Monday, May 7, 2012
In American Samoa, football's already the next big thing
When a U.S. football team begins competition in the Under-19 World Championship tournament next month at Burger Stadium, it will begin play against what will likely be a wide-eyed team of teen-agers from the South Pacific islands of American Samoa.
America needs no introduction to Samoa.
American football coaches, anyway.
For years, they've beaten a path — or rather, taken the 11-hour flights from the West Coast — to the small U.S. territory that's about the size of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Prominent head coaches like Urban Meyer and Mike Bellotti have made their way from their previous jobs at Utah and Oregon to the five volcanic islands that make up American Samoa to scour them for hefty linemen and physical defenders to supplement their rosters.
Oregon State just signed a linebacker and offensive lineman from American Samoa. Washington State picked up a nationally recruited tight end from there who had once committed to Alabama and a defensive lineman. About half of Hawaii's roster includes players that come from American Samoa lineage.
"Football's like a meal ticket off the island," said Hawaii middle linebacker T.J. Taimatuia, a redshirt sophomore who was born in Fagasa, American Samoa, but played his high school ball in Artesia, Calif. "It's either the military or football."
Just three weeks ago, the Marines swore in 30 teen-aged Samoan recruits, and dozens more consider the Coast Guard, Army Reserves and two Army engineering units. Otherwise, they have to try to find work at the local Starkist tuna cannery, the only one left after the Chicken of the Sea factory closed in 2009 and eliminated 3,000 jobs.
The unemployment rate for a country of about 60,000 stands at 30 percent and rising, according to Mel Purcell, a quasi-general manager for American Samoa's Under-19 national team.
"Football is opportunities," said Purcell, whose three sons all played the sport, one of them a former Hawaiian player who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, and another a Penn State linebacker. "Football is an avenue to leave home, get a better education and get to the next level. The NFL is really icing on the cake."
Go through any Pac-12 roster, said Hawaii assistant coach Tony Tuioti, who leaves for a recruiting trip to New Zealand and Australia on Thursday, and "there'd probably be at least 10 players minimum of Samoan descent." And Samoan players are starting to pop up in the SEC; Tuioti said Hawaii recruited a Samoan guard who ended up signing with LSU.
Football first came to American Samoa in the 1960s, when ex-Washington Redskins linebacker Al Lolotai, a former pro wrestler in Hawaii, brought the game to his native land and NFL games were later televised on Blue Sky cable. The Samoans took to it like their favorite dish, palusami, which these large extended families serve during huge feasts on Sundays that always included church and the NFL, not necessarily in that order since the games air at 5 a.m. in the South Pacific.
"That's like caviar to Polynesians," Tuioti said, referring to the local delicacy of corned beef and coconut milk with onions wrapped in taro or spinach leaves. "Samoans have such a passion for football. They have the most football players per capita of almost any country. It's like the Dominican Republic producing baseball players."
More than 200 American Samoans now dot Division I college rosters, and 30 have progressed to the NFL, none more famous than Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He's immensely popular in Samoa — his parents were born there — and he returned there last year with donations of football equipment and uniforms.
They're also partial to current and former NFL players with Samoan ties, like Chargers and Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko and Patriots defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene and Raiders quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, although America Samoa produces very few skill-position players.
By nature as well as body structure and diet, Samoan football players are both aggressive and big-boned. That's one of the reasons American recruiters relish them. They're disciplined and, because they're not always promised three meals, they tend to still be growing.
"A player will come over to the mainland at 6-2, and then he'll be 6-5 and 300 pounds," Tuioti said.
"Samoans like contact. They like to hit things," Tuioti said. "That's why you see most of them on defense, but you're starting to see more and more offensive linemen. We're starting to get some fullbacks because they're similar to linebackers in body type, but we don't have many wideouts that have flat-out speed."
The game played at American Samoa's six high schools leans heavy to the run game. Hawaii running back Joey Iosefa is a converted 190-pound quarterback who played at the island's powerhouse program at Fagaitua High, which again won last season's championship. Iosefa's weight has grown to 240 pounds.
American Samoa also has won six of the last eight Samoa Bowls that pit the island's best team against Hawaii's second-tier players. Coaching clinics are all the rage. A youth football league was formed a year ago. Everything's on the rise.
But American Samoa, as the eighth and last seed in the Under-19 World Championship starting June 30, drew the top-seeded Yanks for its first of three games.
"We have to go up against the biggest giant in football," Purcell sighed.
And if American Samoa springs the upset?
"We'll be able to swim home," Purcell said. "We wouldn't need a plane."