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Tuesday, May 28, 2002
The Dominican Republic of the NFL

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Asovalu Tuiasosopo is the High Talking Chief -- one of only six alive on the planet -- in the remote village of Vatia on the northern edge of the shimmering volcanic island that is American Samoa.

Marques Tuiasosopo
Former Washington quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo followed in the footsteps of his father -- and uncle and cousins and ... -- when he played in the NFL last season.
His son Manu, born and raised in Los Angeles, played defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks for eight seasons, from 1979-86. Manu's son, Marques, is a second-year quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. Marques has 11 relatives, including Jesse Sapolu, a 15-year offensive lineman for the 49ers, who played football at a Division I school or reached the NFL.

"It all started for us in American Samoa," Manu said from his Seattle home. "That's our culture back there."

Marques has heard the stories from his father about pioneers like Jack "The Throwin' Samoan" Thompson, about how tough and relentless Mosi Tatupu and Mark Tuinei were.

"I didn't comprehend the NFL," Marques said recently from the Raiders' complex. "Football was just what my father did. And then my dream was to become an NFL player. I had a resource in my father. He told me what the expectations were.

"The first group of Samoans who made the league, they gave the Samoan community something to look up to. Today, we are a by-product of the original dream of those early Samoans."

No fewer than 28 players on current NFL training camp rosters have roots in American Samoa. "What?" shouted Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala through the phone. "Twenty-eight Samoans in the league ... hoooo! Man, my wife (Adriana) is tripping right now. That's hard to believe."

At least another handful of players who have spent time on NFL rosters are free agents. When you factor in players from nearby Hawaii -- the Ravens, for instance, have three such players on their roster -- Fiji and Tonga, the total of South Pacific islanders approaches 50 players. That's nearly an entire team's regular-season roster's worth or nearly 2 percent of the players in the league today.

American Samoa, however, is the true and seemingly unlikeliest of football factories. It is to the NFL what the Dominican Republic is to Major League Baseball. With a population of less than 65,000, it is roughly equivalent in size to Carlsbad, Calif., Schenectady, N.Y., Danbury, Conn., or Hunt, Texas.

There are about 500,000 Samoans in the world and more than 200 play Division I football. A Samoan boy, according to estimates, is 40 times more likely to make it to the NFL than a boy from the mainland.

Twenty-eight players -- a staggering number for an unincorporated territory of the U.S. where rugby and cricket remain the sports of choice. You may recognize a few names:

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala
Samoan Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala is a bruising running back who has made a name for himself as Jerome Bettis' backup.
His given name is Tiaina, but he is better known as Junior Seau, the San Diego Chargers' linebacker -- one of the best in league history. And then there is Ravens guard Edwin Mulitalo, proud owner of a Super Bowl ring. Fuamatu-Ma'afala, the rugged Steelers running back, Lions eight-year defensive tackle Luther Elliss and Vikings nine-year guard David Dixon also have Samoan blood.

The number of NFL players actually born in American Samoa, a 76-square-mile island that straddles the international dateline in the South Pacific, is in single digits, but most have mothers or fathers or grandparents who are native islanders.

Marques Tuiasosopo is typical of the current generation of Samoans in the NFL. His father, Manu, is a full-blooded Samoan, while his mother, Tina, is Caucasian. That makes Marques "afakasi," or mixed-blooded in Samoan. After an outstanding career at the University of Washington, he was drafted by the Raiders in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft. He completed three of four passes as a backup to the durable Rich Gannon and will compete with Bobby Hoying and Rick Mirer for the job this year.

The Raiders are one of four teams with three Samoans on their roster. Interestingly, three of those four teams (the Raiders, Chargers and Seahawks) are located on the West Coast, where the Pac-10 -- a prime recruiter of Samoans, along with Brigham Young University -- is the most visible college conference. Five teams (the Titans, Patriots, Cardinals, Vikings and Ravens) have two Samoans on their rosters.

Observers say this is the height of Samoan presence in the NFL; of the 28 players on rosters, 18 of them are in their first or second year. Three Samoans were drafted last month in the second-round alone: Nebraska's Toniu Fonoti, a 349-pound guard, went to the Chargers with the No. 39 overall pick, Notre Dame defensive tackle Anthony Weaver was the No. 52 overall choice of the Ravens and UNLV defensive end Anton Palepoi went to the Seahawks with the No. 60 pick. The Vikings took Ed Ta'amu, Utah's 335-pound guard, in the fourth round.

Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian broke into the NFL in 1978 as a scout with the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that would feature Samoan linebacker Frank Manumaleuga and Hawaiian running back Arnold Morgado. Later, as Buffalo's general manager, Polian was impressed with BYU's Vai Sikahema, a Tongan.

"But I chickened out from drafting him," Polian said. "Can you imagine him and Steve Tasker on the same special teams unit? Seriously, there are some great, great players coming out of that part of the world. It seems like today there are more than ever."

American (Samoa) success
Junior Seau has all the trappings of the classic American success story: a spectacular 12-year career in the NFL, three beautiful children, a popular sports bar and restaurant, a membership at the prestigious La Jolla Country Club and an annual celebrity golf tournament that raises money for his charity, The Seau Foundation.

 Junior Seau
Junior Seau deserves props as one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
"I'm basically a homegrown American," Seau said last week from Baltimore where he was playing in Ray Lewis' charity golf tournament.

Basically -- except that both his parents are full-blooded Samoans and he lived in American Samoa between the ages of 3 and 6. Seau did not begin speaking English until he was 7 years old. He was born Tiaina Seau Jr., on Jan. 19, 1969 in San Diego and after four years in American Samoa returned to California, where he went on to play at Oceanside High School.

Seau said the success of Samoans in the NFL begins at home.

"I honestly think it is tied to the work ethic within the home," he said. "Those intangibles of not taking anything for granted. For me, what my mom and dad instilled within me has helped me overcome obstacles and focus on the sport itself."

Seau has started in 186 of the 187 games he's played in over his 12-year career. He has recorded 1,142 tackles and 45½ sacks. And he has been named to 11 consecutive Pro Bowls; second only to Randall McDaniel (12) since 1970.

The Seahawks' Palepoi has a similar story. The 6-foot-3, 279-pound defensive end was born in American Samoa and moved to Southern California at the age of 6. He later joined a large Samoan population in and around Salt Lake City. Growing up, he had two football idols, Lawrence Taylor -- and Junior Seau.

Palepoi might have gone higher than the second round of the draft, but he missed half his senior season after injurying his knee. Still, he had 4½ sacks and seven tackles for losses in six games. A strong personal workout convinced the Seahawks that Palepoi was better than the fourth- or fifth-round status that some predicted for him. He was the highest UNLV pick since running back Ickey Woods in 1988.

I think there's a lot of us in the NFL, but I think there could be more, to be honest with you. There are a few guys who fell through the cracks, academically. We're proving that guys can make it, so guys have to work hard in the classroom and then you'll see more making it in the NFL.
Anton Palepoi, a rookie defensive end selected by the Seahawks in April
"I think there's a lot of us in the NFL, but I think there could be more, to be honest with you," Palepoi said. "There are a few guys who fell through the cracks, academically. We're proving that guys can make it, so guys have to work hard in the classroom and then you'll see more making it in the NFL."

He and others credit college recruiters with the influx of Samoan talent in the NFL.

"I know BYU has been big on Polynesian players and now other eyes are starting to notice," Palepoi said from the Seahawks' facility. "Where I'm from, UNLV, we had a couple of coaches go out there."

Like every movement, this one started at the grass-roots level. Al Lolotai of the Redskins was the first Samoan in the NFL, back in 1945. But the 1970s brought Mosi Tatupu (USC), Manu Tuiasosopo (UCLA), Terry Tautolo (UCLA) and Thompson (Washington). Tuiasosopo and Tautolo's fathers, in fact, were brothers. Tuiasosopo and Frank and John Manumaleuna were part of Samoan Athletes in Action, a group that helped nurture the next generation. Today, Marques Tuiasosopo is a member of the Raiders and Brandon Manumaleuna plays tight end for the St. Louis Rams.

"You're seeing it all come together now," said Manu Tuiasosopo. "You have families that have been exposed to the sport and coaches, too. When I was at UCLA, [49ers general manager] Terry Donahue was on Dick Vermeil's staff. John McKay and John Robinson were the coaches at USC, and they all branched out to the NFL. They've discovered that they can include Pacific Islanders as prospects, too."

Building a dream
The football fields in American Samoa today are pitted with rocks and holes. Athletes are reduced to bench-pressing sticks with bundles of bricks tied to them. The ratty equipment looks like something out of the 1940s. Coaching, too, is antiquated. A half-dozen schools field teams and they all play each other twice.

Jevon Kearse
Jevon Kearse isn't Samoan, but he tagged along with teammate Joe Salave'a for a clinic in American Samoa last year.
And this represents remarkable progress.

When Titans defensive tackle Joe Salave'a was born in the town of Leone in American Samoa in 1975, the sixth of eight children, football didn't exist.

"Man, there was nothing," Salave'a said from the Titans offices. "We only had rugby down there."

Salave'a moved to the United States during his freshman year of high school and attended Seau's high school in California, Oceanside. He was big and strong, so they asked him to try out for football.

"I had no idea what was going on -- just wearing the equipment was weird," Salave'a said. "They told me to go attack the guy with the football, so I did. The fundamentals ... that took a while."

Thirteen years later, after a strong career at Arizona, Salave'a is a productive member of the Titans in his fifth season. The defensive tackle had two major surgeries in the offseason (ankle and shoulder) and is rehabbing daily in Nashville. He is currently without a contract but expects to sign soon.

Salave'a always has embraced his culture. He occasionally wears a traditional Samoan sarong to work and bears a band of Samoan tattoos around his right biceps: a kava drinking bowl, which is used for high ceremonies, a tatau -- a traditional marking that identifies islanders as blue-collar workers -- plus a variety of island designs.

There is a slogan on the Governor of American Samoa's Web site: "Where America's Day Ends and Polynesia Begins." Salave'a would like to see it amended this way: "Where America's Day Ends and Football Prospects Begin."

Last spring, Salave'a made a big contribution toward increasing the learning curve for Samoan athletes who might consider football. He brought a contingent of players from the mainland, including teammate Jevon Kearse, for a series of clinics for 600 kids. He also brought much-needed equipment in the first major event for The Joe Salave'a Foundation, which is headquartered in Leone.

"Unless you see for yourself how poor facilities and fields are -- you'd be in awe of how kids compete under such circumstances," he said. "What they have now is all they know."

Salave'a is going back for a four-day event, from June 25-28. So is Kearse.

"He really liked the island," Salave'a said. "We're also bringing Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala of the Steelers and some high school and college coaches, too. I had 1,000 T-shirts printed up -- I hope we don't exceed that number. I'm stressing to these people, 'If I can do it, you can do it, too.' Every year I go home, kids are more and more into learning the game, asking questions. "We are barely at the tip of the iceberg."

I told Marques growing up, 'What do you want to do?' He said, 'I want to play.' Now look at him. Look at all of them. They've worked hard; nothing has been given to them. Now they've got to pass it on to the next group of people.
Manu Tuiasosopo
Marques Tuiasosopo agrees.

"Things like that will open it up," he said. "Samoan kids can say, 'I can have a dream.' Whether they live in the cities or the suburbs, in American Samoa or the mainland, they can see that there are Samoans accomplishing their dreams and living them out. To be able to see someone from the same ethnic background do well, it's kind of exciting."

The father, who provided the example for the son and many others, is humbled by the success of Samoans in the NFL.

"I'm really happy for these kids -- I shouldn't call them kids," said Manu Tuiasosopo. "They are living their dream. I told Marques growing up, 'What do you want to do?' He said, 'I want to play.'

"Now look at him. Look at all of them. They've worked hard; nothing has been given to them. Now they've got to pass it on to the next group of people."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com