To walk on to a sports team at a school like ASU and make the squad is an accomplishment in itself.
For an athlete to shake that “walk-on” status and become a prominent player on his or her respective team is an even greater feat.
But to have a brother and sister achieve that feat at the same time at the same school is almost unheard of.
Unless you’re Paul and Nia Fanaika.
Paul, a senior offensive lineman for the ASU football team, and Nia, a senior guard on the ASU women’s basketball team, both had to work their way onto their teams and up their depth charts.
“It’s definitely hard [being a walk-on],” Nia said. “But with the mentality that I think me and my brother have had, it’s always been, ‘How are we going to help the team?’ As we work hard, the team gets better.”
But now, that hard work is paying dividends.
Paul is a two-year starter at guard and earned All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention honors in 2007.
“I look up to Paul in a lot of ways,” senior quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. “To come on the team and make it is one thing, but to come on the team, make it and then play and start as a redshirt freshman [is another]. That’s inspiring for me and he’s done a great job here and it’s pretty incredible.”
Nia’s role has also increased tremendously this season. She is one of the first options off the bench for the Sun Devils and notched her previous career-high for points scored in a game (six) in two of ASU’s first five contests.
“What a success story Nia is,” ASU women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “She has come back and just appreciated being a part of this program year after year. She’s just been a great teammate and a great person, [and] for her to put herself in this position to contribute this way this year was not necessarily predicted.”
More impressive than any of their individual accomplishments at ASU, is the fact that Paul and Nia are doing it together.
They grew up in Milbrae, Calif., where they were part of a close-knit family that included four kids that all played sports.
“Everything was a competition,” Nia said. “Whenever we played any kind of sport off campus or just for fun, it was always competitive and we never gave into each other. We wanted to win.”
When Paul left for ASU and made the football team, Nia followed her brother the next year to try to make it on the hardwood.
“[Paul coming to ASU] was definitely a strong influence on me [after] coming out here a year before, watching him play football and visiting him,” Nia said.
And while both siblings say they have always had a good relationship, Nia said it has grown even more while they have been in college.
Paul lives downstairs from Nia in the same apartment complex, and they try to spend time together at least a few times a week.
“We have a very close relationship, closer than we had when we lived in the same house,” Nia said. “Now [that] we’re kind of on our own without our parents, we look out for each other. He looks out for me more than I look out for him, just like the older brother would.”
Supporting each other also means attending the other’s games.
Nia said she has been at every home football game this season except two, while Paul was at both of the women’s basketball team home games last month.
“It’s just always been like that since we were young,” Paul said. “We’re just a tight family.”
While watching each other play allows Nia and Paul to take critiques from both a family member and fellow athlete, Nia said it also leaves room for a friendly sibling rivalry.
“I just watch him pancake all the guys,” she said. “So when I see [someone run by him], I’m like, ‘Come on, I know you’re faster than that.’”
And as both Paul and Nia’s respective careers come to a close, Paul said he doesn’t expect him or his sister to ever lose that determination that helped them earn spots on their teams in the first place.
“I expect her to just play hard all the time, like she always has,” Paul said. “And she can expect the same out of me. I’ve had a blast these past few years, and she has too.”
And the most important thing? They’ve had a blast together.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.