How two Anchorage football players became college rivals and remained great friends

Oct. 25—Alani Makihele and Thomas Witte met as juniors on the West High football team in 2018. They hit it off immediately and have been friends ever since.

Earlier this month, they put that friendship aside for 60 minutes to face off against each other playing for rival Division I football programs.

Makihele's University of Nevada-Las Vegas Rebels got the best of Witte's University of Nevada-Reno Wolfpack in a 45-27 win on Oct. 14.

It was the first time the two 2020 West High graduates have squared off with each other as starters at the collegiate level. The game was a milestone in the journey for the pair, who became great friends as teammates and have shared a common arc.

"It's been a journey with that guy from high school until now," Makihele said. "We stay connected, talking and (direct messaging) each other about school and life."

"It's pretty cool to see two kids from Alaska play Division I football," Witte said.

Witte is a starting defensive end for Reno, and Makihele is the starting left offensive guard for UNLV. Due to the style of defense that the Wolfpack deploy, the two of them only got to go up against each other twice in the game, once on a run play and once on a pass play.

"I got him once and he got me one time too as well," Witte said. "We kind of laughed at each other when we did it, and it was just really cool."

They communicated via Instagram during the week leading up to the game but didn't do much talking during the game, because they were both singularly focused on helping their respective teams prevail.

"During the game, I don't think we said a word to each other except for like, 'good job' every once in a while after a field goal," Makihele said. "After the game, we chopped it up a lot."

They didn't talk about what had transpired on the field as they were more interested in expressing how happy they were to see each other.

"Me and him came a long way from high school, and we didn't expect to be in the positions that we are right now," Makihele said.

On the field afterward, they tried to re-create a photo they took as seniors in high school as redshirt juniors in college.

Preparing each other for the next level

Makihele began his high school career at Dimond before transferring to West, and he connected with Witte "off the rip."

"We were pretty much best friends at the time," Makihele said. "We'd go hang out after school and it was always a good time with Thomas."

He was a two-year starter on varsity for the Eagles, and when they were both starters on varsity as seniors, their bond strengthened even more.

Even though they were on the same team in high school, they were starters on opposite sides of the ball.

"I was the best defensive lineman, I'd say in our class and Alaska, and he was the best offensive lineman in Alaska," Witte said. "Me and him would just go up against each other every day at practice, get better and better, and that helped me a lot because when I first came here, I was a little bit more prepared for the Division I life just going up against him every day."

West head football coach Tim Davis believes that their tight relationship on and off the field "really brought both of them up."

"It's that old 'iron sharpens iron' (saying) that gets thrown around all the time," he said. "I probably say it too much, but this is exactly what it means. Two dudes that are like-minded, that have common goals, worked really hard together and are now able to perform and play and have college paid for through this wonderful sport."

[West pulls away from South in 4th quarter to claim first state football championship in nearly a decade]

Both admitted that they were each other's best competition not just in practice but in the entire state as seniors.

"We went against each other almost every day, and I think he was the biggest competitor on the team too," Makihele said. "Me and him were going head to head all the time in practice. He was the best defensive lineman I went against in the whole division."

Off the field, they say they were as close as brothers, but in between the lines on the gridiron, there were plenty of battles.

"We went crazy all the time, and sometimes we got into arguments on the field, but it was good," Makihele said.

Different paths to prominence

The Rebels weren't the only team recruiting Makihele his senior year. But they were the first to offer him a full ride scholarship. He was on a trip to the University of Oregon when he got the offer from UNLV and received other offers as well.

This is his first season as a full-time starter after filling for a few snaps and series as a redshirt sophomore last year.

"I was like a sixth man, so whenever someone went down, I was the next one in," Makihele said.

Witte's path was more winding and arduous because he had to work his way into earning a full ride scholarship as a walk on.

"We talked about it in high school when he was getting recruited to go Division I," Witte said. "I wanted to keep playing football after high school because I didn't really play a whole lot when I was in high school."

Witte remembers asking if Makihele believed that he had what it took to make it at the highest level of the sport in college, and Makihele told him, "Oh yeah, big time."

Witte had a cousin who went to Nevada. That helped him get his foot in the door, and he was able to walk on in 2020.

After not seeing the field much during his first two years with the program, he finally earned a full ride scholarship following a solid 2022 campaign.

"It was a huge goal of mine since the start to tell my parents, 'Hey, you don't have to pay for my college anymore.' I worked and I got this," Witte said.

Davis wasn't surprised Witte was able to earn a scholarship. He said it's indicative of both hard work and talent.

"For Thomas to be able to earn that thing is so cool and a testament to who he is," Davis said.

Alaskans and proud

Both Makihele and Witte take tremendous pride in being from the 49th state and try their best to represent their home state.

"It's pretty cool to see those guys battle it out and I'm super proud of both of them," Davis said. "To see them have success is so heart-warming."

Everyone at UNLV knows that Makihele hails from Alaska, and the Rebels offense even has few play calls called "Alaska." On those plays, the coaches signal the letter "T" as an homage to him and his Tongan heritage.

"I let them know that Alaska is probably the best state in the world, honestly," Makihele said.

Witte hopes that his story of perseverance, as he defied long odds to get where he is now, will inspire the next generation of aspiring Division I hopefuls from Alaska to follow in his footsteps.

"I think it's pretty special," he said. "I don't know the statistics off the top of my head, but I think it's 1% of all high school football players make it to the Division I level, and that's probably even less coming from Alaska. I'm trying to do my best to represent Alaskans as a whole and hopefully be a path for people in the future."