Athletic talent and 'a special spirit' set Dolphins Samoan rookies apart
By Harvey Fialkov
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
May 11, 2007
While most coaches focus on speed and athletic ability when building a championship team, Dolphins coach Cam Cameron has repeatedly stressed character, family and values as a major part of his selection process.
Perhaps that explains why Cameron and General Manager Randy Mueller brought in four Samoan players via the Polynesian Pipeline in renovating the Dolphins' roster.
Of course, all four Samoans -- offensive lineman Samson Satele (second-round draft pick), defensive tackle Paul Soliai (fourth), fullback Reagan Mauia (sixth), and lineman Tala Esera (free agent) -- are also considered agile and powerful football players.
"They're all different. Their families are different. But what we have seen in these guys is that spirit, that spirit of enthusiasm, that pride," Cameron said. "When they step on the football field, they know they represent someone bigger than themselves, and that's important. We believe in that."
Samoans are one of several cultures in the more than 1,000 islands in the South Pacific collectively known as Polynesia. American Samoa, Hawaii, New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti, Easter Island and Marquesas are all in the Polynesian Triangle.
The wave of Polynesian players in the NFL is growing, with more than 50 dotting current rosters. At least 30 are from Samoa or the 77-square mile American Samoa.
The Dolphins have a fifth Polynesian player: second-year Tongan defensive tackle Steve Fifita, who is playing in NFL Europa.
"These kids have a special spirit about them in terms of their faith and commitment level," said Alema Te'o, who runs the All-Poly football camp in Bountiful, Utah, for mostly impoverished Polynesian-born high school players. "It's a respect thing. When it comes down to competition, you don't want anyone else.
"These kids lay it on the line because they know they're not just playing for themselves. They know that when you leave home, you'd better not come back empty-handed."
More than 50 college coaches and scouts attend the annual camp, and last year they handed out 40 Division I-A scholarships. Satele, Mauia and Esera are three of seven rookies (five drafted) from the University of Hawaii on NFL rosters.
"When I first came here in 1999, we had 19 Polynesians out of 105 on the team," said Hawaii coach June Jones, a former Atlanta Falcons coach. "Now, we've got 76, including three Sateles. They're just very solid players and even better people."
Al Lolatia is thought to be the first Samoan to play in the NFL, in 1945, but the Pacific Islanders' lineage began to flourish in the 1970s with Bengals quarterback Jack Thompson, aka "The Throw'n Samoan," and Patriots fullback Mosi Tatupu, whose son Lofa is a linebacker for the Seahawks.
The current generation hopes to continue in the footsteps of future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau and Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, both of Samoan ancestry.
"Everyone wanted to be Junior Seau, even if you were playing quarterback," said Mauia, a cousin of Satele and Hawaii teammate Melila Purcell, taken by the Browns in the sixth round.
Te'o and Honolulu-based NFL agent Max Hannemann said these players are all about doing things the Samoan way, called fa'a Samoa, and by always showing respect, or fa'aaloalo, to their families, coaches, teammates and opponents.
Satele, who at 6 feet 2 and 310 pounds has the traditional long hair and size of his ancestors, said he wants to eradicate the negative stereotype of Samoans as being lazy, overweight beachcombers.
"We're only laid-back on Sundays," Satele said of Samoa's traditional day of rest. "Monday through Saturday, we're putting in the work. I guess we need a new day to rest now."
The 6-4, 345-pound Soliai, who developed his quick burst from playing Samoa's most popular sport, rugby, agrees.
"We hear how Samoans are lazy and not healthy and that most Samoans die of heart attacks," Soliai said. "If they [Seau, etc.] could make it, we could make it in the new generation."
The 6-3, 312-pound Esera is considered the leader of the Dolphins' Samoan contingent for his ability to lead them in the pregame Haka, a New Zealand war dance that inspired his teammates at Hawaii while intimidating and respecting their opponents.
"We're a new breed: smarter, more mature and aware of our role models," Esera said. "They showed us if we work hard and make good choices we can get to that level and do what we were born to do."
Their attitude and rituals seem contagious. Dolphins rookie quarterback John Beck speaks a little Samoan.
"They called me palagi, or white boy, at [Brigham Young]. I even play the ukulele," said Beck, who played in the Polynesian-laden Western Athletic Conference. "They have a really cool culture. They're so laid-back and chilled, but the minute they turn that switch they're like fire."
Despite losing more than 100 pounds when switching from nose guard to fullback, Mauia isn't about to give up his love of Samoan food, such as taro. He may, however, stick to creating holes in defensive lines instead of drywall, as he did at a training facility in Arizona while preparing for the draft.
"We were breaking down the wall already," said Mauia, whose nickname is Juggernaut. "It was crazy, but we had some fun with it.
"I couldn't ask for a better deal to be with the Dolphins. We're going to bring something different this year."
Perhaps the Haka?
"Only if the veterans let us," Esera said.
Harvey Fialkov can be reached at email@example.com.