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Tuesday, May 28, 2002
Updated: May 31, 1:03 PM ET
American football, Samoan style

By Ted Miller
Special to ESPN.com

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa -- It's a sweltering afternoon. Shoulder pads are cracking. Coaches are howling. The familiar smell of mud, sweat and grass rises in a pungent steam from the ground.

Samoan football practice
Traditional Polynesian dances help to make Samoans nimble-footed.
The senses conclude: football practice.

It could be a scene from any football hotbed, from Odessa, Texas, to south Florida, where players dream of 80,000-seat stadiums and highlights on ESPN.

But if you want to find this cradle of football, you'll need a globe and a good eye, because Tutuila, the population center of America Samoa, is a 54-square-mile volcanic island in the South Pacific, more than 4,500 miles from the U.S. mainland and 2,300 miles south-southwest of Hawaii.

When this nearly four-hour practice is over, the athletes will wrap themselves in skirts -- more accurately, lava lavas, the traditional wraparound sarongs Samoan men wear -- and head back to their open-air homes, or fales, in beachside villages surrounded by tropical green hills.

From Junior Seau to Joe Salave'a to Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, every Samoan playing in college or the NFL traces his roots back to this tiny island of roughly 65,000 people.

Samoans once were known as fierce warriors who practiced cannibalism. Now they take their aggressions out on the football field, and they do so with uncanny power and skill due to a potent brew of genetics and culture. Their bodies are naturally big-boned; traditional dances make them nimble; and a disciplined upbringing emphasizes the group over the individual, wiring them for team sports.

Writer Robert Louis Stevenson, Samoa's most famous expatriate, called Polynesians "God's best, at least God's sweetest work." He'd get no argument from college coaches from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Provo, Utah, to Bowling Green, Ky., whose eyes widen at the sight of those tongue-twisting, vowel-laden names.

There are approximately 500,000 Samoans in the world, only half of whom come in contact with American football. Yet more than 200 play Division I college ball.

Every Pac-10 team will have at least one Samoan player on its roster this season, most with two or more. Teams as diverse as Tennessee, Nebraska, BYU, Idaho, Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky have Samoan players.

An estimated 28 Samoans will be on NFL rosters this year, at least six of whom were born or lived on The Rock.

Four Samoans were selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft a month ago. Nebraska's Toniu Fonoti (second round, San Diego) and UNLV's Anton Palepoi (second round, Seattle) were both born in American Samoa.

It has been estimated that a Samoan boy is 40 times more likely to reach the NFL than a boy growing up in the United States.

"It's the sport we were born to play," said University of Washington defensive lineman Tui Alailefaleula, a native of American Samoa. "Football is the game where we can reach our goals and help our families."

'They thought we were Mexican'
The vast majority of Samoans playing in the college or professional ranks are first- or second-generation Americans from families that typically settled in Hawaii or on the West Coast. American Samoans are classified as U.S. nationals and easily can become citizens.

Samoan football
A Samoan football player is 40 times more likely to reach the NFL than a player from the states.
Yet an increasing number of college football programs are recruiting the island, plucking players from its six high school teams and placing them directly onto their squads or at junior colleges. This winter, Matt Toeaina, a running back out of Samoana High, signed with Oregon, where he'll join highly recruited, Robert Toeaina, his cousin from California. Defensive end Melila Purcell of Leone inked with Hawaii.

A year before, Western Kentucky head coach Jack Harbaugh liked what he saw on a tape of linebacker Kris Mau of Faga'itua. One of his assistants, Mike Fanoga, a native of American Samoa who migrated to the U.S. and played for UTEP, then made a trip to the island for a clinic.

"(Fanoga) called back about another player and before you knew it four of them were coming here," Harbaugh said.

Next year, two Leone players top a list of potential Division I-A recruits. Purcell's younger brother, Amani, is a 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end. Fano Tagovailoa is, according to one local coach, "the best quarterback we've seen in Samoa."

Schools like BYU, Arizona and Hawaii have scoped island talent for years. But other programs have started sending coaches to annual football clinics. This month, assistants from USC, Texas Tech, Nevada and Tennessee-Chattanooga will join Fanoga on the island.

A number of obstacles challenge coaches recruiting American Samoa, not the least of which is the expense and time required for the 15-hour airplane trip needed to get there.

Samoan prep athletes often struggle to meet NCAA academic standards. Most grow up in bilingual households, which makes the English portion of the SAT a struggle. This entices some families to seek an off-island education for their children, typically with relatives living in Hawaii or stateside.

Physically, we're there -- if you want a Samoan kid to hit somebody, he'll do it. 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.
Suaese Taase, an assistant coach at Faga'itua High School in American Samoa who played at Louisiana Tech
"Physically, we're there -- if you want a Samoan kid to hit somebody, he'll do it," said Suaese Taase, an assistant coach at Faga'itua who played at Louisiana Tech. "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."

Once a player arrives at a university, the change in lifestyle is dramatic.

"They've never been away from the islands -- it's like another planet," Fanoga said. "They don't tend to go to class at first because it's so relaxed on the island."

The food, culture and pace of life are strange. Mau had never seen snow before he arrived at Western Kentucky. He and his fellow Samoans were equally new to their classmates, particularly when they donned their lava lavas for campus strolls.

"It's the first time they've seen a Samoan," Mau said. "They don't even know where Samoa is. They thought we were Mexican."

Polynesian players tend to stick together, even though that often necessitates ignoring the ancient rivalry between Samoans and Tongans. Washington has four players from American Samoa, two from Tongan and another from Hawaii who pal around.

"They call us 'The Tribe,' " Alailefaleula said. "We play jokes and bag on the Tongans, but we hang out."

Fanoga is turning a recruiting eye toward the far more populous island of Western Samoa, an independent country known for producing the world's finest rugby players. One of the few Western Samoans playing college football is USC running back Malaefou MacKenzie.

"When I go home, they really don't know what football is," MacKenzie said. "But you don't understand the raw athletes they have over there. They're in better shape and more disciplined."

'America's Shame in the South Seas'
Football was barely a blip anywhere on the planet when the United States annexed most of what would become American Samoa in 1900.

Samoan football practice
Rugby is the American (Samoan) pastime, but football is seen as a way to riches.
That action started a trickle of migration to the U.S, where Samoans first discovered the sport. Al Lolotai of the Washington Redskins was the first Samoan in the NFL in 1945, followed by Charles Ane of the Detroit Lions in 1953. Bob Apisa was an All-American at Michigan State in the 1960s.

The U.S. had a naval base on the island until the 1950s, and many Samoan men joined the military as an alternative to the malodorous tuna canneries, the island's largest employer.

The steady flow of Samoans to the U.S., often through the armed forces, made a significant impact in college football in the 1970s, when Mosi Tatupu (USC) and Manu Tuiasosopo (UCLA), among others, made names for themselves. Three consecutive team MVPs at Washington State were Samoan: Jack "The Thowin' Samoan" Thompson, Samoa Samoa and Tali Ena.

But all those athletes grew up primarily in the U.S. Football didn't arrive in American Samoa until 1969, and only then because of a well-meaning but misguided act of cultural imperialism in the early 1960s. That's when an article in Reader's Digest, titled "America's Shame in the South Seas," concluded that the simple island lifestyle was actually abject poverty.

In response, President Kennedy led an aggressive and controversial effort to modernize the island. An airport, schools, a hotel, roads and homes were built. American-style business sprouted up.

Television arrived, beaming in pictures of American life and introducing football to the rugby-crazed Samoans.

"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."

As a result, the ancient customs and codes of conduct that govern Samoan life -- the fa'a Samoa or the "Samoan way" -- has added a tradition over the past 30 years: football.

'No, you can't come to practice in a lava lava'
Francis Tuitele, who played at Idaho State, is the Bear Bryant of high school coaches in American Samoa. Since he took over the Leone team in 1982, he's won 10 island championships. He retired after winning the 2002 championships with a 56-player team he calls his best. Along the way, 11 of his players have gone on to Division I teams and many others to smaller schools.

Samoan football practice
Coaches truly knowledgeable about football are few in American Samoa.
When he took over the program, though, he found 38 eager but far from polished players.

"They'd come to practice with one sock and no shoes," he said. "I'd say, 'No, you can't come to practice in a lava lava.' "

Because the island didn't have any youth leagues, the players knew almost nothing about the game, other than they would get to tackle each other.

Tuitele had to explain the most basic rules and fundamentals.

"All they thought was attack, attack. Tackle the quarterback. Attack the guy with the ball," he said.

Now the championship game is second only to Flag Day as an island celebration. Tafuna Veteran's Memorial Stadium is packed beyond capacity with spectators standing on cars or climbing trees to watch the action.

"It's so loud it's like the Super Bowl," Tuitele said.

The players' skills and knowledge have improved greatly over the years. While no youth leagues exist, elementary schools feature flag football. The high schools also have started junior varsity programs over the past two seasons.

You can see a passion in their eyes. Some youngsters in this country don't have a passion for football. (The Samoans) look at this as a tremendous opportunity.
Western Kentucky football coach Jack Harbaugh
Samoans who have gone on to football glory often return home to help promote the sport. Joe Salave'a of the Tennessee Titans has started an annual football clinic on the island. Last year, he brought along teammate and NFL All-Pro, Jevon Kearse.

Nonetheless, providing equipment basic to prep teams on the mainland is difficult because of the expense. Uniforms are often mix-and-match. A weight room is a rare luxury.

One significant area of improvement is game tape, which is essential to attract the interest of college recruiters. Quality tapes were virtually non-existent until 1996, when the Samoa News, the local newspaper, ran a series of stories calling for the local television station to broadcast games.

An impressive game tape can catch a coach's interest. Few coaches who have recruited Samoan players don't go looking for another.

"You can see a passion in their eyes," Harbaugh said. "Some youngsters in this country don't have a passion for football. (The Samoans) look at this as a tremendous opportunity."

Ted Miller is a staff writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Photos courtesy of the Samoa News