UA Football: Islanders give Cats toughness, quickness
Rebuilt Pacific pipeline adds depth to lines
With guys such as Pulu, Mu and Malauulu, Arizona football was once known as a haven for Polynesian players.
Former University of Arizona coach Dick Tomey, with built-in credibility from his days as Hawaii's head coach, established a pipeline between Tucson and the islands. He understood the culture of Polynesian players - as well as their skill level.
Then John Mackovic arrived in the 2001 season, and the Wildcats' recruiting in that area withered. Now, the Wildcats are once again securing their ties to the area; seven UA players have some type of Polynesian background.
"It is something we wanted to do," UA coach Mike Stoops said about re-establishing the Polynesian connection.
"They have been very successful players and a big part of the program and a big part of the Pac-10. They are kids who really play hard and are very good football players. That has been part of the tradition of the Pac-10 and certainly Arizona. We have been very fortunate to get a strong nucleus of those players here."
Saturday night's game against Brigham Young University definitely will have an island flavor because the Cougars and Wildcats were among the first teams to establish a recruiting link to Hawaii and the Pacific islands, infusing their teams with players who typically have a strong blue-collar work ethic.
"Polynesians are big, really huge guys. They are mostly O-linemen and D-linemen," UA quarterback Willie Tuitama said. "There is honestly something about Polynesians. They just have the heart to play football."
The growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the islands has BYU going to the region more than anybody else. BYU has at least 18 players who have a background from one of the various islands.
"We were one of the few that went into the area early," said former BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "I believe it was in the 1960s. We have had a good crop of players coming in ever since."
Utah, San Diego State and Arizona were among the other schools that reaped benefits from the Polynesian players. Now, many more schools are taking trips to Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji and American Samoa.
Tomey, with a staff filled with Hawaii-area assistants, flew to Samoa three or four times a year. The Wildcats had a steady stream of Polynesian players, mostly linemen such as Pulu Poumele, Mu Tagoai and Joe Salave'a.
And also quarterbacks in George Malauulu and Tuitama.
Starting with Nokise (Noki) Fuimaono, who lettered as a running back in 1967, Arizona has had more than 50 Polynesian players.
"Others claim they have been there, but if anybody has a history, or can make that claim it is Arizona," said UA defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo, who was born in Samoa and has a nearly endless list of relatives who have played football in the United States.
"Utah and BYU can make a claim they have been involved because of their Mormon influence, but Washington and Oregon, I get a tickle out of that. They can say that now, but trust me, Arizona has a history."
Making the long recruiting trips paid off for any college coach willing to put in the time. There was good reason to recruit players from an area in which American football wasn't really played.
"I believe if there is a game that was ever invented for a group of people, it would be football for the Polynesian players," Edwards said.
"They have the quickness and such great physical stature. They have a great big presence about them and a love for contact."
Most of the predecessors played rugby and never even wore equipment such as pads and helmets before enrolling at American colleges.
Now, there are a projected 200 players with Samoan backgrounds on college rosters and nearly 50 in the NFL.
Arizona, under Stoops, is still trying to regain its stronghold in the area. Arizona State has 14 players of Polynesian descent. Oregon State has 11. Oregon could have four-fifths of its offensive line coming from Hawaii.
While none of the current UA players with Polynesian connections was raised outside the 50 states, they are maintaining the strong bonds and beliefs from the regions. It is not uncommon to see Arizona's big linemen around campus dressed in their traditional Samoan sarongs, and it's impossible to miss the traditional Samoan tattoos encircling their large biceps.
"Both of my parents are from the islands and are raised Samoan," said UA defensive tackle Paul Philipp, whose younger brother, Hans, has committed to play for the Wildcats starting next year.
"I know the culture and how to speak the language. Growing up, my parents talked Samoan, they never talked English. They came for their honeymoon and they never went back. It has been easy to learn the language because I grew up with it."
Although born in Lakewood, Calif., and raised as a mainlander, he knows quite well what life was like for his parents, and the rest of his ancestors, despite only visiting there when he was young.
"They talk about how hard it was growing up and how they had to walk like five miles to go to school, and how every morning they had to wake up at 4 to cook for the older people," Philipp said. "You have to dig a hole to put the pig under the ground."
Through football, the Polynesian culture is being carried on in stadiums across America, including Tucson on Saturday night.