Two years ago, Northwestern State defensive lineman Nathalohn Nanai was riding a stationary bike on the Demon sideline, staying loose during a game, when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
Then-9-year-old John Painter told Nanai he wore No. 51 on his youth football team – the same number Nanai still wears on his chest. That innocent moment between a nearly 300-pound defensive lineman and a child whose father had died a month earlier laid the foundation for a growing friendship that endures today.
“John is a great kid,” Nanai said. “Every time gametime comes around, he reaches out to me on Facebook messenger and says, ‘Hey, go get ’em today.’ He’s always here at every home game – him and his mom. It feels good to have a support system outside of your family. It’s always great seeing him when he’s running along the rail or giving me a casual high five. He’s a great kid, a really great kid.”
There are many who share the same description of Nanai, a 6-foot-3, 292-pound product of Shoemaker High School in Killeen, Texas.
“It doesn’t shock me at all,” defensive line coach Kevon Beckwith said of Nanai’s friendship with the Painters. “He’s a family guy. You look in the stands and see his family. He’s always talking about his family. When I got here, he helped me move into my house. He’s always looking to help. That’s part of his perspective. He just gives so much through his energy and his service. He’s on the SAAC Committee. He’s definitely a role model for the athletic program.”
Nanai credited his meeting Painter, a Leesville native, with helping adjust his perspective and with assisting him in becoming a leader.
While rehabbing a foot injury that cost him the first three games of the season, Nanai leaned on what he learned from watching Painter go through a situation few children have to endure at 9 years old.
“Obviously, you want to be out there fighting with your brothers,” Nanai said. “At that point in time, I focused on how I could make the team better – how could I come back as quick as possible and still be able to do what I’m capable of. I don’t want to take the little things for granted.”
Nanai’s brotherhood includes Painter, who Nanai calls “the little brother I never had.”
His other brotherhood is the NSU defensive line, which grew deeper with Nanai’s return against Incarnate Word in the Demons’ Oct. 2 Southland Conference opener. The Demons rotate their three-man line liberally, playing nine to 10 linemen per game.
In four games since returning from injury, Nanai has recorded five tackles and pounced on a fumble at Houston Baptist. What would have been his second fumble recovery of the season, this past Saturday against Southeastern, was overturned by video review.
Nanai’s dedication to detail and doing the little things has earned him his teammates’ and Beckwith’s respect. It also reiterated one of fourth-year coach Brad Laird’s tenets he preaches to his team.
“You never know when somebody’s watching,” Laird said. “Our young men have the opportunity to be a role model. They never know when that will come. This situation happened during a game, and the relationship between them got closer and closer to the point where we had (Painter) and his family out for practice. This young man – he loves football – he’s grown to love Northwestern State football because of one simple thing. We say it’s simple as far as Nate communicating with that young man, and it has turned into a love for Northwestern State football.”
While Painter gained a big brother and a day that included him taking the practice field with Nanai and the Demons, the older half of the duo gained something that will stick with him for life.
“Meeting John and understanding what he was going through at such a young age, it puts things in perspective,” Nanai said. “Every day I’m out here, I try to be grateful. I’m taking it one day at a time, one snap at a time, one meeting at a time. I try not to overlook anything and to be grateful for everything I have in football and with my brothers on this team.”
Photos: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services