Friday, November 20, 2015

The Samoan Pipeline

[ed. Half of my high school football team was Samoan. Physicality. It's in the culture.]

How does a tiny island, 5,000 miles from the U.S. mainland, produce so many professional football players?

Pronounced Saa-moa, the territory, which is 5,000 miles from the mainland United States, was annexed at the turn of the 20th century for its strategic, deep-water harbor. Today it has a population of about 55,000, nearly all of whom live on the 52 square miles of Tutuila, a land mass that is substantially smaller than Washington, D.C. In many ways, the culture on The Rock still hews to the ethos documented in Margaret Mead’s landmark but controversial work of anthropology, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928. There may be cellphones and internet and plenty of pickup trucks and consumer goods, but the kids still go home after football practice and do their chores, which typically involve feeding pigs, harvesting taro root and bananas, gathering coconuts, building a fire, cooking dinner, and serving the adults, whose word is paramount.

There is one main road on Tutuila, about 35 miles long. There are no stoplights. The speed limit is 25 miles per hour. Two tuna canneries are the largest employers; workers make less than $10,000 a year. The island has one McDonald’s, one movie theater, several new Chinese restaurants, and a T-shirt shop called Pacific Roots. With job opportunities limited and an unemployment rate between 10 and 20 percent — a main reason for the diaspora — it is not surprising to learn that American Samoa has the highest rate of military enlistment of any U.S. state or territory.

“The biggest dream of everyone in Samoa is to leave the island and look for a better future,” says Peter Gurr, the deputy director of the American Samoa Department of Agriculture. “Right now, if you don’t get a college scholarship, the only thing to do is join the military. And then there’s football. Our largest exports are the tuna and football.” Even though school is conducted in both Samoan and English — often mixed into the same paragraph or sentence — the largest obstacle for football hopefuls is college standardized tests.

Samoans have been playing rugby since the 1920s, when it was introduced by Marist missionaries. American football didn’t come to the island until the 1960s, after an article in Reader’s Digest, headlined “America’s Shame in the Pacific,” brought attention to the deplorable conditions of the tropical-island-cum-American-military-base: “Amid enchanting scenery and smiling Polynesians — praised by Robert Louis Stevenson as ‘God’s best, at least God’s sweetest, works’ — the visitor is shocked to encounter government buildings peeling and rotting on their foundations, beautiful Pago Pago Bay marred and befouled by hideous over-water outhouses, rutty and teeth-jarring roads unrepaired for years.”

Responding to the outrage that followed, the Kennedy administration provided a makeover that pushed the culture into modernity. Along with plumbing, electricity, roads, schools, and a high school football program, the Samoans received cable TV. Watching football became a favorite pastime.

The first Samoan to play in the NFL was Al Lolotai. After starring at Mormon-affiliated Weber State University in Utah, he played for the Washington Redskins in 1945 and then five more years in the now-defunct All-America Football Conference. It wasn’t long before the island was discovered as a wellspring of football talent. Leading the way were coaches at universities with strong Mormon ties. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which believes that Polynesians are heirs to the blessings promised to Abraham’s descendants, has been sending missionaries to the region since the mid-1800s.

Over the years football coaches have found on the island a ready inventory of large, big-boned, and nimble Samoans, with the kind of solid base that football coaches love: massive from the waist down but still able to move their feet. Samoans’ facility with footwork is often attributed to tribal dances and the common practice of going barefoot. Their love of combat is derived from a fierce warrior culture that goes back hundreds of years. With an upbringing that stresses hard work, discipline, and devotion to authority, both heavenly and earthbound, Polynesians have come to be considered the ultimate clay from which to mold a football player. It is as if a childhood of gentle obedience translates into a passion for ferocious violent contact, the kind of collisions that resonate through a stadium and electrify the crowd.

By the 1970s, coaches from Hawaii and Utah began to recruit heavily from Polynesia; in time, the practice spread. More than 100 Polynesians have since played in the NFL. By now the names are well-known. Troy Polamalu, Junior Seau, Jesse Sapolu — and last year’s Heisman winner, Mariota. Hundreds more, like Coach Oak and Pati Pati, have benefited from scholarships.

by Mike Sager, California Sunday Magazine | Read more:
Image: Nathanael Turner