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PREP FOOTBALL: It's all in the family with the Hifos at Heritage

03/04/2013, 3:01pm PST
By By MARK E. STRODER For The Californian

MENIFEE ---- It's 10 p.m. on a recent fall Friday, and the Denny's restaurant in Perris is experiencing a lull.

MENIFEE ---- It's 10 p.m. on a recent fall Friday, and the Denny's restaurant in Perris is experiencing a lull.

But a rush is about to come in the form of the Hifo family.

"They always come in a big group," said Denny's manager Noor Arshad. "They are very nice people. They order a lot of food, so we like that."

On any given Friday night during the high school football season, as many as 50 Hifo family members -- all of them either players or fans of the Heritage football team -- can be seen and heard at the popular family restaurant.

One good family deserves another.

"They are a very jolly family," Arshad said. "They come in a very big group and have a good time. We sit them in the center of the dining room. They are always the center of attention."

Said Toni Hifo Jr., the bruising 255-pound Patriot running back: "Every time we walk in after a game on Friday, the employees already know what to order for us. We are like their best customers, because we're in there almost every Friday."

The Hifos also stick out like a sore thumb at Heritage home games. All 50 or so family members sit in the same area, beneath the press box.

The gigantic cheering section is made up of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. They are all there to watch the Hifo quartet of Toni, Kiu, Marvin and Limihai play football for the 9-1 Patriots.

"It feels good to know they're all up there," said Kiu Hifo, a backup running back who has scored three touchdowns this season. "We know we have to play good and represent our family."

Toni and Limihai are brothers. Their cousins, Kiu and Marvin, are also brothers.

But wait, there's more.

In addition to the four Hifo boys, there are also three cousins -- Sione Takitaki, Semisi Pulu and Naia Pailate -- on the Heritage team that are limbs on the Hifo family tree.

Even with a souvenir program, it's tough to keep track of everyone in the group.

"We're so lucky to have our family be so large and so close," said Toni Hifo, the Patriots' second-leading rusher with 537 yards (7.36 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. "We all help each other out. If we don't help each other out, we have no one. Every moment we have, we try to lift each other up."

The Hifos have been representing Riverside County since the mid-1980s. And athletics have been a centerpiece. Look back at Paloma Valley's very first football game in September, 1996, and who's the leading rusher? Yes, that would be Toni, the uncle of the four Hifos on the Heritage roster, who carried 14 times for 105 yards in a 20-12 triumph over Beaumont.

Many of the elder members of the family excelled in sports like rugby, track and field and volleyball.

But football and family have always taken center stage.

"The Hifos bring a lot of passion to Heritage High School," Patriots coach Kraig Broach said. "They're a great family in which the parents expect a lot of their kids and hold them accountable to that standard.

"No excuses are made, and expectations are that each member continue to improve and give back."

All of the Hifo boys believe firmly that a family that plays together stays together.

"If you have hard times, they can help you through whatever you need," said sophomore running back Limihai Hifo, who is averaging almost 7 yards per rushing attempt.

Said Marvin Hifo, a junior linebacker who is credited with 19 tackles this season: "Playing football with my brother and my cousins helps me a lot. We all know what each of us is capable of doing. I can always count on them to be there if I do something wrong, and I know they'll correct me.

"If I'm down, my brother and my cousins are going to be there and pick me up. And I feel so much better. It's such a relief, and it really helps me in a game."

The sons have learned a lot from their fathers and uncles. Kiu Hifo Sr., father of Kiu and Marvin, and Aleva Hifo, father of Toni and Limihai, and Toni Hifo Sr. are brothers and best friends.

"Our dads our very close to one another, and they have always set a great example for all of us," Marvin Hifo said. "When they're together, it brings all of us kids together."

The parents are equally proud.

"Our kids are far from perfect," said Kiu Hifo Sr. "But we teach them to love the Lord, make the right choices and always be an example to those around them."

Broach can also look forward to more talented Hifo football players coming to Heritage in the near future. Toni Sr.'s eldest son, Mario Hifo, is a seventh-grade defensive lineman, and Kiu Hifo Sr. has a son playing running back and linebacker in the eighth grade, Aleva, who may be the most talented football player of the lot.

If the No. 3 seeded Patriots win Friday's CIF Southern Section Eastern Division first round game against visiting Hesperia Sultana, it will set up a festive Thanksgiving dinner the following Thursday.

"My dad will give a big speech about the (second-round) game," said Toni Hifo Jr. "Everyone's going to get all pumped up.

"And then on Friday, about half the stands are going to be filled up with our family."

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