By JOHN QUICK
Junior Aumavae’s journey took him from the National Football League back to his home state of Alaska to light the beacon of hope for students. Aumavae created a road map for what all professional athletes could do after being in the pros.
Picture this: You are a kid, sitting in your bedroom looking at a wall filled with posters of people who inspire you to be something that changes the world, as you look out the window of your small Alaska town; you hope to be one of those people, some day. That was a journey similar to Uluao “Junior” Aumavae, who went from being that small-town kid in Palmer, with big dreams about being a starter the NFL, to becoming that pro player, to being named vice president for the Indianapolis chapter of the NFL Player’s Association, to working for the Drug Enforcement Agency in community outreach, to now being the chief equity officer for the Municipality of Anchorage.
Aumavae had far from an easy upbringing. He admits that he struggled in school and often got into trouble to the point of being expelled. That was when his life changed; Aumavae found refuge in his football coaches and teachers, who saw potential in him as a student and an athlete. He eventually received an offer to play football at Western Washington University after pushing himself to succeed and having a positive attitude about life.
While Aumavae had achieved a significant milestone by playing football at Western Washington University, he faced another challenge, when he had trouble balancing his studies and football practice. After being put on academic probation, Aumavae managed to find a mentor to help guide him to success — Dr. Kunle Ojikutu, who worked in the university’s Equity Department. Through Ojikutu’s guidance, Aumavae was able to get his grades up and eventually transfer to Minnesota State University. After college, he played for the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets, before turning his journey back to his hometown to take on a new mission: Help create a support system for students throughout Anchorage.
Upon returning to his home state, Junior began searching for ways to help improve and build a stronger community. He saw an opportunity to do that by signing on with Mayor Dave Bronson’s Administration in Anchorage as chief equity officer to ensure the city offers fair opportunities for minority communities. Thrilled by the chance to use his position in the biggest city in Alaska, Aumave also took this as a way to get himself into the schools of Anchorage and speak to the future generations about the importance of trying to be the best version of yourself every day.
Recently, he spoke to a group of students at Northwood Elementary School about having an education to achieve any dream that they have for themselves in the future. He spoke about the importance of focusing with your eyes and ears to learn and observe everything around you.
Aumavae emphasized how each teacher, principal, coach, mentor, and pastor was vital for him and is just as crucial for the students because of the infinite wisdom they have to offer them. He didn’t avoid talking about the mistakes he made along the way, openly sharing with the students that he would get in trouble and was suspended many times until he was kicked out of school.
“The one thing that I learned when I was young is that I not only had to be a good student, but I also had to be a good family member, a good brother, and now a good uncle and good father,” he said.
At the closing of the school event, Aumavae left the students with glimmers of hope for the future and unveiled his plan to help improve the school system. In his closing statements, he mentions how everyday community members have bits of their own wisdom to offer to a young, hungry mind. Through this, they can become whatever they set their minds to and give back in ways similar to himself. Junior didn’t leave his students hanging as he did a classic NFL team break for the kids as they looked forward to the future and gave everyone a “high five” as class began for the youngsters.
His plans for schools throughout the area have involved locals, ranging from students’ uncles and aunts to pastors they would see on Sundays to help in the hallways and ensure students stay on task and out of trouble. Aumavae sees it as an opportunity for the children to vocalize when they are struggling mentally, socially, or academically and speak with familiar faces.
Here is an example of one school where Aumavae’s impact has been felt: A dangerous environment developed in a school after a large fight among students. After Aumavae and his friends started walking the hallways, violence disappeared, and students’ grades and mental health improved dramatically. The principal of the school went on to get the principal of the year award after turning that school around.
Community is a major factor that Aumavae attributes to his own success and wishes to pass down to future generations in Alaska. By having a solid support system for his educational career, he achieved his lifelong goals of getting a college degree, playing for the NFL, becoming a father, and now being a significant contributor to Anchorage.
What if every NFL player returned to their hometown and did this? For the ones that do, thank you!
John Quick of Nikiski is vice president of Must Read Alaska and primary host of the Must Read Alaska Show.