In the '20s and '30s, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant football fans were stunned by the emergence of a generation of players whose antecedents were mysterious and whose names—Nagurski, Wojcie-chowicz, Oosterbaan, Skladany—when they first appeared in newspaper headlines, seemed to be the products of a berserk compositor. Nothing quite like it has happened since (the black boom in the college game was cushioned by familiar names—Buddy Young, Jim Brown, Lenny Moore). But this fall a comparable cultural shock could be in the making.
What is coming on is a swarm of Polynesian warriors—not your run-of-the-reef, gin mill flamethrowers, but strong, fierce men, six to seven feet tall, who seem to have stepped into the 20th century from some secret museum of oceanic antiquities. As, in fact, they have. The museum is a tiny (76 square miles) island cluster in the deep South Seas called American Samoa. Not only is it the least known and most remote of U.S. territories, but, together with Western Samoa, it also is the only island group where the Polynesian culture—and the Polynesian race—has survived virtually intact.
Until the 1950s, few Samoans ever left home, but among those who did a good many made their mark—some in football. Packard Harrington, for example, starred for St. Mary's of Moraga (Calif.) in the late '30s and Al Harrington (no kin) made a name for himself at Stanford two decades later. They both said they were Samoans, but what was that? Even if Al had abided by Samoan custom and gone by his matriarchal name—which is Taa—he would have been lumped with Charley Ane, an All-Pro center for the Detroit Lions, Famika Anae, a varsity center for Brigham Young, and Al Lolotai, a Washington Redskin guard in the Sammy Baugh era, as just another "Hawaiian." Lolotai reluctantly surrendered to this cultural disfranchisement by wrestling professionally under the name of "Sweet Leilani."
But this time there will be no ethnic surrenders. The new Samoans are coming in sufficient force to command attention, and in a half-dozen Western colleges and universities—USC, UCLA, San Jose State, Brigham Young, San Diego State and Hawaii—are proudly proclaiming their true identity.
August 15, 1976
Nearly all of these Samoan players were born in California or Hawaii, or were brought there as young children. Many Samoans emigrated after the U.S. Navy closed its Pago Pago base in 1951, not because they wanted to leave but because the loss of the Navy payroll created an economic crisis. Few could speak English and most brought little with them except their kids, their physical prowess and their Polynesian pride. Condemned to the slums by poverty and the language barrier, the Samoans had a rough time. But the pride never wavered, the kids are college age now and they are out to beat what Al Harrington calls "the great white race," not truckle to it.
The young Samoans preparing for the coming season are acutely aware that they are more than football players—they are missionaries for fa'a Samoa, the Samoan way of life. As their coaches already know, if you ask a Samoan to run five miles, he'll run 10; if you ask him to take out an opponent, he is apt to take him clear out of the stadium.
The man cast for the Billy Graham role in this football crusade is a 225-pound, six-foot USC fullback named Mosi Tatupu, out of Pago Pago by way of Honolulu's Punahou High School. Tatupu became the Trojans' starting fullback last fall after Dave Farmer broke his leg, and he not only carried the ball 416 yards but also did most of the blocking that enabled Ricky Bell to assemble a near-record 1,875 yards rushing. "In South Bend last fall," Tatupu recalls, "the people put signs up in our hotel that said RING RICKY'S BELL. Well, they didn't ring it." The Trojans, in the midst of a lackluster season, whipped Notre Dame 24-17, partly because of Samoan Power.
If the way to catch a thief is to be one, the way to stop a Samoan may be to put another Samoan, or better yet, two Samoans, against him—or so the Rose Bowl champion UCLA Bruins hope. When UCLA confronts USC this November, new Coach Terry Donahue will have Linebacker Manu Tuiasosopo and Defensive Tackle Pete Pele waiting for Mosi and Ricky, and a third Samoan, Anthony Paopao, to carry the ball after the defense has done its work.
Although most of the other Pac-Eight schools have tried to make Samoan connections in recent years, none of their acquisitions was significant. But the WAC and the PCAA had better luck—or made better offers. Long Beach State will field Joe Paopao (Anthony's older brother) and Long Beach City College has a promising freshman named Samoa Samoa. Wilson Faumuina is ready for another big year at San Jose State and Ed Imo will be in action for San Diego State. Even an occasional Western Samoan finds his way to U.S. football, e.g., Mekeli Ieremia, who will join Neal Ane (youngest son of former Detroit Lion Charley) and other American Samoans on the Brigham Young squad. Arizona State Coach Frank Kush, who knows all about Samoans, made a strenuous effort last year to recruit Honolulu high school star Tom Tuinei, but Tuinei was captured by the University of Hawaii (which has awakened to the treasure in its midst).
The Samoan surge has been in the making for a decade. In the mid-'60s Bob Apisa tore up the Big Ten for Duffy Daugherty at Michigan State, but he was linked—in the headlines and the public mind—with his Hawaiian teammate Dick Kenney as "The Hawaiian Punch." Although Apisa was an All-America as a sophomore, only two schools seem to have attached much importance to the fact that he was born in Pago Pago. The University of Montana recruited Tuufuli Uperesa (who in 1968-69 made All-Conference in the Big Sky and for the past 3/2 years has played in the Canadian Football League) and, in 1968, the aforementioned Frank Kush pounced on the star of Honolulu's Kahuku High team, a 6'2", 218-pound holy Mormon terror named Junior Ah You. Nobody looks more like a Polynesian warrior than Junior—he has a body-builder's physique, smoky eyes flanking a hawk nose in a high-cheekboned face, a Fu Manchu mustache embracing a mobile mouth full of flashing white teeth—and nobody's name sounds less like one. Ah You? Junior Ah You? A waiter, or a busboy, maybe, helping out in his father's Chinese restaurant?
"My father is half Chinese," Junior said recently. "My mother is pure Samoan." Does that make Junior one-fourth Chinese? No, sir! "That makes me all Samoan!" Junior declares, proudly and loudly. Junior Ah You asserted his racial heritage throughout his career at Arizona State—he was an All-WAC defensive end for three straight years—and he has been declaring it in Montreal ever since he graduated and signed with the Alouettes of the CFL.
The notice Samoans are now getting in the West may help Junior Ah You gain belated ethnic recognition; and it won't hurt Bob Apisa, now a management consultant to the Office of Economic Opportunity in Honolulu, in his campaign to be the first Samoan elected to the Hawaiian legislature. But does it really mean, as many think in Honolulu, that the Samoans are about to do for U.S. football what oil did for Oklahoma? How many Samoans are there, anyway?
The population of American Samoa is less than 30,000, and there are some 50,000 more Samoans overseas—30,000 in Southern California and 20,000 in Hawaii. But even if this minuscule total of 80,000 is cut in two (Samoan girls are good athletes, but none so far is playing college football), there is no reason to believe the pool will run dry or diminish in richness. The population has been exploding for 40 years.
"We are all Polynesians," says Al Harrington, who majored in history while playing football at Stanford and who taught at Punahou and the University of Hawaii before electing to exploit his warrior body, chiefly mien and dramatic skills as an actor in Hawaii Five-0 (he plays Ben Kokua) and as the star of a Waikiki luau show. "But Samoans have not been watered down as the Hawaiians were by the Boston missionaries and the Tahitians were by the French. So we not only tend to be bigger, but we retain a fierce sectional, cultural and family pride. The soul of Samoa still is competitiveness."
That is at least a partial definition of fa'a Samoa, a cultural structure that has endured for 2,000 years and flourishes just as vigorously today in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oceanside, Honolulu and—yes—Montreal as it does in Pago Pago. The heart of the culture is the so-called "extended family" system, in which a man's family includes his most remote relatives, all organized into a unit that resembles a Scottish clan—or a Marine regiment. Like Scots and marines, the families delight in fighting each other (centuries ago they did it with spears and clubs; more recently, in American Samoa, such games as rugby, soccer and—since 1968—American football have been substituted), but let any outsider challenge a Samoan and all the families become one.
Famika Anae, the BYU center who was the first Samoan to become head coach of a Honolulu high school, says, "It is very hard on a Samoan kid who doesn't do well, or what his father thinks is well. He is felt to have disgraced the family, and when he gets home he is likely to get a two-hour lecture that may end in a beating. This is especially true of immigrant families. They see everything the kids do as an important part of promoting the culture. A loss reflects on the parents, the chiefs and the race."
Fa'a Samoa is no more acceptive of failure in academic fields than it is of physical shortfalls. "My objective at Michigan State always was to get a degree, even beyond football," Bob Apisa says. "When I went to Michigan State it was a matter of pride for me. I was representing not only myself, my family and the Samoan community, but Hawaii, too. I had three knee operations in college and it was my responsibility to all the people back home that inspired me to get up mornings when it was 20° below zero in East Lansing and walk half a mile on crutches to an 8 a.m. class. It brings a feeling of shame on your family if you don't accomplish what you set out to do...a Samoan is going to see something through, right or wrong."
This pride and dedication—combined with the frustration that inevitably besets immigrants at the bottom of the economic ladder—has led some Samoans to choose wrong over right. "In Samoa," says la Saipaia, a native-born basketball star, "you've got only two ways to go—to the gym and school, or to become a thief. You have to make the decision." (A Samoan incursion into mainland basketball may be also in the offing: Muliufi Hannemann, at Harvard on a scholastic scholarship, played for the Crimson three years, and Saipaia, now a freshman at San Diego State, was offered basketball scholarships by two other mainland universities.)
"Samoans are very physical people," Famika Anae says. "They simply can't stand losing—either in sports or in life. They resent it when they see Caucasians or Japanese-Americans getting the best jobs, or sometimes the only jobs, and some take advantage of their physical strength to try for success along any avenue that seems open—even if it is crime." One who did take the latter route is Alema Leota, who played football for Hawaii's Iolani High in the '40s. The son of devout but very poor Mormon parents, Leota parlayed a career as a "terrorist" (a judge's description) into temporary control of a Hawaiian crime syndicate. While Samoans regretfully concede that Leota has provided both a role model and employment opportunities for a good many youths, and has been partly responsible for giving Samoans a "violent" image in Honolulu, they do not disown him.
Hawaii's Samoan Council of Chiefs and Orators is proud, however, that more acceptable models have been created by men like Apisa, Harrington, Anae, Ah You and Uperesa. "We believe in the American dream," says Al Harrington. "We think hard work and merit will pay off. Thus far for Samoans, football and other sports have provided a way toward fulfillment of the dream." Backing up Harrington are the Samoans who have finished their schooling and are beginning to appear on pro rosters, men like Terry Tautolo, who graduated from UCLA last spring and is now in the Philadelphia Eagles' training camp, and Charles Ane (another son of Charley's), who joined the Kansas City Chiefs after Michigan State.
But Harrington also notes, "Many Samoans are now moving up through scholastic scholarships—in law, history, accounting and political science." If the past were the only guide to the future, it might be safe to assume that as more and more immigrant Samoans go into the professions or business, the domestic pool of athletic talent will shrink. Consequently, college and professional scouts who are just awakening to the potential of Samoan high school players are likely to be taking even longer trips in the future—to Pago Pago itself. A lot will depend on the performance of the University of Hawaii's prize recruit, a 280-pound, 6'4" defensive tackle named Nofo Tipoti. This giant is not quite direct from American Samoa, but almost—he came to San Francisco in 1973 after his graduation from Faga'itua High School near Pago Pago and spent two warmup years at San Francisco City College. A number of universities that had overlooked the more accessible Samoan talent were attracted by this exotic import. "The competition for Tipoti was ferocious," says Hawaii Coach Larry Price, "and so is Nofo when he takes aim at a ballcarrier."
Tipoti's presence on a U.S. college roster is a tribute to the efforts of three men—one an Idaho Mormon, another an educator from Hawaii, and the third a native Samoan, Al Lolotai, the erstwhile "Sweet Leilani" (who has a son, Tiloi, on a football scholarship at the University of Colorado). The man from Idaho is Rex Lee, appointed governor of American Samoa by President Kennedy in 1961. Lee rebuilt the schools, instituted educational TV, arranged for the opening of two fish canneries to replace the lost Navy payroll and persuaded Samoans to learn English. Moreover, he managed these changes without interfering with fa'a Samoa or trying to replace it. As they have in the past, the Samoans welcomed these "reforms" as additions to their culture, not substitutes for it. (They became nominal Christians—mostly Congregationalists, Catholics, Mormons and Methodists—in the 1800s because one chief noted that the missionaries sailed ships "while we paddle canoes—so they must have something.")
In 1968 the five high schools Lee had established and expanded on Tutuila, the largest island in the American group, were organized into an athletic league, and training films in American-style football were broadcast on the territory-wide TV station. The Samoans took to the game with all the enthusiasm medieval knights brought to the Crusades, but sometimes with ludicrous results. In the first two years both Samoan exuberance and the spirit of fa'a Samoa were on display. In one game, before the rules were understood, a ballcarrier was tackled by 21 players—the members of both teams. In another, the supporters of a losing team attacked the winners with cricket bats. (Cricket is another inheritance from the missionaries.)
Order was established in 1970 when Milton DeMello, deputy superintendent of schools in Honolulu, was made director of the Samoan educational system. An ardent football fan, DeMello brought Al Lolotai back to his homeland to take charge of sports. Now all the high schools have teams and the televised NFL Game of the Week holds Samoa spellbound. Lee's language and educational reforms have in no way weakened the physical power of Samoan youth—Tipoti is no bigger or tougher than a lot of kids a year or so younger than he is. They still grow up in the tradition of fa'a Samoa, and one of its mainstays is child labor—for the family, not for an exploiting employer.
Along with natural selection and racial purity (unlike the Hawaiians, few Samoans married missionaries, traders, sailors or marines, and no intruders ever got possession of Samoan land), hard work accounts for the Samoans' extraordinary size and strength. "A Samoan boy starts hard physical labor even before he reaches school age," says Famika Anae, who conducts a football clinic every summer in Pago Pago. "He must climb a coconut tree 100 feet tall, barefoot and carrying a machete, tear the coconuts loose and even cut away the fronds. These kids do this every day and, after school starts, every night. We have high school athletes in Hawaii who can climb only four or five trees a day. Little kids in Samoa climb 20, and they also hike into the mountains to help with the banana harvest, packing out loads that weigh 75 to 80 pounds. By the time a boy is ready for high school football, his muscles often are as defined as those of a weight lifter." Even in football season Samoan boys don't get clear away from coconut palms. "The sight of the Samoana High squad practicing is something to remember," says DeMello, who is now back in Hawaii as headmaster of Mid-Pacific Institute. "They learn blocking by hitting padded coconut trees."
Last summer Dan Stavely, freshman coach at the University of Colorado, assisted Anae in his Pago Pago clinic. "We timed kids down there in the 40-yard dash," Anae says. "Two ran it in 4.5 seconds, and five others in 4.6—and two of them weighed 215 and 220 pounds. A lot did it in 4.8 or 4.9, which is faster than many college players."
Contrary to Lee's hopes, the canneries have not provided sufficient employment opportunities to support the still-expanding population of American Samoa, and there just aren't enough coconut trees (or enough demand for copra) to fulfill job needs. In consequence, U.S. football looks like the rainbow's end for many Samoan teen-agers. But if Nofo Tipoti does as well as Price expects, the entire Samoan economy may benefit—from the new hotel that will have to be built in Pago Pago to house the scouts.