- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

EULESS, Texas (AP) - Officer Eric Fieilo’s patrol shifts usually begin and end in the area where he grew up.

The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/2fXyS1B ) reports the run-down complex where he shared a two-bedroom apartment with his parents and four siblings. The pistachio green house where Fieilo and his friends often hung out after school. And Euless Trinity High School, where he played football and helped his team win the state championship in 2007.

Around this time eight years ago, Fieilo became known as the kid who assaulted an official during a playoff game against Allen High School. It was his last game as a senior, and the one he’s most ashamed of.

But Fieilo, now 25 years old and a devout Christian, says his most embarrassing moment on the football field turned out to be his biggest blessing.

“You know that saying that you take one forward and three steps back?” he said. “It was the opposite for me: I took one step back and five steps forward.”

Between dispatch calls on a recent morning, Fieilo drove to the Trinity parking lot to pose for portraits at the school’s practice facility. When he worked nights, he said, he would park his police cruiser in the dimly lit lot and reminisce about his high school days.

On this morning, Fieilo is treated like a local celebrity. As he pulls into the lot in his squad car, one of the school’s security guards drives over in a golf cart to say hello and catch up. It’s a school day.

The high school’s resource officer, also a Euless police officer, walks outside to say hi as Fieilo poses for photos in his police uniform.

“In football, you have difference makers like Dez Bryant, Dak Prescott and people like that,” Cpl. Scott Axton says. “Well, same thing in this job. We have difference makers - and he is definitely a difference maker in Euless.”

The soft-spoken Fieilo brushes off the compliment: “He’s blowin’ smoke, man. He’s blowin’ smoke.”

The two exchange stories about their kids - Fieilo’s are 3 and 5 years old - before parting ways.

Fieilo’s next stop is his parents’ pistachio-colored house. He tries to make it a short visit but his 3-year-old rushes outside to say hi, and Fieilo can’t help but scoop the boy up and give him a tight squeeze.

“Be a good boy, OK? Take care of Grandma; don’t let Grandma take care of you,” he tells the boy.

“He’s still at the age where nothing can break him,” Fieilo says softly as he drives away in his patrol car. On his left wrist is the black and blue band he started wearing in March, when his colleague Officer David Hofer was killed in a shootout with a man waiting to ambush officers at a park.

Fieilo was born in Euless, an enclave of Tongans in North Texas, after his family moved from the South Pacific islands in the 1980s.

Fieilo learned how to play football in a grassy field next to his crime-ridden apartment complex. His family couldn’t afford a gym membership, so he would sneak into his cousin’s apartment complex to lift weights. He dreamed of a career in the NFL.

When he started high school, he would walk to nearby Pennington Field to run bleachers and wonder what it would be like to play for the Trojans, as his older brothers had.

His junior year, Fieilo made varsity as a starting linebacker and was among the standouts of the team that won the Class 5A, Division I state championship.

“He kind of had that schizophrenic nature of a gentleman off the field, but between the whistles, there was nobody tougher than he was,” said Trinity coach Chris Jenson, the school’s offensive coordinator at the time.

The next year, the Trojans were on track for another run at the title, and Fieilo was weighing scholarship offers from several Division I schools. In the span of one game, fortunes changed for the team and the player.

Trinity was undefeated and had already beaten Allen during the season, but the Trojans found themselves surprisingly overwhelmed in the playoff rematch. As the last minute wound down on Allen’s victory, Fieilo took out his frustrations by running away from the flow of the play and blindsiding one of the officials.

“At the time, I would consider myself a big shot - overconfident. It was bad,” he said.

The consequences were swift. Fieilo was sent to alternative school for a month. He lost all of his scholarship offers. His only relief was that he wasn’t charged with a crime.

In his downtime at the alternative school, he would think about everyone he had disappointed - his coaches, his teammates, his family, God - because of his ego. Making matters worse, National Signing Day was weeks away.

That’s when Fieilo’s fortunes turned again. One day, a coach from Sam Houston State University visited him at the alternative school. He knew what Fieilo had done, but he said he wanted to give him a chance to make things right. He offered him a full scholarship to play for the Bearkats in Huntsville.

“I didn’t know what to do but just to fall to my knees and thank God for this blessing,” Fieilo said.

Fieilo’s 5-year-old daughter often asks him if he puts the bad people in jail as a police officer.

“They’re not bad people, they just make the wrong decisions and we just have to watch them while they’re in jail,” he tells her.

He said he prays for the people who end up handcuffed in the back seat of his patrol car. In some cases, he prefers to give someone a second chance instead of arresting or ticketing them.

On a recent Tuesday, Fieilo stopped a pickup truck that didn’t brake properly at a stop sign. Fieilo thought he smelled weed, but the four teenagers in the truck insisted they didn’t have any drugs. They said they were high school athletes.

After patting down the teens, Fieilo found a tobacco pipe, a small amount of marijuana and packages of dipping tobacco in a gym bag in the back seat.

He confiscated the items and let the teens off the hook by giving them a warning and a stern talk about honesty. He also cautioned that he won’t be lenient if he sees them again.

“Y’all are young, you’re student athletes,” he told them. “I know you get curious here and there but please let this be a learning experience so you don’t go down the wrong road. ‘Cause I was once a student athlete myself.”

Fieilo married his high school sweetheart when he was a freshman at Sam Houston State, after she became pregnant with their daughter. He was excited to be a father, though it meant working two jobs while taking classes and playing football.

The new challenges were welcome for a star linebacker still trying to outrun a reputation for assaulting an official.

“Only God could have helped me at that time because I was running on two hours of sleep,” he said.

Being a father and a husband helped him prepare for the fact that football would not carry him much further. The first game of his senior year, he broke his neck while trying to tackle someone.

He remembers lying on the field, unable to move before being taken away on a stretcher. The injury ended his season, but he was able to play one more year while he finished classes for his criminal justice degree.

After graduating in 2014, Fieilo returned to Euless and applied to the Police Department.

“It’s such a blessing for me to be an officer in Euless, dealing with people that are like me, like how I was raised and what I went through growing up,” he said.

Last year, the football coaches at Trinity invited Fieilo to the school to talk about the lessons he learned after the playoff incident. He had carried the guilt for nearly six years, but as it turns out, his coaches forgave him long before he forgave himself.

“The hardest way to learn a lesson sometimes is to experience it,” said Jenson, the Trinity coach. “There are people who have survived and gone through life pretty much unscathed. but some of the deepest and most meaningful lessons come from some bad mistakes.”

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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