The coaches at Bartlett High in Anchorage, Alaska, jokingly refer to running back Ethan Falaniko as Clark Kent, because of the black thick-rimmed glasses that have become a family trademark among he and his two brothers.
But so far this season, Falaniko has been more like Superman.
The senior leads the nation in rushing touchdowns with 23 and points with 140, according to stats compiled by MaxPreps. In six games, he has rolled up 1,364 yards, an average of 227.3 per game and 9.7 per carry.
“It’s been a great start,” Falaniko told USA TODAY High School Sports. “We just try to do the best we can and live up to our potential.
“I try not to keep track (of the stats). One of the coaches always asks (before each game) how many yards will I get. He always wants to hear what I’ll say, and what I always say is, ‘as much as I can get to help the team get the W.’ ”
Bartlett is off to a 5-1 start and plays at West Valley in Fairbanks on Friday and then finishes the regular season next week at West (Anchorage). Because of the weather, the season starts early and the state championships are played by mid-October.
As a junior, Falaniko ran for 1,389 yards and eight touchdowns. Much of that came in the second half of the year when the coaches decided to make him the primary ballcarrier in the wing-T formation. Since then, he has had 14 consecutive games of at least 150 yards rushing.
Another key number: Falaniko has a 4.1 grade point average.
“He had a lot of success last year and we thought he’d be even better this year,” co-coach John Jessen said. “He’s a little faster, a little bigger, a little stronger than he was and that translated on to the field. But we didn’t expect he’d be doing this. Having almost 1,400 by the sixth game is crazy.”
Falaniko also has benefited from a veteran offensive line that has opened up holes. He has been able to gain yards even when yards are had to come by thanks to his combination of skills.
“He has everything,” Jessen said. “His speed is deceptive; his shiftiness is deceptive. He makes people miss and he’s powerful.”
Falaniko is a rare four-sport athlete. He plays basketball in the winter, and then plays soccer and runs track in the spring. He suffered an ankle injury in the spring while running track, but he said that did not impact his offseason regimen to get ready for the football season.
“I did a lot of lifting and I also tried to practice my acceleration – just getting strong and faster, that’s what running backs need to do,” he said. “I just try to push myself and do the best that I can to get better.”
Falaniko is up to 220 pounds this season, or as co-coach Dan Esparza put it, “He’s not a little guy by any means.”
“He’s a very hard-working kid,” Esparza said. “(All the work) he’s done has helped. But a lot of it is he has some God-given ability that a lot of people wish they had.”
Falaniko is part of an Army family and he has moved often, most recently from Hawaii to Texas and then to Alaska before eighth grade, although the family retains their strong Polynesian roots no matter where they are. Falaniko said he is looking to stay on the West Coast for college and is beginning to send out highlight tapes to coaches.
“The first thing I thought of was snow and igloos,” he said of when the word came that the family was moving to Alaska. “I never expected much of a city when I came here. But it’s a really good place and the people are great.”
Football has been part of the bond for his family. His older brother, Eti, is a freshman defensive lineman at Mayville State in North Dakota. He blocked for Ethan in high school. Younger brother Solofa is a sophomore at Bartlett and starts alongside his brother. Esparza said the brothers are “all phenomenal athletes.”
“It’s just a blessing,” Ethan said. “Being with family feels more comfortable. We’re like brothers and sisters out here and we’re part of such a great group. We push each other.”
Sight to behold
Family takes us back to those glasses.
When not on the field, all three brothers sport similar style eyewear. Jessen and Esparza, in separate conversations, compared them to the Hanson Brothers of Slap Shot fame.
Falaniko laughs at the reference to Clark Kent, but he prefers being compared to Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, who helped make goggles famous during his career in the mid-1980s.
“If it weren’t for the goggles, I probably wouldn’t be seeing,” Falaniko said.
The defenders for Dimond High might not exactly see it that way. Falaniko was hit during the first half last week and the strap on his goggles broke and the goggles flew on to the field.
Falaniko played without them the rest of the game, and scored three of his five touchdowns and ran for more than 200 of his 351 yards.
“It was a little blurry,” he said, “and hard to see a little bit, but everything went OK.”
Falaniko also pulled off two runs after he lost his left shoe as he made a move. The result: 44 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown.
“He had a good day,” Jessen said, “but a rough day.”
But like everything else, Falaniko takes it all in stride.
“I just have play with whatever happens,” he says, “and do as best as I can do.”