The Samoan Pipeline
How does a tiny island, 5,000 miles from the U.S. mainland, produce so many professional football players?
On a rain-soaked field of artificial turf, the Washington State University Cougars, a team inscribed in the annals of college-sports infamy for suffering one of the worst four-year records in the history of NCAA Division I football — with only nine wins between 2008 and 2011 — are lined up against the reigning Rose Bowl champions, the University of Oregon Ducks.
It is a nasty day in early October, the fourth game on the schedule. The air inside Autzen Stadium, located in Eugene, Oregon, is thick with humidity. The roar of 57,000 fans is cacophonous; on the sidelines you can feel the rumble underfoot.
Last year the Ducks were led by Marcus Mariota, a Hawaii-raised Samoan quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy and went second in the National Football League draft. This year the Ducks have already put up 163 points in their first three victories.
A few minutes earlier, with the clock running out, the game all but over, many of the Ducks’ fans — some with their faces painted yellow and green, none seemingly aware of the prohibition against mobbing the field — rushed the stadium aisles, ready to celebrate.
Then a first-down call went the other way.
With one second remaining in regulation, the Cougars scored a touchdown to tie the game.
Now it is fourth down, nine yards to go, in the second overtime period.
The Ducks have the ball.
Improbably, the Cougars are ahead 45–38.
In the stands, the Duck faithful mill around the exits, alternately cheering and wringing their hands. A field goal won’t do; they need a first down or a touchdown. In the militarized vernacular of football, it’s a do-or-die situation. The last time the Cougars defeated the Ducks at home was 2003. Over on the Cougar sideline, an island of crimson and gray in a sea of green, the coaches yell adjustments and issue hand signals.
At the timeout, the defensive staff made it simple. All they need is a stop. Standing in the middle, Joe Salave’a was a giant among a tribe of giants. Six foot four, 325 pounds, the 40-year-old defensive-line coach played nine years in the NFL. The third youngest of eight children from a small village in American Samoa — an unincorporated U.S. territory in the South Pacific — he first came to Southern California during the summer before ninth grade. When he got on the plane, he thought he was making the trip to participate in an all-star baseball game; nobody told him he’d be staying permanently with relatives to attend school and play football. A scholarship to the University of Arizona followed, and after a solid career as an NFL defensive lineman — with Tennessee, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. — he went into coaching. For the past four years, he’s been with the Cougars.
“You’ve got to make something happen. You’ve got to put this game on your shoulders,” Salave’a told the squad. Among them were seven Samoan players he had recruited from high schools on his home island.
At the opening of the 2015 football season, there were more than 200 American Samoans on rosters of Division I college football teams. Twenty-eight were slated to play in the NFL. If you begin to count other Polynesians — Pacific Islanders from Hawaii, Tonga, Easter Island, and New Zealand — the impact is even greater: Five of the first 66 players selected in the NFL’s 2015 draft were Polynesian.
On the Cougar roster, there are a total of 13 players of Samoan descent, counting those raised in the United States. Since Joe Salave’a arrived with the coaching regime of Mike Leach in 2011, the Cougars’ record has improved to 17–28. In 2013, they played in their first postseason bowl in ten years. In no small measure, the Cougars’ turnaround can be attributed to Salave’a and his Samoan pipeline.
The ball is placed at the center of the field on the 24-yard line — near the Pac-12 logo, the symbol of the “Conference of Champions,” whose members (including USC, Stanford, and UCLA) have won more national team championships than any other college conference. The Cougars have consistently dwelled in the cellar.
On offense the Ducks have three wide receivers arranged on the left side of the field, a trips formation. The tight end is on the right side; the running back is offset and behind the tight end. The quarterback is in the shotgun position, his hands extended prayerfully, awaiting the snap. Everyone in the stadium is expecting a pass.
On defense the Cougars go with three down linemen. Destiny Vaeao is playing tackle. A 6-foot-4, 298-pound senior, Vaeao was coached at Tafuna High School in Samoa by Salave’a’s older brother, himself a former pro player. At nose guard is Daniel Ekuale, a sophomore. Six three, 288 pounds, he is a graduate of Nu’uuli Vocational-Technical, another Samoan high school. At the other tackle is Darryl Paulo. Raised in Sacramento, he has relatives in Samoa. The majority of ethnic Samoans — a diaspora of traditionally large families numbering some 500,000 worldwide — live somewhere other than Samoa, primarily in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.
In the backfield, at the strong-safety spot, is Taylor Taliulu, 6 feet, 205 pounds, a Samoan raised in Hawaii. Next to him, at free safety, is Shalom Luani, a 6-foot, 200-pound transfer student from a junior college in San Francisco who also attended high school in Samoa. Luani shares the title of all-time leading goal scorer for the Samoan national soccer team, which has the distinction of being one of the worst in the world. The team went 0–30 over nearly two decades of international play before claiming its first victory in 2011, against Tonga, on a squad led by Luani and Jaiyah “Johnny’’ Saelua, a transgender player known for being the heart of the team.
At last the ball is hiked.
The all-Samoan Cougar defensive line puts on a spirited rush. The Ducks’ quarterback, Jeff Lockie, bounces back a few feet, looking downfield for a target, then steps up into the pocket to buy more time. Cougar nose guard Ekuale charges past his man, taking the long route around the outside on Lockie’s left. Lunging for the quarterback, Ekuale catches him glancingly around the midsection and slides down to the ground at his feet. As Lockie releases the ball, Ekuale flails his arms and grabs hold of Lockie’s front leg, a second effort that disrupts the thrower’s motion and causes his pass to fall short … into the hands of free safety Luani, the former soccer player, who does a baseball slide at the 2-yard line to secure the upset.
As the sun sets over their practice field, a patchwork of dirt and forlorn grass strewn with rocks and coral, the Warriors of Tafuna High School sit cross-legged in tidy rows. It is Friday evening in Samoa. The third game of the season is scheduled for 10 tomorrow morning. The boys are sweaty and bloodied, their helmets placed on the ground uniformly before them like battered war drums. Forty sets of eyes shine attentively. Some wear maroon-and-white jerseys, the school’s colors. Others wear blue-and-white jerseys. Much of the equipment has been donated by local boosters and former NFL players and coaches. A number wear white Nike cleats given out for free this past summer at the annual football and volleyball clinic put on by former Pittsburgh Steelers great Troy Polamalu, an ethnic Samoan with strong ties to the island, who was raised in Southern California.
Standing before the group is their coach, Okland Salave’a, the brother of the Cougars’ Joe Salave’a. Coach Oak, a physical education teacher, has been the head football coach at Tafuna for seven years. The team has played in the island championships for each of the past three years, ending with two victories and a one-point loss. Tafuna’s junior varsity has claimed league titles five years in a row. With only four starters returning to varsity this year, however, the season has gotten off to a shaky start. The Warriors are 1–1. Now they face archrival Samoana High School, another perennial contender, coached by a man named Pati Pati, who played football at Iowa Wesleyan College. After Pati graduated in 1996, he came back home to be a music teacher — coaches on the island are paid only a small stipend.
For reasons of team building, Coach Oak has called a night practice — in Samoan a moetasi, or sleepover. For the past hour, the team has practiced plays and execution and run wind sprints. Next will be showers, a spaghetti dinner cooked by some of the moms, team meetings by position. Then lights out; they will sleep on pallets and traditional woven mats on the floor of one of the classrooms.
Coach Oak is 6 foot 5, longer and leaner than his brother but still a mountain on a hike. His voice is soft and lilting, a little hoarse. The other volunteer coaches stand and sit nearby with their arms gravely folded. For the benefit of his guests, Coach Oak speaks English. Talking about the game film from the previous week, he sounds like a typical stateside high school coach, annoyed and a little befuddled.
“I can’t see any reason why we shouldn’t win that game,” he says, scanning the faces before him. “Offensive line, it starts with you.”
Off in the distance, beyond the rooftops of the low-slung classrooms that form a quadrangle around the field, the lush and jagged mountains of Tutuila are shadowed against the darkening sky. Tutuila is the largest of the five volcanic islands that make up American Samoa, known to residents collectively as “The Rock.”
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 two 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.
Today five high schools on Tutuila have football programs; they play their games Thursday through Saturday on the island’s one football field, Veterans Memorial Stadium. Night games on the dusty grass field, with concrete bleachers on both sides, have been outlawed due to frequent fighting and episodes of rock throwing among rival fans. Through a government program, all students receive two hot meals each day; there is no budget for football. Much of the equipment consists of hand-me-downs shipped from the States. A pair of shoulder pads repaired with fishing line is not unusual.
“I know it’s very hard to play football,” Coach Oak is telling his team. A lot of the kids have indigenous tattoos; Coach Oak himself has a traditional tattoo that stretches from just above his knees to his midsection. Some of the kids wear their hair close-cropped; others have more elaborate cuts, with shaved sides and a streak of color. A few have the long, flowing style that has become the trademark of Polynesian players in the NFL; here and there can be seen a man-bun.
“After school you practice,” Coach Oak continues. “Then you go home for chores. You’re tired; all you wanna do is eat and then to sleep. But you gotta stay up and finish those homework. Don’t fall behind in your schoolwork! If you need help, there is tutoring.”
Okland Salave’a was sent to the States when he was a junior in high school — unlike his younger brother, he understood why he was going. He lived with relatives in the heavily Samoan enclave of Oceanside, California, north of San Diego.
“The transition was tough for me because of the language barrier,” he says later, sitting in the bleachers of the outdoor gymnasium. “When I left Samoa, I didn’t speak much English. We had it in school, but we didn’t try to speak it when we were hanging around with our friends. If one of us was trying to speak English we were like, ‘What you trying to do?’ And we would start laughing and teasing each other. The thought behind it was that we didn’t want to try to be something that we weren’t. So it kind of hurt my learning process, not only inside the classroom but on the field. I didn’t really understand exactly what the coaches were saying.”
As a senior, Salave’a was selected first-team all-county as a defensive end and was signed to a scholarship by the University of Colorado. Coach Oak smiles wanly, shaking his head. “First of all, it was cold. I’d never seen snow. And I still wasn’t really out of the woods with the language, not only speaking it but understanding the words and stuff.” Switching to linebacker proved an additional challenge. Later he would be switched back to defensive end. It was as if he was always a step behind, hustling to catch up.
Oak graduated with a degree in sociology but went undrafted. Eventually he signed as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers; the next season he joined the Birmingham Fire of the World League of American Football. Then he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
“In college, whenever I called home and talked to my dad, he always said, ‘I don’t care about football. The only thing I care about is you graduating and getting your degree, because that’s what’s gonna carry you after your football.’ At the time I didn’t really think about it because the dream of a football player is to make it to the NFL. But when I came back home, I realized, more than anything else, I wanted to coach football. I figured I could give these kids the kind of help I didn’t have. I could make it a little easier.”
As of this season, Coach Oak has one former player at Ohio University, two at the University of Arizona, one at Boise State, one at Oregon State, and three at Washington State with his brother. A few others are in Division II colleges and junior colleges. Three of his current seniors already have scholarship offers.
Standing in front of his team, the light quickly fading, Coach Oak winds up his talk. “We have a big day tomorrow,” he says. “I want everyone to get a good sleep tonight. If you don’t go to sleep, I’m not afraid to make you come out here and do the worm all the way down the field and back. OK?”
“Coach!” the team calls in unison.
After collecting all the cellphones in a bucket, Coach Oak dismisses the kids for showers. Stepping away, he checks his watch. To supplement his income, he works for Hawaiian Airlines, handling baggage and assisting wheelchair passengers to their seats. There are four flights a week. On Monday and Friday nights, the inbound from Honolulu lands at 9:30. The outbound leaves at 11:20. As soon as the kids get fed and settled down, he’ll head over. Conveniently, the airport is across the street.
In the shade of a rough-hewn shelter built around his family’s permanent umu — a stone-lined pit with a corrugated tin cover that serves as a traditional oven — Tutuila Manase, who is 45 and named after the island, takes a pull on an icy can of light beer, supervising the afternoon’s chores. It is Saturday. The punishing sun is still high overhead; the temperature and the humidity are in the 90s.
Eddie Manase, one of Tutuila’s nine children, is a 17-year-old senior at Tafuna High. Shirtless and wearing the maroon lava-lava skirt that is part of his school uniform, the 6-foot-2-1/2, 290-pounder is hosing out a concrete pigpen recently built with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency after the family’s traditional pigsty was found to be unsanitary.
Eddie’s younger cousin, Manase Manase, also a varsity player for Tafuna High, is out for a stretch after nearly losing a finger when it became caught in a rival’s facemask. He is well enough today to use a weed whacker — for centuries Samoan children have engaged in a constant battle to keep back the jungle.
Inside the cooking hut is senior Frederick Mauigoa, Eddie’s best friend since first grade. At 6 foot 4, 290 pounds, the 17-year-old lives in a village nearby; he is the only person Eddie knows, besides Coach Oak, who makes him feel small. Freddy busies himself husking and slicing open coconuts with a machete, then shredding the white meat into a bowl.
Despite a sleepy start to the morning’s football game — causing Coach Oak to question the efficacy of future moetasis — the Tafuna Warriors beat the Samoana Sharks 33–29. The normally rainy island has lately suffered a drought, leaving the field mostly dirt; clouds of dust swirled with the trade winds. Animated fans and drum sections on both sides lent a big-time atmosphere, as did the booming PA announcer, whose calls could be heard for miles across Tutuila. Beyond the end zones, booster clubs raised money by selling snacks and drinks.
With his team down at halftime, the normally soft-spoken Coach Oak rained down a torrent of agitated Samoan on his players. “This is not the football we have taught you,” he said, switching to English. “You boys need to get your freakin’ heads out of your asses.” Tafuna High found its footing and went to work.
Now, two hours after the game, we are in the village of Futiga, about seven miles inland from the school, an ancient community made up of three family groups. The houses in Futiga are arranged haphazardly across the green and gently rolling landscape, ranging in size and condition from large and nearly suburban to small and primitive. In most front yards are well-maintained burial plots. There are three churches of different denominations. Each village has a chief and a long list of lesser officials as well as its own fono, or legislature, which meets in a thatched building with open sides. There is also a fono that represents the entire nation; it meets in the capital, Pago Pago, where the governor is housed.
Despite playing nearly every down of this morning’s game, anchoring both the offensive and defensive lines, Eddie and Freddy make no noise about doing their chores, giggling between themselves as they work. Next year they will both be playing college football. Scholarships have already been offered. The question remaining is which letter to sign.
In the 1980s, Tutuila Manase played high school football himself, offensive line and defensive line. He had scholarship offers from schools in California, Arizona, and Montana, he says. The only problem: His family wouldn’t let him go.
“I was trying to explain it to our parents, especially my mom. I tried to convince her that I could get a future out of football,” Tutuila says. He went instead to Samoa’s community college and joined the Army. Eventually he finished his four-year degree and became a vice principal at an elementary school on the island. Along the way he served two tours in Iraq. He is now retired from both the military and the school system.
Beyond the clearing where Manase whacks weeds are family plots of banana, taro, breadfruit, and coconut. “Some of the families on the island are considered poor because we don’t have a lot of paper money, we don’t have the income,” Tutuila says. “But we’re not worry of that. We can make the living out of the surroundings that we have. Our parents passed it on to us, and now we’re passing over to our children. My belief is, families who have very strong ties with the culture are the ones who are still continuing with this process.”
Still, Tutuila is excited for the opportunities the boys have. Even his mother — who is enjoying a sweet tea with his father on the shady porch of the large house in which they all live — is excited for Eddie. “Now my parents understand better that if you get a full ride you don’t have to spend any money on anything,” Tutuila says.
Youth football only started in Samoa in 2009. Eddie and Freddy belong to the third set of seniors to graduate as products of a feeder system that has raised the quality of the game in Samoa. College coaches routinely struggled to raise Samoan players’ football IQ to match the levels of their attitudes and athletic talents. Tutuila has helped coach the core of the Tafuna team since the boys were peewees; he has followed them upward through the years and now serves as an assistant coach for the varsity.
Eddie finishes cleaning the pigpen and moves over to the shade of the cooking shelter, joining Freddy and his dad. He kneels to build a fire, sweat streaming. Soon he will have to decide which school to attend. Like most high school seniors, he’s a bit clueless — he has no way of imagining the life that awaits him.
“I’m excited to play college ball,” he says in a deep but bashful voice. There is a hint of a mustache growing on his upper lip. “That’s one of my goals: I want to continue on with my career in college and make it to the NFL. It’s my favorite sport.”
Freddy agrees, saying that his favorite position is tackle, but he would “play any position they ask if it means winning the game and making it to the championship.”
As the boys busy themselves with their tasks, I wonder out loud if Tutuila ever thinks about the football scholarships he turned down. If he had gone off-island, his story might have turned out differently.
Tutuila finishes off his beer, taking time to consider a response. “I was born in this life,” he says. “When I was just a little boy we feed the pigs and we make the plantation and we cook the food. And we do all different kind of stuff, Samoan traditional chores. Maybe it would have been fun for me to try a different life for a while.”
Eddie places a pot of green bananas over the grill, then moves to another bench to begin pressing milk from the shredded coconut. As a strainer he uses a tangle of strong, fibrous, straw-colored strands called tauaga, taken from the laufao plant. Placing the tauaga into the bowl of coconut meat, Eddie uses the same twisting motion one would use when wringing out a dishrag. The pressure brings milk from the meat. The muscles in Eddie’s thick wrists and forearms ripple with effort. He will simmer the milk with salt and onions for a sauce.
“See there?” asks Tutuila, pointing toward his son’s big hands. “We don’t need a fancy gym here. These kids have been working out their whole lives.”
On a cool Monday in Pullman, Washington, six Samoan members of the Washington State Cougars are sprawled around a conference room in a brand-new football complex set on hilly farmland east of the Cascade mountains.
The seventh Samoan Cougar, senior Destiny Vaeao, is still in class. A graduate of Tafuna High who played under Coach Oak, Vaeao was the first to be recruited to the Cougars by Coach Joe, whose regular trips to the island have made him a celebrity — a man who arrives each year to bring scholarships for the kids. “He’s more famous than I am, to be sure,” says Samoa’s governor, Lolo Matalasi Moliga, who last year appointed former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Jonathan Fanene as director of American Samoa’s Department of Youth and Women’s Affairs.
It has been two days since the double-overtime upset of the Oregon Ducks. Today there is no practice. The guys have just finished class. Most are criminal justice majors; several want to be law-enforcement officers if they don’t make it to the NFL. One wants to enter the military. The two freshmen are still undecided. Without helmets, the group looks unimposing — all sweet smiles and dimples, with an endearing eagerness to please. All of them say their first goal is to bring home a college diploma for their parents to frame and hang on the wall.
Robert Barber, a junior, starts on the defensive front line alongside Vaeao. He went to Faga’itua High School, which beat Tafuna High last year for the championship.
Daniel Ekuale, one of the heroes of the victory over the Ducks, is a sophomore. A backup on defensive line, he attended Nu’uuli Vocational-Technical on the island. Sophomore Frankie Luvu from Tafuna High and freshman Logan Tago from Samoana High are second-string linebackers. Amosa Sakaria, a freshman lineman, is redshirting this season after knee surgery. He also played for Coach Oak at Tafuna High.
Shalom Luani, who graduated from Faga’itua High, plays free safety; he is the junior transfer student and former soccer player who pulled down the winning interception against the Ducks. (Next week, against Oregon State, Luani will come up with 11 tackles and two more interceptions, returning one for an 84-yard touchdown; for this he’ll be named the Pac-12’s defensive player of the week. He will also be central to the following week’s upset victory over the Arizona Wildcats.)
Vaeao has his own apartment; the other four upperclassmen live together in a rented house seven minutes’ walk from campus. The two freshmen live together in the dorm, but they rarely go there, preferring instead to crash at the house.
“When you first come here it’s not scary, but you’re feeling homesick,” Barber says. He is the eldest present and takes the lead.
“Nervous,” adds Ekuale. Even though Ekuale is only a sophomore, Coach Joe has asked him to step up and be prepared to fill Vaeao’s leadership role after the senior graduates.
“I been to the States a lot of times to visit my family, but coming here by myself was way different,” Barber says.
“That’s another reason I came here, because I know that Robert, Daniel, and Destiny and them were going to be here,” Luvu says.
“Because it’s pretty different from home,” Tago says.
“When you got off the plane here it was hot,” Ekuale says. “It’s humid back home, but here they have dry heat.”
“And there are a lot of crazy people,” Luani says, laughing.
“And things like time management,” says Tago. “You look at the time and you have to be somewhere, and then the next thing you know you get the text, like, ‘Why weren’t you here?’”
“And they have a lot of traffic lights here,” Luvu says.
“And here the streets have names, like Duncan Street,” Barber says.
“In the village back home you just point to the place,” Luani says, pointing to demonstrate.
“You don’t have to know any directions,” Ekuale agrees.
Down the hall, Coach Joe is in his office, running through game footage. When he brought Vaeao and Barber to the Cougars, they were the first Samoans to be recruited by the school since 1988. (The Cougars’ first Samoan player was the “Throwin’ Samoan,” Jack Thompson, who played in the mid-1970s.) Vaeao was also recruited by Alabama and other big football programs; what sold him on the Cougars was Coach Joe.
More than just a coach, Coach Joe plays the role of village chief. He regularly talks to the boys’ counselors and hangs out with the group. He is mindful of the promises he made in all of those large and crowded living rooms across Tutuila. A few other college coaches might come and go to the island — it takes two different planes and nearly 24 hours to reach Samoa from the West Coast — but Coach Joe is the one the islanders trust. He is one of them. “If something would happen to one of these kids, I gotta answer to their families,” he says. Last year, after the Cougars’ first postseason bowl appearance in ten years, Pac-12 rival USC offered Coach Joe a job at a substantial raise. After some thought, and a counteroffer from Washington State, he turned them down.
Back in the conference room, the boys are talking about college life. “Mostly, we just like to chill when we get our free time,” Luani says.
“Sometimes we like to play uke and sing and joke around,” Barber adds.
“Or play video games,” Ekuale says.
“And order pizza,” Barber says.
“Especially Amosa,” Ekuale says, indicating the freshman from Tafuna. “He always be hungry at midnight.”
“When he came over here he was not that big,” Luvu says.
“He was 290,” says Ekuale. “Now he’s 340.”
The freshman raises both hands in the air, a helpless gesture. “I had surgery on my knee, so …” he explains sheepishly, his voice trailing away.
“It’s hard when you get hurt,” Ekuale says empathetically, changing his tune. He leans forward playfully and punches his teammate on the shoulder.
The massive Sakaria turns his head to Ekuale, his expression blank. Then he wipes off the surface of his sleeve, as if to remove a spot of dust.
Everybody cracks up.