His last name sounds like faithful, and the silver cross that dangles from a chain around his neck isn’t there for decoration.
Mike Fafaul is a believer.
He was a backup quarterback until his senior season in high school, when a series of prolific performances didn’t lead to much interest from major college teams. He spent a year at a military prep school, rising from third-stringer to start over the Ohio State-bound Cardale Jones, and even that produced scholarship offers from only small programs.
Fafaul arrived at UCLA as a walk-on in the fall of 2012 with little hope of ever running the offense. He was the seventh-stringer who threw six passes in his first four seasons.
The fifth-year senior will finish his career at the school that produced NFL star Troy Aikman, Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban and a slew of Rose Bowl champions as the record holder for passes attempted (70) and completed (40) in a game after reaching those marks last month against Utah.
“He’s a tremendous example of a guy hanging in there, hanging in there, believing, working,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said, “and once he gets his opportunity, taking it.”
There is one thing Fafaul still yearns to accomplish while filling in for injured starter Josh Rosen. He wants to feel the satisfaction of winning, something he could finally experience Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl when UCLA (3-6 overall, 1-5 in Pac-12 Conference play) faces Oregon State (2-6, 1-5) as a double-digit favorite.
The Bruins have lost Fafaul’s first three starts largely because they can’t run the ball, catch the ball or hold onto the ball. Dropped passes continue to haunt the team and Fafaul has logged as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes since he first replaced Rosen against Arizona State on Oct. 8, reducing much of the luster of his performance against Utah two weeks later.
As he sat with his parents in his apartment after UCLA’s 52-45 loss to the Utes, his records never came up in conversation.
“Setting the records is cool and all,” said Fafaul, who has completed 55% of his passes for 964 yards, “but you don’t really get to enjoy it when you lose the game.”
The Bruins’ struggles running the ball have made Fafaul’s job like trying to lead a cash-strapped company with dim prospects out of bankruptcy. UCLA ranks second to last in rushing among 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, allowing opponents to drop extra defenders into pass coverage.
At least Fafaul has some extra time to try to devise solutions. He’s essentially majoring in football, spending most of his waking hours at the team’s football complex, after graduating last spring with a degree in political science.
Fafaul might have become a celebrity on campus this quarter if he was around for more than his one class on the history of World War I. Someone did create a fake Instagram account under his name, posting a picture of Fafaul next to Mora with the caption, “Only took me 5 years to get his attention.”
“It’s kind of funny,” Fafaul said of the posts, “but I would never say stuff like that.”
Fafaul’s path from afterthought to mainstay was wrought with turns he didn’t take.
There were scholarship offers from Virginia Military Institute and New Hampshire after Fafaul starred at Fork Union Military Academy, but Fafaul decided to attend Maryland as a preferred walk-on. Two weeks before Fafaul was scheduled to leave for campus, Noel Mazzone, then the offensive coordinator at UCLA, called to tell him there was a spot for him as a walk-on with the Bruins.
“I figured I would kind of break out of the bubble,” said Fafaul, who grew up in the Baltimore area, “and try something new.”
His decision led to years of waiting and moments of game action. He threw three passes in a blowout victory over New Mexico State as a redshirt freshman and another pass against Virginia Tech later that season in the Sun Bowl. His only other passes before this season came during a romp over Oregon State in 2015, Fafaul’s first season on scholarship.
His father, Mike Fafaul Sr., said he wanted his son to transfer after graduating because he would have been immediately eligible to play a bigger role elsewhere. The younger Fafaul said he already had everything he needed right where he was.
“You had to kind of develop this mental toughness and this resilience and then you figure out why you’re here,” Fafaul said of his time as a Bruin. “It’s not for all the fame and all that stuff, it’s just because you love the game. I just love being out here with my guys and playing ball.”
Fafaul’s improbable college journey is nearing its end with three games left and the Bruins clinging to faint bowl hopes. He said he’ll attend UCLA’s pro day after the season, hoping to impress NFL teams, never conceding that it may be his latest longshot dream.
“He’s one of those kids that never quits,” Mike Fafaul Sr. said. “Somehow he just keeps coming and rising to the occasion.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch