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Tuesday, May 28, 2002
A recruiting pitch of another kind

By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine

It was a recruiting visit unlike any other the players had seen during their many trips to college football's top programs. Sure, the red carpet had been rolled out for them before. But this was, well, a little different.

LaVell Edwards & Gary Crowton
Like LaVell Edwards before him, left, Gary Crowton has quickly learned know how to make Polynesian players feel at home in Provo.
Provo, Utah, after all, doesn't exactly smack of the South Pacific. And the Rocky Mountains is about the last place you'd expect to experience an authentic Polynesian luau. Particularly in January.

But there, on the table, was a roasted pig and a bowl of lupulu, a spinach-beef dish. And there, in the living room, was Brigham Young head coach Gary Crowton doing his best to perform a traditional Polynesian dance.

"It was different from any of my other visits," said Fui Vakapuna, a highly touted running back and one of three recruits of South Pacific island descent there. "He had the food, the shirts, the dancing.

"We danced. Even (Crowton) danced. Well, kinda. Sorta. It was funny. It was a nice surprise."

Call it the power of the Polynesian Pipeline.

BYU, the Mormon university in the Rockies whose students venture to the corners of the earth on missions to spread their religion, also sends its football coaches to the islands to deliver a recruiting pitch of a different kind. They leave no stone unturned in search of talented athletes and no detail overlooked in selling the school to players who might otherwise seem out of place in the cool, arid climate where snow-capped mountains, not tropical vegetation, provide the dramatic backdrop and parkas, not wraparound sarongs, are the clothes of choice. Over the years, the combination of the two have brought BYU some of the largest, most athletically gifted players in college football.

This year, it brought Vakapuna, a 6-foot, 205-pound running back whose parents had moved some 6,000 miles from Tonga to Salt Lake City, the heart of Mormon country. It also brought Vakapuna's high school teammate, Viliami Tukuafu, a 6-3, 240-pound defensive end. Both committed to play at BYU shortly after their visit.

Crowton's nimble-footed dancing nearly landed another Tongan from Salt Lake City, Halot Ngata, a 6-4, 320-pound defensive tackle and among the country's top recruits. A devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Ngata said he felt most at home at BYU, but struggled to make his college decision. He eventually signed a national letter of intent to play at Oregon after first committing to Nebraska.

But BYU might not want to cross him off its list just yet. If he's anything like Manaia Brown, another pocket-crushing defensive lineman with island roots, Ngata might be in a Cougars uniform soon enough. Brown, a swift 6-4, 310-pound Samoan who played at Nebraska last season as a true freshman, left the Huskers during the offseason to return home to Utah.

"BYU offered a lot for Samoan and Tongan kids," says Steve Kaufusi, a former Cougars standout who now oversees BYU's Poly Pipeline. "Many were LDS (Latter-Day Saints Church members) and they knew it wasn't a party school. Your parents knew you'd have to sign the Honor Code and abide by it, meaning no smoking or drinking or premarital sex, so the atmosphere was in line with the culture."

Samoan football practice
Like the Mormon religion, American football has become popular in American Samoa.
The LDS' impact on Polynesians is enormous. Of the 67,000 people who live on American Samoa, 13,000 are LDS. Of the 104,000 Tongans, 45,000 are LDS. The Mormon religion became popular after four men traveled to the islands, located halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, in 1843. Since then, the faith has become a huge part of their culture, as has football. The seeds of the church and its influence not only reshaped the culture of Samoans, it encouraged their migration to Southern California and Utah.

"We just have a real love for the game," says Kaufusi, himself a Tongan. "I'm not a psychologist. I can't really explain it. We love the physical battling and we have that warrior mentality. Back in the old days we had a lot of island-to-island wars. There were no guns. It was just a lot of 'Whoever is bigger and stronger and tougher, so let's find out.' "

Kaufusi, a former all-conference defensive lineman at BYU in the mid-'80s who later played with the Philadelphia Eagles, is the oldest of five brothers who all starred in college football. The other four all played at Utah, where he was defensive line coach until three months ago.

Thanks to Kaufusi's zeal and charismatic personality, the Utes were able to challenge BYU for many of the top Polynesian prospects in the '90s. His first big coup was Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, a powerful running back now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last fall, the Utes started six Polynesians, including three on their front four. But when veteran BYU coach Tom Ramage retired, Crowton jumped at the chance to bring Kaufusi on board as his new defensive line coach.

Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala
While at Utah, Steve Kaufusi landed bruising running back Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala, now of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He follows in the footsteps of a long line of assistant coaches at BYU -- the first, Chris Apostol, seemed most aptly named -- whose primary mission is to tap into Polynesian culture in search of overlooked talent. He already has begun recruiting 10 Polynesian players for next year's recruiting class.

But BYU no longer has a corner on players with roots from the South Pacific.

USC, which has former BYU star Keith Uperesa as its offensive line coach and Kennedy Pola as its special teams coach, also can thank its own Poly pipeline for the program's resurgence. Pola's nephew is All-American Troy Polamalu, who figures to be the nation's top safety this fall. The hard-hitting 5-10, 215-pound senior was a star in tiny Tenmile, Ore., which got its name because it's pretty much 10 miles from the nearest town. Polamalu was recommended to then Trojan coach Paul Hackett by his uncle, Kennedy Pola, a former Trojan fullback who was coaching at Colorado. Having strong roots enables these families to have so many branches on their family trees.

BYU has made the most of its players' connections to family on islands like Hawaii, American Samoa and Tonga. The sense of kinship, they say, extends beyond bloodlines and includes all fellow islanders.

The Cougars already had had a few Polynesian players, like Famika Anae and John Kapele, trickle into the program in the 1950s, but former BYU head coach Tally Stevens made it Apostol's job in 1959 to mine the South Pacific islands that were full of agile, thick-legged, slope shouldered roughnecks long on loyalty and short on subtlety. Apostol quickly had the run of the islands, and BYU solidified the stronghold by opening a satellite campus on Oahu (BYU-Hawaii).

Within five years, Apostol had lured John Kawaa, Dennis Brewster and Moses Kim from Hawaii. By the time innovative Cougar defensive coordinator LaVell Edwards took over the program in 1972, BYU was a force in island football. Edwards even decided to start scheduling games against the University of Hawaii to maximize the Cougars' exposure in the Pacific Rim, and noted passing-game guru Norm Chow, a native Hawaiian who played at Utah and coached at BYU from 1977-99, strengthened the Cougars' control.

As Edwards began building a powerhouse in Provo, other coaches took note, and it didn't take long for Arizona State, USC and Michigan State to begin island hopping with BYU. Still, none of them had the luck out west that BYU had with its Poly Pipeline.

"I feel strongly BYU is the place to be for an LDS athlete," Vai Sikahema, a former BYU standout who later played for the Philadelphia Eagles, once said. "Just as Catholics think Notre Dame is the best place to go or Methodists think SMU is, I firmly believe BYU has a lot to offer those of our faith."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine