Talented players from tiny American Samoa are changing the face of football
Thursday, August 31, 2000
By TED MILLER
PAGO PAGO, American Samoa -- The mountains are lush, tropical and green. The ocean is so blue, the sky is jealous.
It's July, 95 degrees in the gloaming. The field is mud. The practice is nearly four hours long. The hitting is vicious. The United States is 6,000 miles away.
This is football, Samoan style, which is to say it's nothing less than 21st-century village warfare.
Welcome to the new fa'a Samoa -- the "Samoan way."
That phrase still primarily denotes ancient customs and codes of conduct that govern traditional Samoan village life.
But when American football was first introduced to the 26-square-mile South Pacific island of American Samoa three decades ago, it was like Henry Ford seeing his first automobile, Babe Ruth first taking hold of a baseball bat, Bill Gates scheming over his first line of computer code.
"I think it is Samoa's sport, not America's sport," said quarterback/defensive end Michael Mapu, one of three players on the Faga'itua High School team who are Division I prospects.
"I've been waiting for this all my life. I watched kids play football before I was in high school. I wanted to be them, and to be on the field and hit somebody. That's why I like the game."
There are approximately 500,000 Samoans in the world, only half of whom come in contact with American football. Yet nearly 200 play Division I college football. Every Pac-10 team except Stanford will have at least one Samoan player this year. Samoans are in the starting lineups of programs as diverse as Nebraska, Michigan State, BYU and Idaho.
More than 20 Samoans play in the NFL. Six were born in American Samoa, population 63,000.
How many American cities of 63,000 boast six current NFL players? None.
A Samoan boy is 40 times more likely to reach the NFL than a boy growing up in the United States, a statistic first calculated last year in a GQ magazine article.
"Maybe it's the sport we are born to play," said Tui Alailefaleula of Anchorage, Alaska, a 6-foot-4, 269-pound defensive lineman who lived in American Samoa until he was 8 and is a top defensive line prospect.
It's 1975, and UCLA linebacker Terry Tautolo is eyeballing the Washington State quarterback. "Hey, you!" he's barking through his facemask in Samoan.
This isn't a taunt. It's a greeting and a question.
"We saw this brown guy come in who didn't look white or black," said Manu Tuiasosopo, a true freshman defensive lineman for the Bruins. "We were like, 'Who is this guy?'"
The Washington State quarterback was Jack Thompson, whose heritage would become a national sensation when he earned the nickname, "The Throwin' Samoan."
Thompson, born in American Samoa, understood and responded in kind. So while Tautolo, Tuiasosopo and Pete Pele, UCLA's other Samoan defensive tackle, tried to bury Thompson and the Cougars during live action, a beautiful friendship was born between the whistles.
And Samoan blood is thicker than jersey colors. When Oscar "Dr. Death" Edwards, UCLA's All-American strong safety, added some extra mustard to a hit at the end of a play, Thompson found some unanticipated support from Tautolo.
"He basically went up and threatened the guy," Thompson recalled.
Thompson was the first of three Samoan team MVPs in the 1970s at Washington State. Samoa Samoa would follow Thompson at quarterback; Tali Ena, whose cousin, also a quarterback, signed with the Cougars this winter, played running back.
In the 1970s, a vowel-laden Samoan name on a high school team -- the language employs just nine consonants -- started to set off alarms in college football coaches' heads. Many Samoans had migrated to Hawaii and the West Coast. Samoans, coaches soon found, were big, strong and loved to play.
"Samoans are a real physical bunch," said Thompson, now a Seattle businessman. "It wasn't too long ago that we had village warfare. Football is a terrific outlet to get physical. It's a natural thing for Samoans."
Though UCLA and Washington State led the way in bringing Samoans to the Pac-10, BYU was the first mainland program to actively pursue Polynesians when it started recruiting Hawaii in 1959. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a strong presence in Samoa and much of Polynesia.
Samoans made names for themselves in football before the 1970s. Al Lolotai of the Washington Redskins was the first in the NFL in 1945, followed by Charles Ane (1953) with the Detroit Lions. Bob Apisa was an All-American at Michigan State in the 1960s.
Nonetheless, the groundwork for a steady flow of players wasn't created until the late '60s.
The United States, which annexed most of what would become American Samoa in 1900, had little involvement with the island after shutting down its naval base in the 1950s, other than encouraging the construction of foul-smelling tuna canneries.
But a Reader's Digest article titled "America's Shame in the South Seas" concluded that the simple island lifestyle was actually desperate poverty. In response to the groundswell of well-meaning but ignorant outrage, president John F. Kennedy took action.
The United States aggressively and controversially started to modernize the island and transform its traditional village structure. Shortly after more populous Western Samoa became independent of New Zealand in 1962 -- ensuring its traditional lifestyle would continue -- an airport, roads, homes, schools and businesses were constructed in American Samoa.
Perhaps most important: Television, originally intended as a device to help educate the people, beamed in pictures of American life, introducing the rugby-crazed island to American football.
With a taste of the American Way, a steady flow of Samoans, who are classified as U.S. nationals and can easily become citizens, began migrating to Hawaii and Southern California seeking new opportunities, often as recruits for the U.S. armed forces.
Their children, many of whom, like Tuiasosopo, were born on the mainland, soon would have high school coaches drooling.
"I was 200 pounds in eighth grade," Tuiasosopo said. "The coaches made a plea to my mom to let me play."
Made to play the game?
There are no naysayers on Samoans and football. Every person interviewed for this article asserted the same thing: God consulted Vince Lombardi when he made Samoans.
When writer Robert Louis Stevenson, Samoa's most famous expatriate, called Polynesians "God's best, at least God's sweetest work," he might as well have been standing on the sidelines of an 80,000-seat stadium.
"It (Samoan success in football) doesn't come as a surprise to my people," said Eni Falemavaega, the non-voting U.S. Congressman from American Samoa. "It's inherent in the Samoan character. We love contact sports. Our first love was rugby, but we like American football because it pays more."
"They have natural skills for the game," Hawaii coach June Jones said. "They are naturally big and fast. And tough."
What do you mean by tough?
"I don't want to say they are impervious to pain, but they are real tough," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "They enjoy physical contact. And the pride thing is huge -- it's a cultural thing."
"Their physical profile is outstanding for the game," Arizona defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson said, "but I think the cultural profile -- the family values, the idea of sacrifice, taking pride in your performance, the importance of toughness -- that's also important. Their chances of success are impacted by how close they are to their culture."
The traditional lifestyle is cited as a contributing factor to Samoan football success almost as often as the apparent physical skills: From the strict family hierarchy that demands discipline and sacrifice; to the traditional dances that require coordination; to the taro plant, a nutritious root that is a staple of the Samoan diet.
How important is taro to Samoans? According to the book "Myths, Legends and Customs of Old Samoa," a person who steals taro plants and ruins someone's fields should be bound and "carried like a pig and placed in the sun in front of the house in which the village elders are assembled."
Samoan families, or aiga, are large, extended and hierarchical. They are headed by a chief, or matai. Non- conformity is frowned upon. Disrespect is not tolerated. A respect for leadership is frequently cited as why Samoans make good soldiers and are so coachable on the football field.
"It's still the Samoan Way over here," said Pio Groshe, the principal and former coach of Faga'itua. "The discipline is excellent. It's way different from the Samoan kids growing up in Hawaii and the States. Here it's very strict and cultural."
Taro, a.k.a. "The Samoan Steroid," and a diet high in protein and carbohydrates provide the bulk, while traditional dances make the big kids coordinated. It's not usual to see a young Samoan performing a dance with extraordinary skill, despite tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds.
Hawaiian high schools have benefited significantly from the Samoan migration. St. Louis, a private Catholic school of 800 students in Honolulu, has won 14 consecutive state titles under coach Cal Lee and is nearly always nationally ranked. Of his 110 players, Lee estimates a third are Samoan or Tongan.
"They're huge and they come here naturally strong," Lee said. "The dancing really helps, too. When they work on it, it helps their agility."
There is some disagreement as to whether Samoans are actually bigger as an ethnic group than others. The squarish physique, natural musculature and big-boned density that both coaches and Samoans speak of might just be a stereotype built on the football players on public display, and not the reality of the general populace.
"There is nothing to support that argument scientifically," said Dr. Bob Frankle, a professor of anthropology at Kapi'olani Community College who has been studying Polynesian cultures for 25 years.
"That's just the public's perception (based on) the football players they see. When you look at the populace as a whole, you don't get that sense."
Perhaps. Walking through downtown Pago Pago or visiting villages, a person will encounter skinny Samoans. Just not very many.
On the 5 1/2-hour flight from Honolulu to Pago Pago, a group of Samoan men gathered in the rear of the plane. A line for the restroom? Nope. These men chose to stand because they could barely fit in their seats.
Witnessing a parade of thick necks, bulky arms and oversized calves causes an American to become an unofficial talent scout in Samoa: That police officer looks like a linebacker; that bus driver is a noseguard; that family could be an offensive line.
Daniel Sataraka is the editor of Samoa International and the director of TV Samoa. Every year, he picks an All-Samoan International prep football team. He disagrees with Frankle, whom he knows well.
"I can say for sure Samoans are the heaviest people in the world because of the research I've done," he said. "But you don't need surveys. You can just look around and find that out."
Brian Vitolio has been a sportswriter for the Samoa News for four years. He is a solid 6-foot-3, 250 pounds. If he covered college football in the U.S., coaches would undoubtedly ask him if he had any eligibility left.
"Samoans are big people," he said. "They love to hit."
Sataraka and Vitolio point out Samoan success in football's European cousin, rugby. Vaaiga "The Million Dollar Man" Tuigamala was the first rugby player to be paid, yes, a million dollars by the Samoan-laden New Zealand "All-Blacks."
World Cup champion Australia has a number of Samoan players. And Manu Samoa, the national team from Western Samoa, is one of the world's top squads.
"Samoans have the highest chance of any people of being an elite rugby player," Sataraka said.
Western Samoa, an independent country, has 160,000 people, none of whom can play American football unless they migrate.
"If someone set up a league over there, man, it's a gold mine," said Vitolio, a native of Western Samoa. "The athletes there are a lot better and the population is a lot bigger. Over there, they don't have fast food. They eat traditional food and they do Samoan chores, which keep them from getting fat."
Though schools like Utah, Hawaii, BYU, Nevada, Texas Tech, Kentucky and Idaho State have made efforts to recruit in American Samoa, Arizona is clearly the leader.
Ellerson, who played for Hawaii, has made six trips to the island and has been aggressively cultivating relationships with the seven high schools for the past four seasons.
"Every Samoan player has roots on that island," Ellerson said. "You know that, because you hear family names over and over again."
Four Wildcats are from American Samoa, including defensive tackle Young Thompson, a first cousin of Jack Thompson. Nine Samoan and Polynesian players are from Hawaii. A number of other Samoans on the team, including tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, are from California.
Secrets in recruiting, however, have a short shelf life. Every year, the island holds football clinics. Every year, more coaches show up to check out the talent. With last year's turnaround at Hawaii, Jones will undoubtedly have better success keeping more Samoans from venturing to the mainland.
"We're going to have a tougher time getting players," Ellerson said. "But it's creating more opportunity. It's raising people's expectations of what's possible."
Because Samoan youngsters grow up in bilingual families, the English portion of the SAT and ACT frequently gives them problems. Many Samoan players go to junior colleges in order to prepare for the rigors of academic work at mainland universities. Once at a JC, these players jump onto the conventional recruiting radar and can earn attention from non-traditional Samoan destinations.
Suaese "Pooch" Taase is now an assistant coach for his alma mater, Faga'itua. He went from Snow (Utah) Junior College, a bastion for Samoans, to Louisiana Tech, where he was one of three Samoans on the team -- and in the entire town of Ruston, La.
"They thought I was Mexican," Taase said. "They'd ask, 'You're from Somalia?' The black guys were like, 'You're black.' I'd say, 'No, I'm not.' And they'd go, 'You look black.' In the United States, you're black.'"
Taase, a 5-foot-7, 225-pound linebacker, spent much his time explaining his culture to his teammates. He'd yell, "Fa'aumu!" before plays, a Samoan call to fight. He'd also wear his traditional lava lava, the wraparound sarong Samoan men wear. Some players were so intrigued, they adopted his customs -- "I had them wearing skirts!" Taase said.
As a coach, Taase can teach his players skills and what they need to do to earn scholarships. Scholarship often is his emphasis.
"Physically, we're there -- if you want a Samoan kid to hit somebody, he'll do it," he said. "But mentally, we've got to get there. I tell these kids that I don't care how good they are, if they can't pass the SAT, they aren't going anywhere."
Taase, who carries 240 pounds on his frame without looking fat, didn't make it to the pros.
Spencer Reid played for Leone High School and went from BYU to the NFL, where he is a backup linebacker for the Carolina Panthers.
Provo, Utah, hardly a fast-paced town, feels like a big city compared to Pago Pago. Adapting to chilly conditions and snow isn't the only challenge facing a player accustomed to South Pacific weather and lifestyle.
"The biggest adjustment was being away from Samoa," Reid said. "Things were a lot faster. You got the feeling you were by yourself. You're in this small world, and all of the sudden you're thrown into a bigger environment. You get overwhelmed."
Like many Samoans who make the 11-hour trip to the mainland, Taase and Reid said they often were homesick. Samoans, particularly those born in American Samoa, feel connected to the island and their people. Taase decided to settle there after graduating, while Reid tries to return every two years.
Cultural pride among Samoans is strong. Top-ranked heavyweight boxer David Tua has earned near-mythic status on the island, not only because he's a great fighter, but because he speaks Samoan at the beginning of every post-fight interview.
San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, a future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, gets an ambivalent reaction, because he is generally viewed as being disconnected from the culture.
Like Tautolo, Tuiasosopo and Thompson, Samoan players seek each other out and recognize a bond that crosses the line of scrimmage. While playing for Indianapolis last year, Reid rushed to meet Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Joe Salave'a after the game. They went to elementary school together in American Samoa.
This connection is uncanny. It's hard to meet a Samoan who doesn't have a relative playing college or pro football.
Sitting in the Honolulu airport in July waiting for a flight to Pago Pago, you could meet Loleni Taufete'e of Tacoma, returning home for a funeral. He's related to Denver'sMaa Tanuvasa, though he didn't know it until the defensive lineman called him before the Broncos played in Seattle last year.
Judy Peko, the receptionist at Pago Pago's Rainmaker Hotel, casually announced that her brother, Siitupe Peko, plays offensive tackle for Michigan State.
Samoan pride in football success is nothing less than a family celebration.
"When you play football as a Samoan, you play for all Samoans," Seahawks tight end Itula Mili said. "We're only a small group, plus a lot of Samoans know each other through relatives and family, because no matter where you grew up, it all leads back to the island. So if you don't know them personally, you know their family or you know some of their relatives."
Washington quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, son of Manu, is related to former NFL players Tautolo, Apisa, Jesse Sapolu and Nick Olszewski (who is half Samoan). On hand for Pac-10 media day, the younger Tuiasosopo palled around with Oregon defensive lineman Saul Patu, who is from Tacoma. Yes, a Husky and a Duck hanging out.
In fact, because both are related to former Washington defensive lineman Toalei Mulitauaopele, Patu and Tuiasosopo also are related. Samoan family trees have more twists than a Stephen King novel.
"I always give love to Samoan players whom I come across in games," Patu said. "It's part of our culture to give love to our hamos (Samoan slang from brothers). I don't even have to know him. I'll see a Samoan on the street and I'll give him a 'Sole!'"
Success feeds on success. Because of players like Tuiasosopo, Sapolu, Reid, Tanuvasa, Steelers running back Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala and Dan Saleaumua, among many others, a young man standing on the International Date Line just northeast of New Zealand can imagine himself attending an American college, and perhaps playing in the NFL.
A way off 'The Rock'
The high school coaches in American Samoa don't mince words: Their goal is to get their players scholarships. That means getting attention from the mainland.
Like baseball in the Dominican Republic, football in Samoa is a way off "The Rock."
A college education offers alternatives to the island's biggest employer, the tuna canneries. American Samoa is the tuna capital of the world, a distinction that gives the island its infamous, malodorous atmosphere.
"There are better opportunities in the States," Reid said. "A lot of parents in American Samoa have that frame of mind. And I don't blame them."
Producing the optimum conditions for football on a poor, small island that is mostly a U.S. welfare state isn't easy. A scrimmage between defending island champions Faga'itua and traditional power Samoana, in preparation for a series of August exhibition games with Hawaiian schools, is held on a sodden field with grass only on the sidelines.
Videotapes of players that could be distributed to college coaches were nearly impossible to obtain until 1996, when the Samoan News ran a series of stories that chided the local TV station into broadcasting games.
A weight room is a rare luxury. Practice uniforms are mix-and-match. Every year, coaches in American Samoa grouse to the government about facilities and equipment.
"We've been talking with the government about that for 15 years," Groshe said. "They always say, 'Next year.'"
Many athletes are physically impressive, though their technique is rough. Because youth leagues are non-existent, players reach high school without much background. Experienced coaches also are hard to find.
Samoa Samoa, who figured prominently in a GQ article about Samoan football a year ago, struggled as the head coach at Tafuna. It was questionable whether he would coach again this year, because of his impatience with the bureaucracy, as well as with his inexperienced players.
Because of the conditions, some players head to Hawaii. Toniu Fonoti was born in American Samoa but played high school football for Kahuku, a school primarily made up of Mormon Polynesians. Last year, Fonoti became just one of a handful of true freshmen in Nebraska history to start on the Cornhuskers' vaunted offensive line.
Qualifying academically isn't the only problem for young Samoans. Some go stateside to live with relatives in Southern California or the Seattle/Tacoma area, looking for better schools and more exposure, but end up falling in with the wrong crowd. Big Samoans are coveted by gangs, just as they are by football programs.
That's what happened to Mulitauaopele before he arrived at Washington. He was convicted as a 16-year-old in 1991 as an accessory to a double murder, though he wasn't present when the murder took place. He redeemed himself, earning his degree and becoming a solid, popular citizen for the Huskies, but his experience serves as a cautionary tale.
"If there are too many Samoans, extra activity will happen," said Faga'itua coach Maselino Tautu, voicing a frequent refrain among Samoan authority figures.
Hawaii is gaga over linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa of San Diego, popularly viewed as the second coming of Seau. He likely would have started last year as a true freshman, but didn't qualify academically.
Also, despite being the first player to be named both Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in San Diego, many schools were leery of him because of off-field problems.
But patience and second chances pay off, like they did with Mulitauaopele. Tinoisamoa is now eligible, and the budding star is expected to become the newest Samoan name palagi -- white people -- struggle to pronounce while cheering.
That's why these young Samoans are slugging it out in the mud in Pago Pago. One day, they want palagi to mispronounce their names as well.
Despite all the challenges, not the least of which is the extraordinary distance from the mainland, a pipeline has been laid. College recruiting, once a regional effort, has become practically global, and American Samoa is on the recruiting map.
"The difficulty is it's not on the way to anywhere," Ellerson said. "But the return from the trip has been very profitable."