“It’s all from my mom,” Jennings said. “And all she’s done for me when I was young and for my siblings, too. She used to work day and night until she got sick.”
Some of his teammates said Jennings has a maturity that’s older than his age.
“That’s what a lot of people tell me,” Jennings said. “But I’m this way because of how my mom raised me. She always said that I have to be an example to my siblings. They look up to me, so I have to act in a certain way for them and I try to.”
Jennings was born in Samoa – the South Pacific country he’d love to revisit, he said — and his family moved to California when he was a baby before landing in Fife.
Since then, he’s just about lived and breathed Fife. Falani — who sometimes goes by Francis, the English translation of his name —might be the community’s most staunch supporter. You’ll see him at almost every volleyball or soccer match and last year he was his class president.
MJ Ale was born in Samoa, too, before he moved to Australia and then to Fife two years ago. He’s now committed to the University of Washington as a 6-foot-7, 335-pound lineman, but he succinctly remembers meeting the outgoing Jennings for the first time. He was taking a tour of the school when Jennings spotted him and jumped in.
“He was showing me around the school and I just knew then that he’s someone I really wanted to be around,” Ale said. “He was one of my first friends here.”
They both play rugby, too. Jennings, along with teammate Tomasi Puletu, Kentlake’s Marques Fuala’au, Auburn’s Hope Tuamoheloa and Puyallup’s Jonah Auvaa, play on the Rainier Highlanders team in the spring. That rugby background is why Nevin said Jennings is Fife’s best tackler.
Jennings said he wants to play rugby and football in college. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder would probably be a better wing back in Fife’s wing-T offense than a quarterback, but the Trojans had a need under center, and Jennings, without hesitation, stepped in.
He’s thrown just one interception in two years as Fife’s starting quarterback (none this year). But Jennings’ real threat is his legs.
“They’ve had some quarterbacks before who have been capable of throwing the ball, but they haven’t had that dimension of running the ball,” Washington coach Mike Von Rueden said. “I don’t ever see him making mistakes, he doesn’t do any wild things with the ball – he just seems to have their offense under control, and that’s big when you run the wing-T.”
Fife’s season ended abruptly last season in the district playoffs against Von Rueden’s Patriots – securing Washington’s first trip to the state playoffs since 1990.
The Trojans have reached the state playoffs 10 times in school history but have never made it past the second round. The last time they reached state was Jennings’ freshman year when they beat Liberty in the district round but then lost to Tumwater.
Jennings wants that to change. When Nevin yells at his team during a practice, it’s because Jennings asked him to, Nevin said.
“To go far this year, it would mean a lot because Fife isn’t really known,” Jennings said. “I mean, we’re a good team, but we want to get past that. We want to take the next step.”
Jennings radiates positivity. Like at Fife’s annual Cabbage Patch (an event that pits the school’s classes against each other in field competitions) last year when his then-junior class felt it unfairly lost to the senior class. He rallied his classmates together in a huddle and fired them up, saying how they’d get it next year.
“He’s the one always asking how you are doing,” said Puletu, Fife’s 6-foot-4, 225-pound tight end and linebacker. “He’s never looking down or anything. No one ever knows when Falani is having a bad day because he never shows it.”
“Coaches always say to me, ‘You’re a leader,’” Jennings said. “Teachers say the same thing. I just try to be that. Kids at school – when they hear the last name Jennings, I want to be an example to them.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677