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C of I football reunites New Zealand family in America

Over 7,000 miles away from The College of Idaho lies the small community of Te Atatu, a suburb just outside of Auckland, New Zealand. Maori for “The Dawn,” Te Atatu is home to less than 20,000 people, described by Leroy and Fa’a Sisnett as a place where everyone knows everyone else. Traveling from Te Atatu to America means a long flight into San Francisco, a journey taking more than 12 hours across the Pacific Ocean.

But neither the daunting distance nor the complications of intercontinental travel were going to be enough to stop the Sisnetts from visiting Caldwell during Homecoming Week. For the first time ever, they were going to watch their son, Leroy Jr., play football in America — a path that no one in the family expected.

“It was definitely a surprise,” Leroy Sr. said. “When he started football, it was as a way to keep fit while he was waiting for the basketball season to start. Then he ended up doing so well playing football that he got the opportunity to come here. We couldn’t stay away.”

While Leroy Jr. grew up in New Zealand along with his two older sisters, he traveled to the United States to attend high school, at first focusing on basketball at Layton Christian Academy in Utah. While he played in rugby leagues in New Zealand, he had never played football prior to joining his high school team. The younger Sisnett quickly adapted to the game, receiving 2A All-State and 2A North Region selection honors during his senior season on the defense.

“It’s a fun game with a lot of different elements to it,” Leroy Jr. said. “It’s not just about learning your own position. You need to learn what your teammates are up to and what the opposing team is trying to do so you can get the better of them. Everybody needs to do their job, otherwise you’re not going to be successful.”

American football has a small following in New Zealand compared to sports like rugby, cricket, basketball and soccer, but the Sisnett family have long been fans of the game, catching as many bowl games as they can during the season — Fa’a said her favorite NFL team is the New England Patriots, a fact that makes Leroy Sr. groan. But when Leroy Jr. received an offer to play at the C of I in 2014, it came as a surprise.

“When the offer came to come up here, my parents told me ‘If that’s what you want to do, take it,’” Leroy Jr. said. “They’ve always been supportive of me and they were the ones that have always encouraged me when I wanted to go to the states.”

Now in his junior year majoring in business at the C of I, Leroy Jr. is playing his fourth season with the Coyote football program, currently on the roster as a tight end. Although his parents visited the United States to attend his high school graduation in Utah, they had not had the opportunity to see him on the gridiron. The Sept. 16 Homecoming game against Eastern Oregon University provided a great opportunity for the Sisnetts to finally make the trip to watch their son take the field.

For the Sisnetts, visiting America came as somewhat of a culture shock at first. Fa’a said driving on the “wrong” side of the road and adapting to American currency were both challenges upon their arrival in Idaho. However, the couple quickly made friends as they explored both Caldwell and the C of I campus.

“Coming from a small country in New Zealand and coming to this bigger country has been a really awesome experience for us,” Fa’a said. “Everyone here has welcomed us, especially our son. It’s been great to see where he’s been living the last few years and meet everybody, and put names to faces.”

While exploring campus during their visit, the Sisnetts met and befriended members of the C of I faculty and staff. On the morning of the game, the Sisnetts were invited to enjoy breakfast with C of I President Bob Hoover and his wife, Leslee, before getting ready for tailgating with the rest of the #YoteFam.

“Being in this community here at C of I is just a really nice, friendly environment, and I think that’s what is really appealing to Leroy as well,” Leroy Sr. said. “Coming from a small town in New Zealand to a small campus where everyone is connected in one way or another is very similar in that kind of community feel.”

Leroy Jr. was happy to show his parents around the C of I community, and happier still when the Yotes pulled off their 28-20 win against Eastern Oregon. Although he intends to return to New Zealand following his graduation, for now the younger Sisnett is enjoying his time in Idaho, happy to be making his family proud.

“I never thought I would be in America and living in Idaho, but I love it here,” he said. “Everything has just come together, and I ended up in a good place with some great people.”

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.