Joe Salave'a lived his American Dream, going from American Samoa to the NFL. Now he is recruiting his home for WSU as defensive line coach.
Jack Thompson came off the island to play QB for the Cougars before being drafted into the NFL in 1979.
When college and professional football fans consider the great football 'factories,' a small island in the South Pacific likely doesn't come to mind.
But for more and more high school players on American Samoa, football is becoming their portal to bigger things. Already this Polynesian island, population 55,000, has molded a rich tradition in the sport.
And Washington State has played a prominent role in the development of that Samoan tradition, dating back to the mid-1970s. That's when the Cougars recruited a young man from the island who came to be known as "The Throwin' Samoan," Jack Thompson.
Thompson is one of 11 players born on American Samoa to eventually find his way into the ranks of the National Football League. Another is the guy new WSU coach Mike Leach will now rely on to further build on the Cougars' Samoan connection - defensive line coach Joe Salave'a.
Already, Salave'a has paid off for Leach. Washington State signed two players from American Samoa in the 2012 recruiting class - defensive end prospects Destiny Vaeao and Robert Barber.
The Cougars weren't the only Northwest school to tap the Samoan pipeline in 2012, however. Oregon State and Mike Riley also got two recruits from the island.
And these four could be just the beginning.
"I don't have a crystal ball," Salave'a said recently. "I can't see so far ahead. But I guarantee as long as I'm in the profession, you're going to see me on the island more often than not.
"These families don't have much. It's their dream to have their kids get opportunities they never had."
The globalization of American football, and the way colleges on the mainland find prospects, has opened up small areas like American Samoa as never before.
Not counting the four recruits that signed on Feb. 1 with Washington State and Oregon State, 11 student-athletes from American Samoa currently are playing Division I college football. The schools that have found these prospects are UNLV, Hawaii, Arizona (2), Austin Peay (I-AA, 2), Western Michigan, Alcorn State (I-AA, 3), Wyoming (walk-on), and Wazzu (invited walk-on Lawrence Danielson).
"This will be our biggest year yet," said Brandon Smart, who along with his brother runs the non-profit Field House 100, an organization that aids students on American Samoa in obtaining scholarships.
But the four signees in 2012 could be dwarfed in less than a year. Smart says as many as 10 players could sign National Letters of Intent from off the island in 2013.
How times have changed.
Less than 20 years ago, when Salave'a went through the recruiting process, he had to take steps just to get seen by colleges. Following his brother, who moved to California to play high school football before gaining a scholarship at Colorado under Bill McCartney, Salave'a left American Samoa and moved to San Diego in 1989.
Salave'a graduated from Oceanside High, got his scholarship to Arizona, and eventually got drafted into the NFL in 1998.
"Back in those days, it was few and far between that schools would come down there (to the island)," Salave'a said. "I'm highly motivated. This is now an opportunity for me to give those kids a chance to come off the island."
Salave'a had an eight-year career in the NFL with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins.
Once his playing days were done, after the 2006 season, Salave'a moved into coaching. New WSU coach Mike Leach hired him away from his alma mater - Arizona.
"Somebody took a chance on me," Salave'a said. "If our kids stay focused, all those dreams can become reality."
Four decades ago, such opportunities were few and far between. When Thompson came off the island to play for Washington State in the 1970s, the bigger opportunity for kids to see the world came via military service.
Even today, Barber mentioned joining the military as an option had he not gotten a scholarship to attend WSU.
Robert Barber thought he might come off American Samoa via the military. Instead, he got a scholarship from the Cougars.
"The island is not a big place," Salave'a said. "In the past, that was the only way for them to experience the 'American Dream.' Now, there is something really driving the kids down there. There is this opportunity to get an education, mainly through American football."
The ultimate key to future success in recruiting American Samoa, Salave'a said, may actually lie with the families and educational system on the island.
"The kids are motivated," Salave'a said. "It's a matter of getting the right grades and courses so they transfer over (to be admitted to mainland universities)." Grading and classes are done differently on the island, Salave'a said, than in mainland high schools. One step in the right direction, the coach admits, would be to better align the educational systems on the island with those of the continent.
Still, even under the current systems, positive things can happen. Smart's Field House 100, among others, is helping. "We hope that this is a connection that continues to grow," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who signed two-star defensive end Rommel Mageo off the island for this class. "The world has gotten smaller that way. There are some people over there that are aiding the ability of coaches to watch these guys. We're proud to be a part of that process." Even Salave'a, along with other current and former NFL players, are trying to do their part to give kids from American Samoa better chances going forward. The Joe Salave'a Youth Foundation conducted football clinics for four years on the island.
"It's all about paying it forward," said Salave'a, who had to stop the program after his mother got cancer and he needed to be closer to her on a more regular basis. "If I can get one or two kids to realize their potential ?"
Going forward, understanding the history and culture of American Samoa will play a large role in how successful college programs are in their recruiting efforts there.
"It's a living culture through responsibilities," Salave'a says. "There's a lot of carryover. You get a warrior mindset. But they are friendly, respectful kids.
"That's what you like in a ball player. It's intriguing to me, the development of the game, from when I was growing up to now."
Because children are raised to speak when spoken to, and to be respectful of their elders, Salave'a says, there also is a responsibility that comes with recruiting these kids.
"Trust is a key," Salave'a said. "You cannot fly down there and talk them up, raise the expectation, and then not sign a kid. You have to be truthful. All their parents want to know is, who is going to take care of my kid (once on a college campus)."
Riley and the Oregon State staff are aware of that responsibility, as well.
"That's one of the reasons I went over there," Riley said. "Not only to recruit guys, but to meet people, to make the connection so that when we are recruiting future guys they feel more and more comfortable with where they are sending their kids."
Those athletes that do get the opportunity have shown a disproportionate amount of success for a place so small.
There are the 11 former NFL players born there that include Thompson, Salave'a and Mosi Tatupu. And there are the six current pros from the island.
Recent indications are that Samoans (not only from American Samoa) are anywhere from 40 to 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than a non-Samoan. Even CBS' 60 Minutes did a story on the football culture contained on the tiny Polynesian island.
"People are not used to having such a small, little place with the numbers and success that they (American Samoa) are having," Salave'a said.
With a bigger and even more rapid influx of talent possibly coming, perhaps those people better get used to it.