Tropic of Football: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans to the NFL

by Rob Ruck

Clock Icon 9 minute read

Several high school football squads cluster on the sidelines of Veterans Memorial Stadium on a July morning in 2013. Rain scuds by on its way from an angry South Pacific Ocean to the green-slathered mountains that form the spine of Tutuila, the principal island of American Samoa. It’s a narrow volcanic uplift about nineteen miles long, never more than five miles wide. Suddenly, players from two schools break into haka, the Maori challenge appropriated by teams throughout the Pacific. Two swarms of gesticulating players advance toward each other, contorting their faces, rhythmically slapping thighs and chests, and bellowing out Samoan phrases with guttural ferocity. A few men on the sidelines shake their heads, anticipating trouble.

Ryan Clark, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive back, glides quickly into the space between the two squads. When the players converge, Clark disappears amid the scrum. But it’s all good. The players are not throwing punches; they’re jumping up and down like pogo sticks, yelling and hugging, and Clark is as amped as the boys. “This ain’t about football,” Clark yells as he emerges from the celebration. “This about Samoa!”

Football in the United States is at a crossroads, the sport’s future imperiled by the very physicality that’s driven its popularity. The number of boys playing football in high school or on a team belonging to Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth program, plunged over the last decade as the neurological, physical, and fiscal costs of the game became more evident. More and more high schools are terminating their teams. But one group has bucked that trend—Polynesians, especially Samoans, in American Samoa, as well as in Hawai‘i, California, Utah, and pockets of Texas and the Pacific Northwest where they have congregated.

No culture has produced such an extraordinary number of athletes per capita as American Samoa and its fraternal outposts in the United States.

The territory of American Samoa consists of Tutuila and its deepwater harbor at Pago Pago, the three islands comprising Manu‘a, and a few coral atolls—just 76.1 square miles. These islands sit four thousand miles off the Pacific Coast, two-thirds of the way from Hawai‘i to New Zealand, and are the only place in the world outside the United States where football has taken hold at the grass roots, the only one that sends its native sons to the NFL. In the forefront of high school football in several stateside locales, Samoans have become the most disproportionately overrepresented demographic in the NFL and Division I college football. Junior Seau’s 2015 induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy honors— both firsts for Samoans—herald a growing wave of talent. The men coaching at Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu’s football camp on that rainy July day on Tutuila will tell you there’s a tsunami of talent building in the Pacific.

Troy Polamalu brilliantly embodies that athletic aptitude. Although he settled easily into his surroundings, almost disappearing when he was off the field, the perennial Pro Bowl safety was the center of attention during a game. It wasn’t just the hair, or the seemingly random way he dashed around before and during a play. It was his capacity to suddenly alter a game’s outcome. Given the liberty to freelance within Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex schemes, Polamalu behaved intuitively but paradoxically with great forethought. Unable to anticipate what he might do on any play, opposing quarterbacks shuddered at the sight of him.

In 2010, when Pittsburgh returned to the Super Bowl for the third time during Polamalu’s first ten seasons with the club, he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Early that season, the Tennessee Titans had the ball on the Steelers’ two-yard line with little time left to play. If the Titans got the ball into the end zone, they still had time to come back and win the game. As Titan quarterback Kerry Collins rushed into position behind center, Polamalu stood absolutely still, processing how Tennessee approached the line of scrimmage, the game situation, and what he sensed they would do. Suddenly, he took three quick steps toward the line of scrimmage and launched himself forward. He was in the air before the ball was snapped, but not yet over the line of scrimmage. Clearing Tennessee’s crouching linemen by two feet, Polamalu unfurled his arms as he reached the apex of his trajectory. Plunging downward, he enveloped Collins just as the quarterback received the ball. Collins collapsed to the turf, with Polamalu on his back. As Polamalu popped up, Collins looked up from the turf and said, “Dude, that was a great play.”

“He sees the game a little differently,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said with understatement. “That’s what makes him special.”

The boys are dead serious about football, but they’re having fun doing something they love. Smiles and laughter infuse the drills, although getting a Samoan to smile is never difficult. The coaches find the boys’ commitment infectious. They’re whooping and hollering, none more than Ryan Clark. He and Polamalu have been soul mates in the Steelers secondary, though both knew that the upcoming football campaign would likely be their last as teammates. While Troy is quiet and reflective, Ryan is abuzz, zigzagging around the field, teaching and exhorting.

Sweat pours off the boys. Rain—which averages 125 to 300 inches a year— provides some respite, as do frequent water breaks. For most of the boys, this is their third camp of the summer, on top of daily training. Faga‘itua High School coach Su‘aese “Pooch” Ta‘ase began workouts in February. His boys are from Tutuila’s east side, where the only businesses are bush stores. The players run up the mountain each morning before chores, returning later for four-hour practices. Their school has few students, but no team outworks them. And no coach is as dedicated as Pooch, a five-foot-six-inch fireplug attired in Faga‘itua red.

Pooch stresses academics, but the NFL looms larger each season and education often suffers. Many who go off island do not last long in school. Some avoid returning home. “Not finishing that degree,” Cheryl Morales, the director of the Feleti Barstow Public Library, tells me, “is like getting half a tattoo. It’s embarrassing to the person, his family, and his village.” The traditional tattoo, a painful rite of manhood, covers much of a man’s lower body. The master tattooist strikes a sharpened boar tusk with a mallet to ink its symmetrical patterns. The tattoo, done with ceremonial rigor, takes a week to complete and bears little resemblance to those adorning many young American athletes. It’s considered shameful not to endure the pain and to quit before it is complete. So is returning without a degree.

For the moment, here are their heroes, whispering instructions and grabbing them in bear hugs. Domata Peko pulls a boy up by his shoulder pads after he pancakes his opponent in a blocking drill; Ryan Clark high-steps with excitement when another boy intercepts a pass. During breaks, coaches testify. Mike Iupati, a young giant with a quasi-Mohawk cut, was San Francisco’s 2010 first-round draft pick. “You have an opportunity to change your family’s life,” the Samoan-born guard says. “There’s limited opportunity in Samoa. That’s a fact. This is a chance for you.” Nobody thought much of Iupati’s chances when he arrived at the University of Idaho as a freshman, unable to play or receive a scholarship because of a weak academic record. But he persevered in the classroom and endured injuries that prevented him from competing. By his senior year, Iupati was one of the top linemen in college football. “Don’t follow temptation, especially up there,” he cautions. Many Samoan youth, accustomed to strict discipline, succumb on the mainland when they’re on their own. “It’s hard to sacrifice eight years in school,” Iupati concedes, tearing up and breaking into Samoan, the boys’ default language.

By early this century, hundreds of Samoans were playing NCAA Division I football, hundreds more at junior colleges, and dozens in the NFL. About fifty Samoans from as far away as New Zealand report to NFL camps each summer. That’s from a U.S. population of 235,000 Samoans—55,000 on the islands comprising American Samoa, the rest in the States, mostly Hawai‘i and California.

About a tenth of the Samoans currently playing college ball came directly from the territory, where the game arrived in the 1960s. But the territory is sending more native sons to the States each year. Nobody knows the actual number because nobody keeps track and because Samoans are so mobile. In the fall of 2013, more than thirty boys who played high school football on the island were on Division I rosters. Those rosters included a larger group of players who were born in American Samoa but left to play high school ball in the States. Hundreds more attend lower-division schools and junior colleges, although most never make it to a D-I school. Those who do, however, often go on to the NFL.

That makes Samoans a unique source of football talent. Of American sports, football is the most beholden to boys who grew up in the United States. Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL tap other countries for more than a quarter of their player force. But football has remained almost exclusively a North American sport—except for the fast-multiplying Samoans and their island neighbors from Tonga, who picked up the game in the States.

Copyright © 2018 by Rob Ruck. This excerpt originally appeared in Tropic of Football, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Related Reads