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Monday, August 13, 2007

Opportunity Island Hoping: In American Samoa, High School Football Is Seen as the Ultimate Escape

By Eli Saslow

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa

Ne'emia Vitale usually needs only a few minutes to walk home from football practice, following a one-lane street bordered by tin-roof huts and long trails of rotting litter. But today, he stalls.

He kicks up loose gravel with his size 13 flip-flops and shoos the wild dogs and chickens that rove near his feet. After sprinting and tackling for three hours on a field dotted by lava rocks, Ne'emia's Oakland Athletics T-shirt is sodden with sweat and streaks of blood. He chugs tap water out of a used plastic Gatorade bottle, which he picked out of a trash heap a few minutes earlier and rinsed because he had no other container from which to drink.

Ne'emia, 17, stops at a faded blue shack under a handwritten sign that reads "Convenience Mart." Doritos cost 50 cents, and Ne'emia fishes in his pocket. Damn. Only one quarter left from his $1 weekly allowance. Ne'emia buys a small bag of chicken-flavored Bongo chips instead.

Outside, he sits on the curb, shakes perspiration from his curly muddle of long black hair and leans back against a garbage can. From there, he can look to his left and see his family's rusted, two-room house, where six relatives are buried in the front yard. Or he can look right, toward the high school football field, where dozens of Samoan boys have played their way off this island and hundreds more dream of achieving the same.

VIDEO | Football, Family Central to Life in American Samoa

"Sometimes," Ne'emia says, his hand sifting through the Bongo chips, "I wish football practice lasted all day."

The rest of Ne'emia's afternoon consists of an endless list of chores. While his father works 12-hour days for $150 per week, Ne'emia must feed the pigs, care for the banana trees, catch and drown a chicken, cook dinner for the family, gather two dozen coconuts and sweep the blue-and-pink checkered tile floor on which the family of six sleeps. Ne'emia worries his list will go on like this, anchoring him here for another 60 years until he's buried in the family's front yard, forever stuck on this four-mile-wide island in the middle of the Pacific.

Unless . . .

* * *

At 6 a.m. in American Samoa, the equatorial sun climbs above the ocean, and thousands of people trickle out of one-room houses jammed into villages along the beach. Like Ne'emia's father, Vai, they walk to the edge of the island's main road and pay $1 to hitch rides to work on the beds of crowded pickups. A procession of trucks weaves along the shoreline at 15 mph, cutting around jagged mountains and dense forests of banana and breadfruit trees.

Even though it's just after sunrise on a July day, the dead of winter here, the temperature already has eclipsed 90 degrees. A warm, coastal breeze blows off the water, and it whistles through the two gigantic tuna canneries that employ one-third of the island's workforce. The salty scent of raw fish -- "the death smell," residents call it -- sweeps across the island.

It's a hazy morning, and the blue skies and blue waves that engulf American Samoa blend into an indecipherable horizon; there is nothing out there to see. Australia is about 2,500 miles to the west. The continental United States is about 5,000 miles to the northeast.

Ne'emia never has left this island, and he divides geography into two categories. You're either on island or off island. A twice-weekly jet service and a tenuous relationship with the United States are practically all that connect American Samoa to the outside world. The island became a U.S. territory in 1900, but it hasn't been essential since it served as a staging area during World War II. "They say we're not as strategically important anymore," said Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D), the territory's nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. "But if China or Japan starts snooping around the Pacific with some submarines, we'll be pretty important then."

Mainland America exists primarily as a symbol of luxury for the island's 58,000 residents, who devour the U.S. exports that reach their shores. McDonald's is the island's most popular restaurant. A banner near the airport "proudly announces" the opening of a Carl's Jr. next month. Football, played nowhere else in this part of the world, has become an islandwide obsession.

A visiting U.S. teacher introduced football at a local high school in the late 1960s, and the game quickly overtook rugby as the island's favorite sport. Football, founded on hitting and shoving, won respect in a culture that honors its most physically dominant men by naming them village chiefs. Schools stake their reputations on football; players earn cachet for being good at it.

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GRAPHIC | Famous Trailblazers

Forty-one players of Samoan descent are listed on National Football League rosters, and three players from American Samoa were selected in this year's NFL draft. Over the last five years, about 15 percent of the boys who graduated from high school in American Samoa left the island to play college or junior college football in the United States. Players of Samoan descent such as Junior Seau, Joe Salave'a and Troy Polamalu have made football the premier spectator sport on the island, even though Sunday NFL games are televised here quite early in the morning.

On the brink of his senior year of high school, Ne'emia anticipates his future with the same hit-or-miss mentality that's common among his peers. He could work in the tuna cannery, or maybe follow his dad into construction and make around $7,500 per year.

Or he could practice football. And leave.

* * *

On a Thursday afternoon in late July, Ne'emia arrives at Leone High School in shorts, shoulder pads and an oversize football helmet that bobs as he jogs. He sits at the center of the school's unmarked field next to about 100 other boys who look similarly ill fitted for the four-hour practice ahead. Some wear sandals. Others hold helmets lacking interior foam. Most wear hand-me-down replica jerseys never intended for full-contact use. On the far west side of American Samoa, Dan Marino, John Elway and Marshall Faulk sit next to each other under the midday sun and chat in Samoan, a language heavy on vowels and pauses.

Pati Pati, the head coach at Leone, walks onto the field and the players fall silent. The coach wears dark-rimmed glasses, and a whistle hangs around his neck and bounces off his belly. He played football for four seasons at Iowa Wesleyan in the 1990s and returned to American Samoa determined to modernize the local game. He banned his players from practicing in their ie lavalavas, skirtlike wraps traditionally worn by men. He introduced weightlifting and raised funds to buy five used dumbbells and a rusted bench press.

(Travis Fox - washingtonpost.com)">[Photo]
Ne'emia Vitale listens to his coach at football practice. (Travis Fox - washingtonpost.com)

Last season, Pati led Leone to a championship in the island's six-team league, his first title in five seasons as head coach. Afterward, he used his connections in the United States to send nine seniors to play college football on the mainland. Two hundred of the 400 boys at Leone High School came out to the first football practice of the season, but almost half quit in the first few weeks because Pati made them run four miles after each practice. Today, as the coach steps in front of his team, the remaining players clap.

"Thank you for coming today, and for making the decision to devote yourself to this team," Pati says. "Remember, every day is important to our final goal of winning a championship. What will we give today?"

The players answer in practiced unison, "We give everything!"

It's something of a motto for football across American Samoa. At some schools, the first day of practice begins only a few days after the previous season's championship game. Most teams practice for four to five hours each day in June and July. At Faga'itua High School, on the eastern side of the island, Coach Pooch Ta'ase mandates an hour of weightlifting, three hours of practice and 90 minutes of conditioning each day. "If they go home with any energy," Ta'ase says, "then I call it a bad practice."

(Travis Fox - washingtonpost.com)">[Photo]
Some Leone High School football players take a knee and watch drills during practice. (Travis Fox - washingtonpost.com)

Each season, about a dozen college coaches travel 15 hours by air to recruit on this island. They come because many Samoans look like prototypical offensive linemen, with broad shoulders and gigantic thighs. They come back, annually, because Samoans play football at full speed, all the time, conditioned for obsession.

Late in the afternoon at Leone High School, Pati blows his whistle and tells his players to begin a full-contact scrimmage, a daily ritual. He tosses out a rubber ball with fake plastic laces, and his players line up on what Pati calls the "best practice field" on the island. A chain-link fence keeps out a dozen barking dogs, and nearby palm trees provide a hint of shade in the late afternoon. Year-round practices have worn away most of the grass, and incessant summer rainfall carved deep crevasses near the 10- and 20-yard lines. Fist-size lava rocks -- bruisers, the players call them -- are imbedded in the dirt.

Ne'emia, a senior captain, lines up at right guard and plows a path for his running back. He's thin for an offensive lineman at just taller than 6 feet and 235 pounds, with gigantic calf muscles that he shaves to keep cool. He wears a hint of a mustache, and tufts of his hair -- last cut in 2005 -- spill from the back of his helmet. Three years of fighting in the football trenches has permanently swollen Ne'emia's hands, so he can't squeeze them into fists.

(Travis Fox - washingtonpost.com)">[Photo]
Ne'emia Vitale lifts weights after football practice. Leone High School's makeshift weight room consists of one bench press and a hodgepodge of other weights stored in a shipping container adjacent to the field. (Travis Fox - washingtonpost.com)

Coaches on the island believe Ne'emia has the power and speed to succeed at almost any position, even at the Division I college level. His mother, Queen, was a shot-putter; Vai Vitale was a boxer. They met at the Pacific Games in 1989 and, a year later, gave birth to a son blessed with both of their talents. Ne'emia dreams of becoming a tight end in college, so he can block on one play and sprint downfield on the next. His 2.6 grade-point average -- which includes poor grades in some core science classes -- might hamper his eligibility, so Ne'emia takes a daily two-hour SAT prep class offered for free to the island's best football players.

On this day, he grunts during the scrimmage while he manhandles the defensive lineman across from him. Iake Teo, the afternoon's unfortunate opponent, repeatedly falls backward under Ne'emia's weight, and Iake's thighs and shoulders grind against the rocks and dirt.

"Stop trying to hurt me," Teo says, speaking in Samoan. "This is only a scrimmage."

"I won't stop," Ne'emia says. "Do you think Faga'itua will take it easy if you ask?"

[Info]

All six teams in American Samoa play each other twice during a regular season that begins in August. Each game is played at the same 5,000-seat stadium and broadcast live on Samoa's only radio station. In November, the two best teams meet in the island's championship game. Last year, Leone beat Faga'itua by a touchdown. Fights erupted in the stands. Coaches brawled. Ta'ase, the head coach at Faga'itua, got punched in the face and later filed charges with the police.

Sports officials on the island work to minimize football-related violence -- police escorts are provided for all team buses and some varsity games start as early as 8 a.m. -- but they've yet to experience much improvement. Each high school represents villages, and village pride fuels tension in American Samoa. The west side of the island is decorated mainly in the green of Leone's Lions; the east side is covered in red for Faga'itua's Vikings. Other subsections are bathed in blue, or gold, or yellow -- a whole island segregated by colors. Some residents of each village line the street and throw stones at a rival team's bus as it passes through.

"We all have to duck under the windows," Ne'emia says.

At the end of practice, Pati ushers two medium-size stray dogs inside the fence. He tells his players to line up for conditioning, blows his whistle and watches his team thunder downfield. The dogs take off after the players, their chase instincts triggered. They catch up to the last runner, bark and snap at the player's ankles. The runner speeds up to avoid being bitten, and the dogs go after the next-slowest runner. Pati slaps his hand against his thigh and laughs.

"See that?" he says. "That's what we call a speed coach in American Samoa."

* * *

Ne'emia and his father built the family's house in eight days, exhausting all $800 of the family savings. Vai, 39, erected 10-foot walls made from used plywood, and he set a foundation on a small plot along a semicircle of seven homes that all are occupied by the extended Vitale family. On the last day of construction, in 2001, Vai and Ne'emia covered the windows with chicken wire and placed a grooved tin roof over the house. The roof sits about a foot higher than the top of the wall, so bugs, birds and cats move in and out of the house unencumbered. Rain beats on the tin roof and echoes like a beating drum. When summer storms bring sideways rain, water flies under the roof and soaks the house.

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Panoramic photos by Travis
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Fox - washingtonpost.com
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The $800 ran out before Vai could build a bathroom, so the Vitale's used a neighbor's toilet for a few years. When Vai had set aside enough money from his $300 biweekly paychecks, he cornered off a section of the kitchen with a blue plastic sheet and made a shower head out of an exposed plumbing pipe. He wired the house for electricity and attached a single fan to the roof of the living-and-sleeping room. Even here near the equator, where it always gets dark at about 6 p.m., the Vitales rarely turn on their lights because electricity costs too much.

Vai works construction, a job that forces him to leave the house at 7 a.m. six days each week for 12-hour shifts. He still looks like a boxer, chiseled at 150 pounds with alert eyes that dart around the room as he talks. He moved here from Samoa, the neighboring island, after he met Queen, and he's one of the few people on this island who speaks almost no English. He takes his family to Catholic Mass each morning at 5 a.m., then leaves early to smoke Kool cigarettes in the parking lot. After work, he sits in a wooden chair, strokes his long goatee and drinks a couple of 22-ounce Vailima beers.

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He expects Ne'emia to take care of the house, because that's what tradition dictates in Samoa. Children do the bulk of the chores until they can make a significant contribution to the family income. Ne'emia's three siblings are all younger, and Queen, who weighs more than 300 pounds, is debilitated by bad hips and knees. She spends most of her days in a chair on the front porch, directing Ne'emia, who rarely complains. "I know, as long as I'm here, the house is my responsibility," he says.

Each afternoon during his chores, Ne'emia tells Queen that he might leave soon, for the mainland. Pati knows an old friend who coaches at a junior college in Los Angeles, and he's talked to the coach about Ne'emia. Ne'emia doesn't know anything about Los Angeles -- "Is it cold there?" -- but he'd take any flight that departed this island, which locals call "The Rock."

"Maybe one day I'd come back here, take care of my parents, be with my whole family and love American Samoa," Ne'emia says. "But first, I want to leave."

On a Sunday morning at 5:40 a.m., Ne'emia wakes up on the tile floor where he sleeps next to his parents and siblings. He puts on mesh shorts and a tank top and walks outside to stretch. Every Sunday before church, Ne'emia prepares an umu, a traditional oven consisting of heated stones under banana and taro leaves.

He searches through the yard and the pigpen to gather 10 coconuts, which he piles together in the back yard. Ne'emia takes out a machete and splits the coconuts in half, spilling their milk into a green plastic bucket. He scrapes out meat with a knife, bending over the coconut and digging into it with his forearms and shoulders. Twenty minutes later, he takes a break to help a cousin climb into a tree and grab 15 breadfruits, a flavorless carbohydrate that is popular because it is substantive and cheap. Two of Ne'emia's uncles work to peel the breadfruits with recycled tuna cans as the sun begins to rise over their shoulders.

Ne'emia starts a fire on a slab of concrete near the pigpen and sets out the breadfruit and coconut meat to cook. He feeds the pigs and hoses down the pen. At 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning, he looks as if he's finished a vigorous workout. Ne'emia pulls up his tank top to wipe sweat off his face, and then he disappears into the house to shower and change before mass.

(Travis Fox - washingtonpost.com)">[Photo]
Ne'emia Vitale serves dinner to his parents. (Travis Fox - washingtonpost.com)

Three hours later, Ne'emia and his family come home and eat the feast he has prepared. Vai sets the food on a table, buffet style, and Ne'emia picks up a plate. He walks past the breadfruit, past the coconut, past a traditional seafood soup. He heaps his plate with fried chicken and rice left over from earlier in the week, which he eats with his hands.

"You don't want anything else?" Queen asks.

"No," Ne'emia says. "I don't really like any of those other things. I just make them for tradition."

* * *

Each Wednesday and Sunday, an aging, one-gate airport becomes the epicenter of American Samoa when a 767 lands on the island to shuttle passengers to and from Hawaii. Three hours before the plane lands -- and five hours before it leaves -- thousands of people gather in the outdoor waiting area. Adults gossip. Teenagers clap and play basketball. Samoan soft rock blares from speakers at the airport restaurant.

In American Samoa, it's traditional for an entire extended family to go to the airport to watch any family member arrive or depart. But most of the Samoans who come to watch the plane have no family members on the flights. They're at the airport, they say, out of pure curiosity: Who's coming to the island this week? And who's leaving? It's as if they seek confirmation that American Samoa can be left.

Ne'emia likes to go when he can. He rides two miles east from his house with friends in the bed of a pickup truck. They pay $1 to park in the airport lot and then buy some snacks from an outdoor market to bring out to the tarmac. Ne'emia sits a few hundred yards from the runway and listens to the jet engines rumble. With the ocean breeze in his face, he watches as the wheels lift off the ground and the plane takes flight, destined for somewhere else.

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