Doctors Say Fonua Must Skip Sports in Senior Year
To some, he was the Terminator in cleats.
But he won’t be back. At least not this season.
Mira Costa High’s football team begins full-contact practice today without three-sport standout Phil Fonua, regarded as one of the top prep defensive linemen in the country. Doctors said Fonua will be unable to participate in athletics in his senior year after undergoing surgery Aug. 11 for a ruptured blood vessel in his brain.
Fonua was transferred Tuesday from Torrance Memorial Medical Center to the Daniel Freeman Center for Diagnostic and Rehabilitation Medicine in Inglewood, where he will undergo an intensive program of physical therapy.
Dr. Melvin Snyder, the neurosurgeon who performed the delicate, four-hour operation on Fonua, said the prep All-American has experienced some weakness on his right side and probably will need two to four weeks of rehabilitation before he regains normal strength and motor skills.
“We really expect a full recovery,” Snyder said.
Dr. James Joachim, Fonua’s physician, was equally optimistic regarding his patient’s condition.
“Phil has done remarkably well,” Joachim said. “He has responded beautifully to the after-effects of his neurosurgery. He’s a very strong, resilient young man.”
While the prognosis is good, it remains to be seen whether Fonua will be able to return to competitive athletics. His brain aneurysm was caused by a condition he was born with--a weakening in the wall of the blood vessel that caused it to bulge, leak and eventually rupture.
The 6-foot-2, 275-pound Fonua suffered a seizure and collapsed Aug. 10 during a workout in the Mira Costa weight room. Joachim credits Manhattan Beach paramedics, the first called to the scene, for preventing a tragedy.
“The paramedics truly saved this young man’s life,” Joachim said.
At this point, Joachim said it is too early to comment on the feasibility or practicality of Fonua ever playing football again. Fonua will also have to skip the basketball and track seasons during the 1994-95 school year, doctors said. He competed in all three sports as a junior at Mira Costa.
This year “is completely out of the question,” Joachim said. “I don’t think any physician would clear Phil for any contact or non-contact sport. He and his family realize life is more important than the risk of the recurrence of a serious head injury.
“But I know there is a very courageous spiritual side to this young man that may change what happens in the future. (But) at this moment, I would not ever allow him to participate in any contact or non-contact sport, for at least a year,” Joachim said. “His family knows this is well-advised medical advice.”
Joachim said athletics did not play a part in Fonua’s seizure, but Snyder, a specialist who has practiced neurosurgery for 17 years, said Fonua’s “very active physical activities” could have contributed to the blood vessel rupturing at an earlier age. Fonua, 17, had kept up a busy schedule even in the summer, participating in off-season football and basketball games.
“It’s unusual to see (a ruptured aneurysm) in someone his age,” Snyder said. “When it reaches the point when it ruptures, normally the person is in the fourth or fifth decade of life.”
Dr. John Neal, a neurosurgeon at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, said he has never heard of a young athlete with a ruptured aneurysm in 10 years of practice.
“It’s not something that has been studied extensively because it’s highly unusual,” Neal said. “It’s hard to know exactly what the outcome will be. If the aneurysm has been taken care of and there are no other aneurysms, then the prospect for a normal life expectancy would be excellent.
“The chances of him having further problems are quite small,” Neal said, “but there is a possibility of him developing another aneurysm over the course of his life. These things usually develop over a long period.”
Snyder said Fonua’s surgery was a success. In describing the procedure, he said a specialized surgical clip was placed at the base of the aneurysm that prevents blood flow to the damaged area but allows blood to all the normal vessels.
But will the operation and a proper recovery be enough to allow Fonua to resume his football career?
“We have left it with the family,” Snyder said. “Sports and activities are certainly out for the next year. After that, (his condition) has to be re-evaluated. . . . The consequences of playing football have to be seriously considered.”
Recruiters have not given up hope that Fonua can play college football. USC, Fonua’s top choice, reportedly will honor a previous scholarship offer despite the uncertainty surrounding the player’s future.
This doesn’t surprise Allen Wallace, editor and publisher of SuperPrep magazine, whose recruiting publication ranked Fonua the 13th-best defensive line prospect in the nation.
“He’s such a good prospect,” Wallace said. “I think numerous schools will save a place for him. From my knowledge, he could possibly recover and play. There’s no question in my mind that some schools have told him (since the surgery) they have a scholarship for him if he likes.”
After USC, Fonua had listed Notre Dame, Arizona, Washington and Florida State as his top choices. Of course, that was before his surgery. Wallace, though, doesn’t believe many recruiters will be scared off.
“He was in a position where if he didn’t play as a senior, it wouldn’t make any difference,” Wallace said. “His recruitability is still high.”
Fonua, surprisingly agile for his size, emerged as one of the South Bay’s best all-around prep athletes during the 1993-94 school year. He helped Mira Costa win the Southern Section Division VII football title, its first in the sport, with his play at fullback and nose guard; he was starting center on the Ocean League champion basketball team and he placed fourth in the shotput at the state track meet. He is powerful, quick and can dunk a basketball.
Mira Costa football Coach Don Morrow said the loss of Fonua will be felt by the team on and off the field.
“I think we’ll be OK on offense, but defensively he’s so disruptive,” Morrow said. “I don’t know who can replace him at nose guard. The other bad part of it is that the kids really like him. He plays with a real fun style.”
Morrow said he hopes Fonua can contribute to the team in some capacity.
“He’ll help out in some sort of role, I would suspect,” he said.
Doctors credit much of Fonua’s rapid recovery to the support of family and friends, many of whom have visited him in the hospital.
Fonua’s mother, Vila, has maintained an around-the-clock vigil at her son’s bedside since he was hospitalized, going home only to shower. She hasn’t given up hope that her son can attend classes Sept. 12, the first day of school.
“I think he will make it,” she said. “It’s just like a miracle what has happened to my son. We thank God for his life.”