For most Fresno State Bulldogs, this week’s trip to the Hawaii Bowl is a journey far, far away.
For guard Netane Muti, it’s a trip home.
Muti was born and raised in Tonga before his family moved to Wahiawa, a town of 18,000 in the “central valley” of Oahu, a 45-minute drive from Waikiki.
“It’s pretty special because I get to see my family and they don’t have to pay for a plane ticket,” Muti said.
Muti’s parents, younger brother and one of his two younger sisters already visited him at the team hotel. Older brother Ma’ake plays football at Asuza Pacific.
Standing 6 feet, 3 inches and weighing 310 pounds, Muti has the prototype build for a football player but not a ton of experience. He grew up playing rugby in Tonga and played snare drum in the marching band as a freshman at Leiehua High.
Which is when Muti got his first look at football.
“When we used to play in the stand for the football games, I just saw them playing football and thought it was cool and went out,” he said.
Bulldogs fans should be thankful he did. (Muti intended to enroll at Hawaii out of high school, as a walk-on, but did not meet entrance requirements as a regular student.) The redshirt freshman started all 13 games this season at left guard. Though still raw, many feel he could be the next Fresno State offensive lineman drafted by the NFL.
Senior center Aaron Mitchell, who has taken Muti under his wing, called the 18-year-old’s potential “astronomical, it’s through the roof.”
“He’s a young kid, huge and stronger than an ox, and is starting to get some football sense,” Mitchell added. “He was a little rough around the edges. At first I had to tell him everywhere to go. Now he’s out there directing me.”
And, no, Muti’s teammates don’t tease him about playing in the marching band.
“He’s way too big for that,” Mitchell joked.
While the Bulldogs will fly home immediately after Sunday’s game, Muti has permission to stay behind. His family will celebrate Christmas together then spend the rest of the holidays in Tonga, where his grandmother still lives.
“Can’t wait to see her,” Muti said.
The Bulldogs have two Hawaii natives on the roster. Sophomore linebacker Tainoa Foster, who grew up in Honolulu, made the trip but is inactive.
Everybody likes free stuff, and that includes young men in their late teens and early 20s.
One of the perks for playing in a bowl game are the gifts each player receives, a temporary reprieve from draconian NCAA rules that penalize the most minor infractions.
For their Hawaii Bowl appearance, the Bulldogs were given an Oakley backpack and sunglasses; a Tori Richard Hawaiian shirt, a beach towel, Pro Athletics surf trunks; a performance T-shirt; and an electronics gift suite (selection of various prizes based on a points system).
The Bulldogs have made good use of their gifts, wearing their Hawaiian shirts to Wednesday’s luau and their trunks to Thursday’s trip to a nearby water park.
Nearly three weeks have passed since the Mountain West Conference championship game and the 17-14 loss to Boise State.
For some Bulldogs coaches and players, Sunday’s kickoff can’t come soon enough.
“The guys have done a great job with preparation, but it’s been a long time since we played, so we’re anxious,” coach Jeff Tedford said.
Added Mitchell, “It’s been a long week, a lot of fun stuff as well as long practices. I’m just ready to take the field.”
FRESNO STATE VS. HOUSTON
Sunday: 5:30 p.m. at Aloha Stadium (50,000) in Honolulu
Records: Bulldogs 9-4, 7-1 Mountain West; Cougars 7-4, 5-3 American Athletic
TV/radio: ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600).
Of note: The Bulldogs make a third trip to the Hawaii Bowl since 2012, having lost to Southern Methodist in 2012 and Rice in 2014. Houston is a bigger challenge. The Cougars opened with a road victory against a Power 5 team (Arizona). Houston has the Outland Trophy winner in defensive tackle Ed Oliver (14.5 tackles for loss; 5.5 sacks). A big-play offense is led by D’Eriq King, who in the past three games has completed 73 percent of his passes for 832 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, averaging 11.2 yards per pass attempt.