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Letters to Lily: Utah football player writes his own story

Published October 4, 2012 10:24 am

Utah football • A Utah football player's relationship with his daughter is the one he writes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

His muscles throbbed, and the bristles of the bedroom carpet massaged his motionless body. Still in shorts and a T-shirt after his first workout in a week, Utah defensive end Nate Fakahafua collapsed as soon as he entered the room.

Pain surged through him on the June day, alighting at each muscle and continuing until it and his racing mind met somewhere in the middle. Everything ached. Only the carpet hugged him.

In that moment, all he wanted was to hold his 4-year-old daughter. To talk to her.

The 19-year-old scanned his bedroom. On the desk in the corner sat an unopened black notebook.

What if I wrote to her?

He grabbed the ruled notebook and lay back down; he opened the cover to the first page, pressed the tip of a black pen to the first line, thought for a moment and began to write.

Nate keeps that notebook in a secret spot in the wall. Only he knows where it goes and only he knows what lives between the covers. He and his daughter share little except DNA, bulging muscles and stolen moments in malls and parks. But one day, he hopes, they will share the words he scratches onto the pages. He tries to write twice a week and each time he opens that notebook, he starts his letters the same way he did the first time, when only his mind could move.

It began with, "Dear Lily."

Not in the plan

He was athletic and new and, after Ataya Reeves spotted him in the hall, it was a quick crush. Nate had deep lines of definition in his arms and, already 6 feet tall, towered over other early teenagers. When he smiled, he did so broadly and his eyes narrowed into tight slits, as if he wanted to shut out everything but the person who made him happy in the first place.

They were eighth-graders at Hillside Middle School and were in the same class nearly every period that year. They held hands in class and ate lunch together every day, even though his guardians, Dave and Katherine Orchard, did not know about Ataya and encouraged Nate to hold off on dating until he was older.

A year later, Principal Paul Schulte called the Orchards to Highland High School. Nate sat on the floor of the school office and sobbed. Schulte told them Ataya was pregnant.

Within two years, Utah football coaches offered Nate a football scholarship and he committed soon after. His life was mapped out.

But at 14, he did not plan on a family.

His own was fractured by distance and economics. His mother, Ana, lived in Oakland, Calif., where she worked and regularly sent money to him and his older brother, Max, with whom Nate lived.

After moving to Salt Lake, Nate competed on a basketball team made up of elite young players. Among them was Sam Orchard, a skinny guard with whom Nate forged an easy friendship.

Sam's life did not resemble Nate's. Sam came from a financially stable family that lived in a big house. In subsequent years, the Orchard home was cast as that of Troy Bolton, Zac Efron's character in the "High School Musical" films.

But when Max moved in with his in-laws, there was no longer room for Nate. He begged a ride to that large storybook house, knocked, and asked Sam's father, Dave, if he could move in.

The Orchards opened their home. Nate became part of their family.

A cautious introduction

She was born on a Thursday in April, six weeks premature and spent her first 17 days in the intensive care unit.

They named her Lily Caprice Winchester. It was a quiet nod to Lily's birth mother: Ataya Caprice Reeves.

Lori and John Winchester were married three years earlier. A year after their marriage, they began fertility treatments. Their first two attempts at adoption fell through.

Although Lori was 20 years older than Ataya, they became instant friends.

"Right when I saw you, I knew it was you," Lori remembered Ataya telling her.

Ataya encouraged John, Lori and her son Nicolas Olsen, from her first marriage, to come to the hospital for the birth. They were all there.

Except Nate.

Reeves characterized Fakahafua as young and scared. He ran away.

"It took me some time to actually get the courage and strength to actually go and meet her," Nate said. "But when I did it was definitely worth it."

Opening up

Nate's relationship with his daughter began in his hands. He cloaked her in them and was careful to hold this thing he made so it did not drop and could not be taken away.

While Lori favored an open adoption, John was concerned there would be awkwardness or even resentment between the families involved. John watched Nate hold Lily, and take her for a short walk in The Gateway mall. His concerns disappeared.

Both he and Lori were struck by how tender Nate was with the 7-month-old Lily. Nate was struck by how much they seemed to love her. They loved her as much as he did.

They gathered another time at Sugar House Park, this time so Lily could meet her biological grandmother, who during Nate's sophomore year at Highland moved to Utah so she could be near her sons.

Ana Fakahafua lives just south of Interstate 80 in a small brick house with turquoise steps. She wears a white flower in her black hair.

When Nate told her Ataya was pregnant, Ana's response was that she wanted to adopt the baby herself. She had little money and already struggled to support herself and Nate's sister, also named Ana. Nate knew she could not give Lily everything another family could.

When she met Lily, Ana cried.

"My son looked at my face and my tears," Ana said, "and he goes, 'Mom, I understand how you feel. Same for me.' "

A stronger bond

In November 2010, the Winchesters bundled up their little girl and sat in Rice-Eccles Stadium for the 2010 Class 4A state football championship. It was the first time they had been directly contacted by Nate, rather than Ataya. He had invited them.

Nate and Ataya were broken up, their four-year relationship, which oscillated between on and off, finally finished. They remain close friends.

Nate played receiver and defensive end for Highland. In overtime, his Rams trailed Mountain Crest 30-23. He lined up to the left side on fourth down-and-10 from the 25.

Nate streaked the sideline and snatched a pass, scoring a touchdown to extend the game, pulling two tagalong defenders into the end zone. Highland won 37-36 in double overtime.

"We weren't really going to say anything," John Winchester said. "We were just going to watch the whole thing."

They waited near the field as teammates, then fans, then members of the media swarmed Nate. When he finally walked off the field, Lori leaned over the railing and waved from her hip.

He scaled the wall and hugged them and grabbed Lily. He held her and kissed her. He said he was grateful she caught him at his best.

'Just happy to be there'

Fakahafua knows he can't be Lily's father, at least not until a day she decides to open herself up to another dad. That's why he writes to her.

John Winchester, 38, is her father. He works in insurance, and with Lori, bought her a toy Jeep and a trampoline. He gave her a bedroom that is swathed in pink. The light green hutch in the corner came from his own mother.

On a recent Friday, Lily wore a salmon sundress, a white bow in her black hair. While her brother Henry, 2 years old and also adopted, tramped through the house clutching a cereal box, Lily performed cartwheels, which she has learned in tumbling class.

A year ago, Lily underwent treatment for a rare disorder called Guillain Barre syndrome. It attacks the nervous system and, in Lily, caused temporary paralysis.

Nate and Ataya went to visit her at Primary Children's Medical Center, and sat with her for an hour. "The thing that blew me away," Fakahafua said, "was how happy she still was. She didn't seem down about what had happened. She was just happy to be there."

Nate has not seen Lily since that day and he does not know when he will again.

All there for later

Lily can't read the notebook now. But in 10 or 15 years, Nate thinks, he'll give it to her — when she comes looking for him.

That's a moment he spends a good amount of time considering.

The Winchesters have given Lily almost everything, save the little ribbons of muscle that press out of her otherwise skinny arms. She has done pull-ups since she was 2.

Nate added 30 pounds of muscle in the offseason and is often told he can play in the National Football League. As a freshman, he saw how many of the departing seniors banked their futures on the NFL, and how few actually reached the league.

That's his dream; his goals are simpler.

"All I know is that I want Lily to grow up one day and to know that her father was a somebody," he said. "That if she does want to look for me or research who I am, she'll know that I was someone great — that I did great things in the community, in the classroom, for other people. Football. If I do make it, she'll understand who I am."

Unless someone asks, Nate keeps these feelings tucked away. Like the black notebook, they live in a secret place, and only he knows what's inside.

One day, if Lily asks, he will show her.

boram@sltrib.comTwitter: @oramb —

Nate Fakahafua

Team • Utah Utes

Position • Defensive end

Year • Sophomore

Hometown • Salt Lake City (Highland High School)

Height • 6-3

Weight • 250 pounds

Notable • The Tribune's 2010 Class 4A MVP. … Played wide receiver and D-end in high school. … Won state championships in football and basketball as senior at Highland. … Has recorded 19 tackles in four games this season.