With coaching camp in full swing, quarterback Marcus Mariota, the primary Samoan Heisman Trophy winner, would be the sign caller for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a pre-season favourite to turn out to be the second Samoan Heisman winner, is getting into his junior 12 months. His youthful brother, Taulia, additionally a quarterback, has joined him at Alabama. One day, Taulia might very properly sq. off in opposition to one other Samoan, D.J. Uiagalelei, a top-ranked highschool quarterback who dedicated to Clemson in May.
How did American Samoa – a tiny island territory within the Pacific – turn out to be a wellspring of football expertise?
Samoans have turn out to be probably the most overrepresented group, per capita, within the NFL. About 180,000 folks of Samoans descent stay stateside, whereas one other 55,000 stay in American Samoa, a U.S. territory. Over the previous few seasons, roughly 50 gamers of Samoan descent have been on NFL rosters – about 3% of the league, and practically 40 instances their proportional share of the U.S. inhabitants. The 200-plus Samoans enjoying Division I collegiate football are equally overrepresented.
I’ve traveled to American Samoa 5 instances – most just lately in October 2018 – to study extra about what fosters this tradition of football excellence. Along the best way, it’s turn out to be clear that the Samoans pay a worth for taking part in America’s recreation in a method that they name “the Samoan way.”
Football within the U.S. is at a crossroads. Concern over concussions has triggered the share of Americans enjoying Pop Warner and highschool football to say no at a gradual clip over the previous decade. But football, together with rugby, one other contact sport, proceed to be the preferred amongst younger Samoans within the U.S. and American Samoa.
One motive could possibly be social class, which has turn out to be a key indicator of who performs youth football. Samoans lag behind most teams by way of well being, revenue and training. In Samoan communities, sports activities are seen as a pathway to a school training and, if gamers are fortunate or gifted sufficient, NFL riches.
Samoans, as a folks, are typically heftier – they undergo from among the highest weight problems charges on the earth – making them a pure match for a sport the place dimension issues. Some credit score taro, a starchy root that’s a staple in Polynesian diets, dubbing it “the Samoan steroid.” Others have puzzled whether or not Samoans are genetically predisposed to growing the form of cumbersome body that’s supreme for linemen and linebackers.
Brown University anthropologist and epidemiologist Stephen McGarvey, who research weight problems within the South Pacific, informed me that Samoans could also be extra genetically inclined to growing extra muscle mass, lean tissue and bone mass.
But he can’t say whether or not that explains their success on the football subject. To him, genes matter a lot lower than American Samoa’s distinctive tradition and historical past.
Since Samoans first arrived of their South Pacific archipelago 3,000 years in the past, they’ve lived in line with “fa’a Samoa” – “in the way of Samoa.”
“Fa’a Samoa” revolves round mutual obligations and respect for elders, together with preachers, lecturers – and, nowadays, coaches. Inculcating youth with a way of self-discipline and accountability, it prioritizes the collective over the person. For these causes, success on the enjoying subject is seen as a mirrored image of household, village and island.
During World War II, Pago Pago Harbor, situated in the midst of American Samoa, turned a staging floor for Allied troops within the Pacific theater. Samoans turned fierce American patriots. The closing of the naval base in 1951 spurred a migration of about one-fifth of the inhabitants to Hawaii and the mainland U.S. They introduced “fa’a Samoa” with them, whilst they tried to adapt to American tradition. Their sons and grandsons took to football. Some, like Jesse Sapolu, Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu, would go on to turn out to be school and NFL stars.
Football truly got here later to American Samoa. In 1961, Reader’s Digest printed an article titled “America’s Shame in the South Seas” that described crumbling authorities buildings, a polluted bay, and an island wealthy with pure assets that had been decreased to importing canned items to cowl meals shortages. With the Cold War raging, embarrassment over the neglect prompted the U.S. authorities to pour assets into the territory and construct a number of excessive colleges that fielded football groups.
In October 2018, I returned to Tutuila, American Samoa’s greatest island, to observe the territory’s 5 football groups compete for the island championship and spend time with the Faga’itua High School football crew on the jap finish of Tutuila. Most of American Samoans stay on Tutuila; a number of thousand reside on the three small islands making up Manu’a, 68 miles away.
The Faga’itua Vikings have received extra titles than some other crew, although it’s one of many smaller colleges and doesn’t even have its personal subject. The squad practices at Onesosopo Park, a half-hour drive from the varsity, on a furrowed subject stuffed with puddles and toads.
Boys at Faga’itua can’t cease at McDonald’s after follow like gamers from Tafuna, their arch-rival from the opposite aspect of the island. The jap aspect of the island, the place Faga’itua is situated, has nothing however a number of tiny basic shops.
During one in every of my earlier journeys to the island, I spoke with one of many crew’s defensive backs, Lafaele Simanu. “We still live in our culture out here,” he defined. “We live in our Samoan ways. We’re not allowed to go out at night that long.”
People stay in small villages on collectively owned land, and gamers carry out chores on the hillside plantations within the morning and after follow.
“Football,” he added softly, can also be “in our culture.”
I noticed it within the “siva tau” warfare dances they carry out earlier than video games – each a ceremonial gesture and one designed to intimidate opponents. The emphasis on the warrior spirit – and overcoming fears – is a part of what makes them excel at football.
Faga’itua’s gamers aren’t the most important on the island, however they practice relentlessly below head coach Su’aese “Pooch” Ta’ase, the very best and most profitable coach in island historical past. Pooch’s Vikings ended up dropping to Tafuna final season; however he’s been making ready his squad for the upcoming marketing campaign since January.
This summer time, the Vikings journey to Honolulu to play Kamehameha, the varsity that Princess Bernice Pauhai Bishop endowed for native Hawaiians. They’ve been elevating cash for the journey by way of automotive washes, a Radio-A-Thon and crowdfunding. The Vikings and different groups within the territory lack the assets and services that U.S. groups take as a right.
Young Samoan football gamers appear to be particularly uncovered to football’s risks. Another facet of “fa’a Samoa” includes a refusal to shrink back from competitors and bodily battle. Boys play on fields the place chunks of volcanic rocks rip into flesh; their outdated helmets would have been discarded for security causes years in the past stateside; and so they appear to hunt much more contact than U.S. gamers. Teams don’t administer pre-season baseline concussion checks. Players appear oblivious to the dangers. When I spoke to Faga’itua and Samoana’s groups, I requested what number of had ever been concussed. Nobody raised a hand.
Polynesians may be the brand new face of football and the sport may need turn out to be the story that Samoans proudly inform to the world. But as the hazards of the sport turn out to be extra well-known, there’s a bittersweet aspect to the narrative.