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Football In Paradise Thousands of miles removed from Friday-night lights, on a tiny rock in the South Pacific, young boys are bred to play America's game. How Samoa has become an Eden for recruiters

Nov. 03, 2003
Nov. 03, 2003

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Nov. 3, 2003

Football In Paradise Thousands of miles removed from Friday-night lights, on a tiny rock in the South Pacific, young boys are bred to play America's game. How Samoa has become an Eden for recruiters

The Samoan term for white man is palagi, which means "comes from
the sky." The word fits because travelers headed to American
Samoa from the U.S. must spend a day in the air--five hours from
Los Angeles to Hawaii, then another five south and west, across
the equator, past Tahiti and Bora-Bora, to the main island, a
four-by-20-mile volcanic outcropping in the South Pacific that
locals call the Rock and that, through a quirk of history, is an
American territory. These days a growing number of college
football coaches are making the back-stiffening journey part of
their annual recruiting routine because the remote little isle of
70,000 residents has begun producing a supply of top-flight
players out of all proportion to its population. ¶ Samoans have
been playing football in college and the NFL for years. The names
are as familiar to fans as they are vowel-laden: Mosi Tatupu,
Manu Tuiasosopo, Junior Seau. This fall there are more than 200
players of Samoan descent on Division I football rosters, as
well as a handful in the NFL. Most Samoan players were either
born in the U.S. or moved from the island at a young age. Jack
Thompson, dubbed the Throwin' Samoan during his collegiate days
at Washington State in the late 1970s, was born in American
Samoa but moved to Seattle with his family when he was four.
Seau spent part of his youth on the island but lived in
Southern California from grade school on.

This is an article from the Nov. 3, 2003 issue Original Layout

Their cases are typical--or used to be. A consistent flow of
talent directly from the island to mainland football is a new
phenomenon. Signs of change in the Samoan pipeline were apparent
this past spring when Penn State assistant coach Brian Norwood
became the first Nittany Lions coach to visit the territory,
normally the exclusive province of West Coast schools. The
changes will be more apparent next spring when Isaac Sopoaga, a
University of Hawaii senior defensive tackle who's on the watch
lists for the Nagurski and Outland awards, is expected to be the
first player drafted by the NFL who completed his high school in
American Samoa.

But to understand the football cauldron the island has become,
the most telling bit of information is this statistic: Of the 800
boys who graduated from high school in American Samoa in the past
two years, 97 left the island to play football at two-or
four-year colleges in the U.S. That amounts to approximately one
in eight American Samoan males moving on to high-level football
Stateside. It's as if the football gods, searching for the
perfect conditions to breed players, found them on this remote
isle, with its singular mix of Polynesian culture and modern
American influence.

Signs of the West are plentiful in Pago Pago, American Samoa's
capital, on the main island of Tutuila. There's a Quality Inn and
a McDonald's. The local paper carries Hagar the Horrible and
Cathy, and, thanks to the American Forces Network, TV viewers can
catch Good Morning America. Though poor by mainland standards,
the island is more developed than one might imagine. StarKist and
Chicken of the Sea canneries employ about a third of the
workforce and dominate Tutuila's harbor. Whatever paradise smells
like, it's probably not tuna processing plants.

Modern trappings notwithstanding, Samoa is still the South
Pacific. Palm trees sway, and waves crash on the reefs. Though
most islanders speak English, the primary language is Samoan,
heavy on vowels and silences. There's centralized government, but
tribal chiefs run the villages. Men still get their bodies
tattooed from waist to thigh, all the way around. (Says high
school football coach Bryan Miscoi of his tattoo, "It goes right
up under the sack.") The saronglike lavalavas are worn by women
and men alike. Football players wear them at their leisure and
sometimes at practice.

Some of these men in lavalavas grow large. Affect-the-tides
large. Samoan footballers often remain lean through their
adolescent years and then, when they hit American college weight
rooms and training tables, expand prodigiously. Matt Toeaina was
recruited by Oregon as a 215-pound fullback. After redshirting as
a freshman in 2002, he's playing this season as a 266-pound
defensive lineman. Jonathan Fanene quarterbacked at 210 pounds in
high school in Samoa. After two years in junior college he's
lining up for Utah this year--as a 300-pound defensive tackle.

But sheer bulk does not explain Samoans' success at football. In
fact, when American coaches discuss the distinguishing
characteristics of Samoan players, they talk about the passion
the kids bring to the game and their cultural identity, two
traits that merge seamlessly in the huddle.

The hallmark of Samoan football is hitting. "They're so
physical," says Utah assistant coach Bill Busch, who has made
three recruiting trips to the island. "Even in scrimmages they go
all out." Terrence Apted, a 6'5", 280-pound high school offensive
lineman who will likely draw the most recruiting attention among
Samoa's class of 2004, didn't appreciate the ferocity of the
Samoan game until he visited cousins in the States and saw their
teams play. "When the ball's snapped, you don't hear the crunch
in the lines," he says of the off-island game. "Here you can hear
it in the stands."

Samoan high school football is as fevered as it is in Texas or
Florida. American Samoa has six teams: four from public schools,
one from the vocational school and another made up of kids from
the island's four private schools. Those six teams share a
5,000-seat stadium that hosts five games each weekend for four
months beginning in September--two jayvee games on Friday night
and three varsity games on Saturday. More fans follow from home
on TV and radio. Schools play each other twice a season, then
meet in the playoffs. As teams go round and round with each other
in the tropical humidity, rivalries can grow testy.

After a contentious championship game two years ago between Leone
High and Samoana High, the players met at midfield to shake hands
peacefully. Fans, however, rushed from the stands on opposite
sides of the field and met in the middle for an all-out melee.
Says Mac Ane, the island's high school athletic director, who was
announcing the game on the radio, "It was like a scene from
Braveheart." Last year fans frequently fought and threw rocks
after games, not just during football season but through
basketball season and beyond.

The clearest expression of the Samoan passion for the game,
however, is not the behavior in the stands but the willingness of
the players to endure their conditions. Shoulder pads are a
hodgepodge of ill-fitting hand-me-downs held together with string
and duct tape. One senior, Lui Tuitele, described how he and his
teammates augment the pads with a little "Samoan technology":
using cut-up sandals, tied in with shoelaces, to replace the
missing padding. A player might have to supply his own mouthpiece
and sometimes share it, dipping it in water and handing it off to
a teammate headed into the game. Steve Greatwood, an Oregon
assistant who has made several trips to Samoa, says most helmets
in use on the island wouldn't pass a safety test in the States.
"When you see the conditions these kids are subjected to in order
to play the game," he says, "you realize they're playing it
because they love it." He'd like to be able to donate used Oregon
equipment to Samoan schools--"It would be far better than
anything those kids have"--but can't. That would violate NCAA
rules.

Even more pitiful than the equipment are the practice fields for
the island's high schools. At Faga'itua and Samoana, the topsoil
has been worn away down the middle, leaving an exposed layer of
tightly packed lava cinders. Manny Atuitasi, an official in the
government's athletic office whose duties include escorting
recruiters around the island, remembers taking a coach to a
scrimmage at Faga'itua, where a receiver laid out to catch a
ball, crashed hard into the packed-in red cinders below, then
brushed himself off and got back to the huddle. The American
watched in disbelief. "Only in Samoa," the recruiter said.

American Samoa has been a U.S. territory since April 17, 1900,
when the government annexed it at the request of island chiefs
who wanted a powerful friend in the era of tribal and colonial
antagonism. Ever since, Samoans have embraced their relationship
with the mainland. They celebrate the anniversary of the
annexation every year with as much vigor as mainlanders do the
Fourth of July.

For the first decades after annexation the Navy administered
Samoa, which it used as a refueling stop. During World War II,
the island served as a staging area for the Navy, which built
airstrips, power stations and paved roads. That provided Samoans
with their first true taste of the American way of life--fa'a
America, as it became known.

The good times lasted only until 1951, when the Navy handed
administration of Samoa to the Interior Department. By the end of
the decade U.S. government expenditures related to American Samoa
amounted to less than $1.4 million a year. The consequent
debasement of the territory was chronicled in a 1961 story
printed in The Reader's Digest, the reaction to which prompted
the U.S. to devote more money and resources to its South Pacific
outpost.

By the end of the 1960s the number of public schools had tripled,
from one to three. In 1969 a U.S. government official decided
those schools should field football teams; a year later Al
Lolotai, the first player of Samoan heritage to suit up in the
NFL--for the Washington Redskins, in 1945--came to Samoa to help
develop the game there. The early years featured power running,
but as other Samoans with mainland experience came back to coach,
the game grew more sophisticated (although, as most of these
coaches are former linemen, the play is still more advanced in
the trenches than at the skill positions). Now, after three
decades of America's game in the South Seas, football is a
Samoan's best shot at fa'a America.

The people of Samoa are relentlessly, almost comically hospitable
to visitors, as if they want to reward travelers for the effort
spent in getting to the island. "Usually when I show up someplace
on a recruiting trip I'm on my own," says Utah's Busch. "There,
I've got people meeting me at the airport, inviting me to dinner.
They roll out the red carpet."

Samoan culture still revolves around family and faith. Church is
a requisite on Sundays, and grace is still said before meals.
Nowhere did Christian missionaries have more success than they
did here. "Structure and respect for one's elders is big for
Samoans," says Thompson, now a mortgage banker for Chase in
Seattle. "That's why coaches loved us."

One of those coaches was Dick Tomey, who was instrumental in
building the Samoan pipeline. Now an assistant with the San
Francisco 49ers, Tomey was coach at Hawaii from 1977 to '86 and
at Arizona from 1987 to 2000. He first visited the island in the
early '80s to lead skills clinics and quickly learned how
tight-knit the far-flung Samoan community was. When he made
recruiting visits to athletes of Samoan heritage in the U.S.,
most had already heard about his work on the island through
relatives back home. During his tenures at Hawaii and Arizona,
Tomey had more than 120 Samoan players on his rosters. "There are
no athletes that are, in my estimation, more competitive, more
athletic or more family-oriented, or who fit into a team concept
as well as Samoan athletes," Tomey says. "The more we could get
on our team, the better I felt."

Islanders still talk about Tomey's final trip to Samoa, in 1997.
He was at Arizona then, coaching Joe Salave'a, who now plays
defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers. Salave'a had grown
up in Samoa but moved to California to live with relatives during
high school. He had come to Arizona as an academic partial
qualifier, and his father, Miki, took out a loan to pay for his
first semester. But Salave'a threw himself into his studies and
graduated after 3 1/2 years, with a season of eligibility left.
Degree in hand, Salave'a had no reason not to go to the NFL, but
he chose to stay at Arizona for one final season and work toward
a graduate degree. Tomey was moved, and he decided to thank Joe's
dad in person. He flew to Samoa, met with Miki at the airport for
a couple of hours while the plane refueled and hopped back on for
the long flight back home. "I wanted to be sure they knew how
grateful I was," Tomey said.

While the sentiment behind the visit was genuine, Tomey admits to
an ulterior motive: Miki Salave'a was a high school vice
principal, and Samoa is a place where it helps to be on good
terms with the people in authority.

No high school coach on the island in recent years commanded more
respect than Moamoa Vaeao. A former offensive lineman, he cuts an
intimidating figure: He's 6'2", 287 pounds, with a square jaw and
a guttural, raspy voice. He began coaching high school as an
assistant in 1987 and was a head coach from '97 to 2002.

Vaeao laughs as he says that if he had coached on the mainland,
"I'd probably be locked up." He explains, unapologetically, that
he was not above reinforcing his orders with "a spanking" if he
felt it necessary. "The Bible says that if you love your kids,
you discipline them," says the 43-year-old Vaeao, now a minister
of the First Samoan Gospel and Pentecostal Church in Los Angeles.
"It's not that I'm going to be abusive. I'm doing it for
compassion."

While Vaeao might be considered an anachronism--or worse--in the
U.S., he is a natural part of the landscape in Samoa, a place
where masculinity takes its timeworn forms. It's not fighting
that's discouraged, but losing fights. "If you want to be a man,
you stand up for yourself," says Francis Tuitele, 47, a longtime
coach who played noseguard at Idaho State in 1978 and '79.

Sulu Petaia, 28, who played at Colorado from 1993 to '95, says he
developed his toughness when he was eight. A cousin who was a
high school freshman would run at him with a football and demand
that Sulu tackle him. The price for not going along was a
thrashing, so Sulu went along. He is now back on the island as a
government accountant but plays rugby every week in the island's
competitive recreational league. When he spoke, he had two large
bruises on his forehead from a recent game. "When you get knocked
out, that's when you stop," he says, defining the Samoan sporting
credo. While it isn't necessarily the best guiding principle for
life, it seems to work well for raising football players.

The story of how Petaia got to Colorado shows how much recruiting
has changed in the last 10 years. In the early 1990s he and high
school teammate Donnell Leomiti were coached by Okland Salave'a
(Joe's brother), who, after high school in the U.S., had played
at Boulder and then returned to the island. Salave'a called the
Colorado coaches and recommended the two players; late in the
recruiting season they were both offered scholarships. No
Buffaloes staffer had seen them play, and neither kid had visited
the campus.

Contrast that with the prize of Samoa's class of 2003, Amani
Purcell. A 6'3", 240-pound defensive end (who is now up to 250),
he received home visits from Hawaii, Utah and Penn State. He also
visited all those schools, plus Colorado. Penn State, with which
he signed, had heard about him through George Malauulu, a former
Tomey recruit at Arizona who runs a foundation called AIGA (an
acronym for All Islands Getting Along, as well as Samoan for
"extended family"). Manned by players of Polynesian heritage,
AIGA operates scouting combines for high school kids and touts
them for athletic scholarships. It began six years ago, working
with Polynesian players living in the U.S., but since 2000 it has
also been staging annual combines in Samoa.

AIGA is but one means by which the isolation of the Samoan
athlete is diminishing. For the past three years Joe Salave'a has
run instructional clinics on the island, and over the last two
years top high school players from American Samoa have come to
the States for weeklong instructional camps (this past summer's
camp was at Utah; the previous year's at Oregon), partially
subsidized by the Samoan department of education. Athletes on the
island, seeing the opportunities, are pouring themselves into
football more than ever. "Why not use what God gave you?" says
Malauulu. "You wouldn't mind putting a golf club in their hands,
but you have to be be realistic. I don't see a [Samoan] Tiger
Woods out there. We're going to use what we know."

The number of Division I recruits the island can produce is
limited not only by the small population but also by academics.
With its substandard school system (and the fact that English is
a second language), many high school graduates are best suited to
junior college. Tuitele believes that if the kids would devote
themselves to school the way they throw themselves into football,
"in 10 years all the colleges will come in and recruit." At this
point, though, many schools skip the flight out and simply wait
to see who rises up through the juco ranks.

Of course, that means missing out on a player like Purcell--"On
the mainland he would have been been recruited nationally," says
Penn State assistant coach Norwood--or staking an early claim to
a hot prospect such as Paul Soliai. A 6'3", 285-pound high school
senior at the island vocational school with plans to become a
welder, Soliai met Busch, the Utah assistant, on a recruiting
trip in 2001. Impressed by Soliai's size and the film he saw,
Busch asked him to come to Utah, but Soliai didn't qualify
academically. He enrolled at Coffeyville (Kans.) Junior College,
at which he grew two more inches, put on 50 pounds and, as a
freshman offensive lineman in '02, earned juco All-America
honorable mention. Suddenly recruiters from schools like Miami,
Michigan and Florida were interested. Soliai, however, says that
when he finishes with Coffeyville, he's going to Utah, the
program that wanted him when no one else knew who he was. "They
did a lot for me," he says. "They gave me a lot of good advice."

Purcell's story is clearly different from Soliai's: The former
knew from an early age what sports could mean to him. Both of
Purcell's parents were athletes: His father, Mel, who is head of
human resources at the StarKist plant in Pago Pago, played
basketball and volleyball at BYU-Hawaii. His wife, Moana, who
works for Hawaiian Airlines, played volleyball and basketball in
high school in Hawaii. Realizing that sports offered the chance
for an affordable education for their five children, they
installed a basketball rim in the driveway and converted their
laundry room into a minigym. All four college-age children have
attended school in the U.S. on scholarship. Amani's sister
Meleisha played basketball and volleyball at Missouri Baptist,
and brother Edward plays hoops there. Their brother Mel plays
football at Hawaii.

Amani's choice of Penn State was a surprise, because so many
Samoans end up at schools in the western U.S., near large Samoan
communities. Several players with Polynesian roots have gone as
far east as Nebraska, and Western Kentucky won last year's
Division I-AA championship with two players straight from Samoa
on its squad, recruited by Samoan assistant coach Mike Fanoga. By
going to Penn State, Purcell, who's redshirting this season, has
set the Eastern beachhead for a football player coming directly
from the island.

Purcell recognizes he's part of a new generation of Samoan
athlete whose football forebears have returned to the island to
carry on the tradition as coaches. "Before them no one taught
technique," he says. "When they made it to college, they came
back and tried to teach what they knew to us. Before, Samoan
football used to be all about power, the muscles; the hitting was
all there was. Now it's more about speed, the mental game."

Purcell could have been forgiven for feeling overawed as he stood
on the sideline of Beaver Stadium on Aug. 30, for the first
Nittany Lions home game. The crowd that day numbered 101,553--one
and a half times the population of American Samoa. "The whole
time I was standing there," says Purcell, "I was looking around
and thinking, Wow, this is really happening." But he says he's
prepared for the changes in store for him as he tries to make it
in an elite football program such a long way from home. "I knew
it would be tough," Purcell says. "I knew I would miss my
parents. But as long as I stick to what I believe, there will be
nothing wrong."

One last thing about Amani Purcell. Maybe it's trivial, or maybe
it's the essential detail in the story of Samoan football.
Purcell is the great grandson of Palepoi Mauga, a tribal chief
who was among the Samoan elders who signed the deed of annexation
that made their island an American territory in 1900. Without
that first step, it's likely football would never have taken root
on the island. When the chief put his name on those papers years
ago, not only did he set in motion events that would land his
great grandson in Happy Valley, Pa., but he also ensured that a
century later, palagi will continue to come from the
skies--college coaches seeking football commitments, with more
papers to be signed.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER TOUGH MUDDERS Against a backdrop of palm trees and cloud-wreathed mountains, Samoan high schoolers slog it out with an intensity that rivals any found on the mainland.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER GROUND FORCE While it's growing in sophistication, Samoan football still relies heavily on hard-nosed running.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLERCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER POWER BALL Hitting is the trademark of the Samoan game: "Even in scrimmages," says Utah's Busch, "they go all out."COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER FINER POINTS Coaches like Samoana's Maselino Tautu impart skills and strategy brought to the island by returning players.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER FOR LAVALAVA OF THE GAME Despite cultural differences, fa'a Samoa and fa'a America find common ground on the field.

New Kids on THE ROCK

The six American Samoan high school teams represented
here--four from public schools, one from the vocational academy
and one made up of players from the territory's four private
schools--share a 5,000-seat field on the main island as well as
hopes of sending their kids on to the States to play big-time
college football. Recruiters who make the trip this year will
be looking at such players as Terrence Apted (50), a 6'5",
280-pound lineman who didn't appreciate the sheer violence of
homegrown Samoan football until he visited relatives in the
States. "When the ball's snapped, you don't hear the crunch in
the lines," he says of the off-island game. "Here, you hear it
in the stands."

SIONE MISCOI
Linebacker Senior
Quad Islanders

ANDREW ATUATASI
Offensive tackle Senior
Tafuna High

LUI TUITELE
Guard
Senior
Leone High

TERRENCE APTED
Offensive tackle
Senior
Faga'itua High

JOSH ANE
Linebacker Junior
Poly Tech High

SIMI TOEAINA
Defensive end Junior
Samoana High

ONE IN EIGHT American Samoan males who graduated from the
territory's high schools over the past two years left the island
to play college football in the States.

The island's footballers often remain lean through their
adolescent years and then, when they hit American college weight
rooms and training tables, EXPAND PRODIGIOUSLY.

"When you get KNOCKED OUT, that's when you stop," says Petaia,
defining the Samoan sporting credo. While not the best guiding
principle for life, it works for football.