First in a three-part series on the impact of Samoan players on American football. Part II coming Wednesday: the rise of high school quarterback TC McCartney -- son of the late Sal Aunese and grandson of ex-Buffaloes coach Bill McCartney.
Troy Polamalu wanted to sign autographs after last week's Pro Bowl in Honolulu. But 5-0 said no.
"Police told him he couldn't go out there because he was getting mobbed on his way out," said his uncle, Kennedy Pola, running backs coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "He had to go back to the hotel."
|Lofa Tatupu followed his dad Mosi as a Trojan before hitting it big in the NFL with the Seahawks. (Getty Images)|
Welcome to a new era in this ongoing friendly football takeover. Samoans as rock stars.
Pacific Islanders' influence -- specifically those tracing ancestry back to Samoa and its vicinity -- has been well documented. The group of five volcanic islands -- combined about the size of Washington D.C. -- produces more NFL players per capita than any racial group. A Samoan kid is 40 times more likely to play in the NFL than his U.S. counterpart. There are more than 200 such players in college football.
Thanks to Polamalu and others, they are more than curiosities. They are becoming a foundation. Can a marketing campaign be far behind for football's perfect warriors? Not only are Polynesian males known for being great athletes, their character might shine through even more.
"Family is a vital part of who we are," said Mike Tuiasosopo, University of Arizona defensive line coach and uncle of Oakland Raiders backup quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo. "Fitting into a team is very easy. If you have us, we're pretty loyal people. We're loyal to the cause, loyal to the team, loyal to the family."
There are only a half million Samoans living in the world, 60,000 in American Samoa itself. Their football influence is so dominant that few around the game blink a politically correct eye at the Samoan stereotype: mostly swift, big linemen with a mean streak.
Among those assigning labels are Polynesians themselves:
"The game is kind of conducive to our nature," said Tuiasosopo, who was born in American Samoa and raised in Southern California. "We're aggressive, violent. It's a warrior-like mentality to us, I guess.
"We're a very competitive people. We don't mind a scuffle. We don't go looking for it, but ..."
Which is so cool in a way. The blend of brutality and humility is inspiring, charming and maybe a little frightening.
"If Vince Young made that run in the NFL," one NFL coach said, referring to Young's game-winning touchdown in the Rose Bowl, "Troy Polamula would break him in half."
Polamalu is even breaking that bulky lineman stereotype. As a 5-foot-10 safety for the Steelers, long hair flowing out the back of his helmet, he might be the hardest hitter in the game.
But the fact that the NFL's culture is imitating his own cannot be downplayed.
"There are a lot of Samoans in professional football because it's closely related to a family atmosphere and the upbringing that a lot of Samoans have," he said during Super Bowl week.
It is still a patriarchal culture dominated by the "matai," or chief, who oversees large extended families. Young males, experts say, tend to be obedient and humble because of that structure.
Polamalu grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., but was shipped to Tenmile, Ore., by his mother at age 9. Suila Polamalu, a single mom, did not want Troy influenced by big-city temptations. Troy lived with his aunt and uncle -- the family's matai -- in Oregon.
Veteran college assistant Norm Chow remembers recruiting a player of Samoan ancestry to BYU years ago. The father had gone on the official visit and favored BYU. The son wanted to go to Arizona State.
"His father said something in Samoan that no one understood," said Chow, now the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator. "The kid said, 'OK, I'm going to BYU.'
"You're doing what dad says."
Who is the best Samoan football player?
Total Votes: 3,322
Substitute a matai for a coach and you start to see one reason why Polynesians fit in to the football structure. Oregon coach Mike Bellotti hasn't gotten over losing Haloti Ngata, an All-American lineman who declared for the draft last month after his junior year. Ngata grew up in Salt Lake City but his parents, now both deceased, are from Tonga, an island nation near Samoa.
"Haloti is as good a football player as we've ever had at Oregon," Bellotti said. "He's one of those once-in-a-lifetime guys. He could get a guy in the backfield, then to the sideline and catch a running back on a screen."
There are more rock stars coming. A beachhead was established with the likes of Jesse Sapolu, who won four Super Bowls with the 49ers. Linebacker Junior Seau is a folk hero in San Diego.
The next generation includes Polamalu, a two-time All-American at USC. Former Trojan Lofa Tatupu -- son of former New England Patriots fullback Mosi Tatupu -- started as a rookie linebacker with Seattle in 2005, helping lead the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
Kansas State defensive end Moses Manu was born in Tonga, grew up playing rugby in New Zealand and Australia and didn't play American football until his senior year at Inglewood (Calif.) Morningside. With only three years of organized football on his resumé, Manu has an excellent chance of starting for the Wildcats in the fall.
Alema Teo runs a high school football camp in Salt Lake City and can't wait to see who's coming this year.
"We're getting 60 kids from American Samoa," said Teo, an area high school coach. "They are as raw as you can get ... but when the ball is snapped there is no hesitation. They came up two years ago and dominated our camp. There's going to be some great stories coming through."
Teo, a second-generation American, oversees the All Poly Football Camp, staffed predominantly by college coaches of Polynesian descent.
The large families form a built-in support system in football. Pola, born the day John Kennedy was assassinated, is related to Tuiasosopo, who is a cousin to Manu Tuiasosopo, a two-time All-American at UCLA. Manu's son Marques was a star quarterback at Washington.
Mosi Tatupu is the only Samoan with a college football award named after him (special teams player of the year). Tatupu was born 51 years ago in Samoa. He was a standout high school player in Hawaii, played running back at USC and spent 15 years in the NFL.
His son Lofa made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2005. This proud son of a Samoan was born in Plainville, Mass.
"I'd kid him," Chow said. "'You're not Samoan. Don't pass yourself off as Samoan.'"
Second-generation or not, Polynesian players carry a positive image throughout the game.
"My experience is they're the most popular people on the team," said Colorado assistant Brian Cabral, who grew up in Hawaii. "They are easy going but at the same time very passionate. It's a game that they enjoy. It's a game that fits their nature."
There is no one answer as to how American football opened up for Samoans. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson spent his final years there at the end of the 19th century, romanticizing Samoa's beauty.
BYU is thought to be the first major college to pursue Polynesians, in the late 1950s. Because of its vast missionary program in the Pacific, the school has a strong presence.
Air travel and television had their influence as American Samoa began to modernize. Families wanted to get off "The Rock," where the main employers are the government and tuna canneries. They saw better lives on TV. Jets flew them to those new lives.
Washington State's Jack Thompson is the first Samoan a lot of fans can recall. The Throwin' Samoan is seen as a godfather to those in his native island. In fact, Washington State had three Samoan team MVPs in the 1970s.
Former Honolulu St. Louis High School coach Cal Lee once estimated that a third of his powerhouse program were Samoan or Tongan.
Football is still an emerging sport in the islands. Chow intends to send old Titans football shoes to American Samoa's six high schools. While scanning game film Cabral recalls seeing players swap helmets as they came on and off the field.
"There are different color uniforms," Bellotti said. "Not everything matches all the time. They are hungry for equipment. Sometimes the field is devoid of grass.
"And yet coaches are really hungry and players are hungry to learn more."
Most Polynesian college players are concentrated in the West, where a lot of Samoans have settled. Schools like USC, Utah, Oregon, Colorado and BYU have been havens. They are slowly creeping across the Rockies.
Cabral's father Walter reportedly was the first Hawaiian to play at Notre Dame. Nebraska didn't have a Samoan until 1999, which might explain a little why the program declined.
They bring with them an easy-going manner and culture -- fa'a Samoa or "the Samoan way." Colorful lava lavas are traditional "skirts" worn by men. The big guys are valued for their speed and agility, sometimes refined by doing traditional dances.
A distinction has to be made between American Samoa and Western Samoa, where rugby is the more popular sport. American Samoa is a U.S. territory approximately 5½ hours south of Hawaii (by air). Western Samoa is an independent country of more than 170,000 people.
Tonga is a group of 169 islands, the only monarchy in the Pacific. If and when Western Samoa and Tonga embrace football as much as Samoa, other gold mines could be opened.
Bellotti once had a player from the islands who weighed 218 pounds on his visit. At the end of his sophomore year, he weighed 285. Samoan linemen routinely throw monster numbers in college weight rooms without even having weight training in high school.
"They grow once they get off the island because they get protein, dairy products and meat products," he said.
Speaking in generalities might risk walking the fine line between intelligent discussion and Jimmy the Greek. Author Jon Entine wrote the controversial Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.
"There is clear evidence that there was an overrepresentation of a tiny sub-population in the NFL ...," Entine told SportsLine.com. "The dominant body type is Asian in some ways. There are certain body types that fit the NFL prototype for interior linemen. They tend to be relatively huge and fast.
"What Taboo tried to say is you don't downplay the cultural and social factors that drive people as well ... The social factors and the body factors it's really the perfect mix. We're generalizing, we're stereotyping but we're not stereotyping in a negative way."
These are the game's new stars of the red carpet. Someone is going to figure out real soon how to make money off them -- if they don't get knocked out first.
"Put in the right situation, given the right instruction you're going to see more and more Troy Polamalus out there," Teo said.