Just as the Hilltopper football team prepares to kick off the 2013 season, one of West Liberty University’s instructors and coaches Albert “Abu” Ma’afala returned from a prestigious fellowship with the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League (NFL).

Coach Ma’afala was one of several talented young coaches selected to participate in the 2013 Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship. Now in its second year, the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship was designed as a vocational tool aimed at increasing the number of full-time minority coaches in the NFL. It is administered by the NFL Management Council and NFL Player Engagement.

Participants are hired for the duration of training camp, including all pre-season games, with clubs encouraged to hire a minimum of four participants. All 32 NFL teams take part in the program with specific aspects – hiring, salary, coaching responsibilities, etc. – administered by each individual team.

Coach Ma'afala is shown on the right working with an NFL player.

Coach Ma’afala is shown on the right working with the Panthers.

“This chance opens more opportunities for Abu. It also translates into opportunity for our students, who learn lots more than football from our coaching staff and turn to them for mentoring and guidance,” said Hilltopper Head Football Coach Roger Waialae. The Hilltoppers first game is 1:30 p.m., Sept. 7 at Catawba, N.C.

Ma’afala spent four weeks with the Panthers, from July 21 to Aug. 10, working with the linebackers’ coach and special teams coordinator, positions he holds at WLU under the direction of Waialae.

Ma’afala spent his time with the Carolina Panthers assisting the defensive staff prepare practice scripts, drawing play cards, and helping the coaches with any request.

“My biggest takeaway from this experience was structure of the internship model. Being the internship coordinator for WLU’s exercise physiology program, this was a great opportunity for me to put myself in our students’ shoes and realize why a great internship experience is so vital,” Ma’afala said. “I didn’t think it could happen, but my passion for football has grown exponentially. I hope that I can help our students find internship sites that will help foster that same kind of passion while they ultimately positively impact their communities.”

Ma’afala also serves as an instructor in the exercise physiology program in the College of Education.

“This was a tremendous opportunity for Abu, and we are so excited to have him as part of our academic team. He brings with him a wealth of experiences and a passion for working with students,” commented Dr. Keely Camden, dean for the College of Education.

Ma’afala commented on the professionalism and dedication of Panther’s General Manager Dave Gettleman and Head Coach Ron Rivera.

“They knew us by our first names on the first day, and they included us in all facets of the process of building and running an NFL team.”

The nephew of former NFL running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, he has made his presence felt in his first two seasons on the WLU staff. Hilltopper special teams have been charted with 11 blocked kicks during Ma’afala’s time as special teams coordinator while LBs Kyle Agustin and Marquis Bradley earned All-WVIAC recognition in 2012.

Ma’afala’s path to the Hilltop began in his native Hawaii, where he was a first-team all-state and all-conference defensive lineman at Kamehameha High School in Honolulu. He signed with the University of Hawaii and had an immediate impact. Making his collegiate debut against Eastern Illinois, he intercepted a pass by future Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown. Ma’afala went on to play in 19 games over two seasons at Hawaii before transferring to the University of California.

After sitting out his transfer year, he emerged as a mainstay on the Golden Bears’ defensive front. A part-time starter who played in every game as a junior, Ma’afala became a full-time starter as a senior and earned the team’s Most Improved Defensive Lineman Award. Following the season, he was selected to play for the West All-Star Team in the Hula Bowl.

Ma’afala began his coaching career as a graduate assistant with the University of Louisville from 2008-10, working on the defensive side of the ball for Cardinal head coaches Steve Kragthorpe and Charlie Strong.

Ma’afala graduated from California in 2007 with a degree in American Studies and earned his master’s degree in exercise physiology from Louisville in 2010. He and his wife, Marleina, reside in Woodsdale with their son Levi and daughter Lanei. To follow all the WLU sports stories and action, visit hilltoppersports.com.