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Monday, July 16, 2007

AFL2 Stockton Lighting-Polynesian roots run deep for Lighting

AIGA Foundation members David Lose and Manase Hopoi are currently playing in AFL2 for the Stockton Lightning. The article notes that there are 7 Polynesians on the team and one Samoan coach, Mathias Vavao.

The article fails to note that the Lightning's quarterback coach, Josh Wallwork is part Samoan as well.


Polynesian roots run deep for Lightning

July 14, 2007

STOCKTON - The Polynesian "tatau" has decorated his left arm for 14 years, teeth depicting the strength of his people, black and white boxes reflecting diversity, wings representing freedom, arrows signifying discipline.

For Lightning assistant coach Mathias Vavao, who is of Samoan descent, his cultural consciousness is heartfelt and always present, and football lower on his list of priorities.

"It's no secret," Vavao said. "I'm a Samoan coach.

"I'm Samoan before I'm a coach."

That said, a significant portion of the Lightning's roster has Polynesian roots, and whenever Vavao can mix his culture with his coaching duties, it is for him an ideal situation.

There are seven Polynesian players on the team, and five of them - receiver Sale Key, center David Lose, defensive lineman Manase Hopoi, fullback Peter Tuialuuluu and linebacker Tupo Tu'upo - have played key roles for the Lightning (6-7), which badly needs a win tonight over visiting Boise (5-8) to improve its tenuous playoff prospects.

Additionally, newcomer Jason Vaka's played on special teams the past three games and lineman Mason Mitchell has been a steady presence at practice all season long.

For the players - five Samoans and two Tongans - Vavao was part of the attraction of joining the Lightning. For Vavao, it's simple. He's eager to help develop worthy young players, and if there's a cultural connection, so much the better.

"What drives him is to help someone so they can do something they love and can make money from it, and that gives him so much satisfaction," said Vavao's wife, Mary.

"He has so much passion for it."

The Polynesian contingent clearly appreciates Vavao's efforts.

"We represent him," Tuialuuluu said. "We all have his name stamped on our heads. He's the muscle around here. We respect him just like we respect any other coaches. But as a Polynesian group, we stay tight."

Only two years ago, Vavao acknowledges he was drifting. The 32-year-old, a nose guard as a player, had spent the 1997 NFL season on the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad and followed that with a long and successful careerin the Arena Football League. But in 2005, Vavao's playing days were over, and he did not know what was next.

"Life after football was hard," Vavao said. "You've got to figure out what you're going to do. And I didn't do it."

Out of the blue one day, Vavao got a call from Doug Murray, then a Lightning assistant coach, now the team's head coach. Murray - an assistant coach at Chabot College in Hayward when Vavao played there more than a decade earlier - had given Vavao's name to then-Lightning coach Richard Davis, who was assembling a staff for the 2006 season.

A coaching career was born, and though Murray says Vavao is qualified right now to work at a higher level of football, his loyal protégé says he is in no hurry to move on.

"Whether I coach 10 more years or 10 more days, (Murray) got me started," Vavao said. "Coach Murray is the one who called me when I retired. He's an honorary Polynesian. He can pass for a chief."

Murray values his offensive line coach's presence on his staff to the extent that he has changed practice schedules when Vavao knows he will be running late while returning from his other job as a trash collector in the Bay Area. And Murray acknowledges that for the Polynesian players, there are intangible benefits that come from having Vavao around.

"I think they feel comfortable knowing the franchise and what we're doing is inclusive by nature and that we're willing to take the best people, irrespective, and if that means a Polynesian coach who's up for the job gets it, then that's so much the better," Murray said.

Vavao and his fellow Polynesians are serious about their background. Though they donned traditional lavalavas for a recent photo shoot, they declined a request to perform the "haka" - a ritual war dance many of them have done before a game at one point or another during their football careers.

"It's not something you want to do just to show somebody," Losé said. "It's something you have to mean in your heart and feel in your gut. If the warrior isn't in you, you shouldn't do it."

Said Key: "It's our culture. It's something we take pride in."

Perhaps none more so than Vavao.

"It's very unique, our culture," Vavao said. "That's what separates us from all the other cultures. No matter where we are ... we will still be the same. If I'm in South Dakota and I run into another Samoan at the supermarket, it would be like we're on the island. And within a day or two, you'd be eating dinner with them."

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