Thursday, September 22, 2011
Leotas add size, strength to Knights’ defensive line
Posted On: Wednesday, Sep. 21 2011 11:13 PM
By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
They don't have the traditional long locks of hair — their mother doesn't allow it. They aren't allowed to sport the culturally-significant tattoos — that's their father's rule.
But for brothers Nathaniel and Nigel Leota, junior and sophomore defensive linemen at Harker Heights, their Samoan heritage is a big part of everything they do — on and off the football field.
"We take a lot of pride (in being Samoan) because we want to represent Samoans in football," Nate, 17, said.
"Show that we can do it, that we can make it," his 16-year-old brother Nigel added.
Born and raised in San Bernadino, Calif., the pair grew up around a close-knit, largely Samoan community, where mostly everybody they saw on a daily basis were of Samoan decent.
It wasn't until their mother moved the family to Killeen in 2008 to be closer to other family members that the nearly 300-pound brothers got their first real taste of a multi-cultural environment, and of course, the foundation of American culture (at least in Texas) — high school football.
Originally attending the private school Killeen Adventist Junior Academy until last year, the only athletics they participated in took place in the backyard.
Then their father decided it was time his growing boys got a real education in football.
"It was really my dad's decision, he wanted us to play football so he moved us to a public school," Nate said. "My mom wanted us to go back to a church school, but my dad was like, 'No, you're going to play football.'"
Having never played organized football until a year ago, it took a little while for the brothers to get a hang of things.
"At first, when I started, I didn't know a thing," Nigel said. "I didn't know what to do, I didn't know when to do it, so I was just playing my game."
That game was based around using their sheer size — about 5-foot-11 and between 275- and 285-pounds — to just power through opposing offensive linemen on junior varsity last season. But over time, and plenty of practice, the pair matured dramatically.
"They're just so big — and they've got a really good punch," Knights defensive coordinator Keith Muehlstein said. "Of course, it took a little bit to adjust to the game, and get the technique right, but they're two big Samoans — two guys we didn't have before."
In fact, the Heights coaches felt so comfortable with the Leotas' ability to hold their own along the defensive line, they decided to move their most talented defender last season — 6-foot-5, 315-pound Darius James — to offense.
The defense hasn't lost a beat as Heights (2-1) enters District 12-5A play this weekend with the top overall defense, allowing just 258 yards per game, including a district-best 306 rushing yards.
Their Samoan heritage has shone through at times on the field, often leading to some inside humor for the brothers.
"When we're on the line we talk to each other," Nate said. "Sometimes we'll speak Samoan to each other, like 'alo i'alu' — that means, 'go over there, go over here' — and sometimes people look confused like, 'What's he talking about?'"
According to a "60 Minutes" report last year, there are more than 30 players of Samoan descent in the NFL and over 200 playing Division I college ball, most of which hail from American Samoa — an island of just 65,000 people.
In the same report, it states that Samoan males are 40 percent more likely to make it to the NFL than any other nationality.
"Back there, every Samoan boy wants to play football and they want to go to the NFL — that's their dream," Nate said.
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, most known for his long, curly hair that has earned him a sponsorship deal with Head & Shoulders, is one of the most popular Samoans currently in the NFL.
Others include Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and a trio of Cincinnati Bengals such as linebacker Rey Maualuga, offensive lineman Jonathan Fanene and defensive lineman Domata Peko.
Shoemaker's own NFL star Roy Miller, currently in his third year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is half-Samoan on his mother's side.
"Whenever we watch them on TV, it's like, 'I want to be there,'" Nate said.
"Seeing our culture in the NFL looks good for us because that's our sport back home (American Samoa)," Nigel said.
Although the brothers are — for the most part — American-ized, the strong communal ties of the Samoan culture still permeate throughout their lives.
Even if the only really traditionally Samoan things the Leotas say they partake in are weekend family cookouts and wearing a "ie lava lava" — a sarong skirt worn traditionally by Samoan men and women around the house.
"It's chill clothing, like how people wear basketball shorts, it's like a skirt but it's called the 'ie lava lava," Nigel said.
But when it comes to iconic Samoan symbols like the long, flowing curls or the tribal tattoos, there's little chance for that — at least until they've moved out of the house.
"I know for sure, if we come home with any type of tattoo — tribal or anything — my dad will do something," Nate joked.