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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tongan culture shines on football field

Deep in the South Pacific, a cluster of islands is imposing itself on USC football. Five Tongan players have been bringing their culture with them when they lace up their cleats.

"Football's putting others first. Being selfless is a big part of our culture," sophomore fullback Stanley Havili said. "We'd give anything for a bigger purpose. That's how we were raised, and that's helped us on the football field."

Maybe it's learned or maybe it's inherited. Either way, it's always been inside of them.

"I always knew I was Tongan, even at a young age," senior defensive tackle Fili Moala said. "I knew there was something different about me besides the color of my skin or my facial features.

"I always knew it was something inside."

Moala's gigantic left arm serves as a constant reminder of who he is and what he's about. The letters "T-O-N-G-A" run from his shoulder down to his elbow.

It's in his voice. It's on his face. It's how he plays.

"They have a very competitive nature and are very athletic," USC head coach Pete Carroll said. "They're very sincere kids and lots of fun to coach. We're thrilled with the way guys have worked."

The Family

The Tongan players on the Trojan roster all identify family as their driving force, even though the relationships aren't always easy to define.

"In Tongan families, moms are always the most supportive," freshman linebacker Uona Kavienga said. "It's not like a normal father-son relationship. It's more man-to-man. The older you get, it's more like he's your brother."

For Moala, the differences in his life were apparent from a young age. His parents moved to the U.S. from Tonga during the mid-70's. Growing up surrounded by American families and American children only highlighted some of the differences.

"The way I was brought up wasn't better or anything like that, but our way of life has always been different," Moala said. "My parents are really traditional and really old school."
Moala's father passed down a fighting spirit picked up inside a boxing ring — not a football field.

"My dad was a boxer for years, and he was pretty good. My dad wanted me to be boxer when I was younger," Moala said. "From being around him and watching him fight, my mom said, 'You're not going to make my son a boxer; I'll leave you.'"

His dad's boxing past only made some of the tough love Moala received tougher. When he came home at 17 years old with a "Tonga" tattoo, it wasn't well received.

"I was younger, and I thought I was older than I really was," he said. "I went out, got them, and when I came home, I got beat up. They were really disappointed in me."

The disappointment never got in the way of the unconditional love Moala felt.

"Luckily, I had parents who saw the importance of raising their children in the culture. I was always brought up in our ways, our way of living, our culture and our lifestyle," Moala said. "I was brought up to be very grateful, thankful and to always work hard. What you get is what you deserve; what you put in is what you get out.

"My parents always taught me to be respectful, and I never really knew anything else."

And, like most Tongans, they taught Moala the importance of family.Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti recruited and coached Moala's cousin, current Baltimore Ravens' defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

"I think with Tongan athletes — and I see it in Samoan and Polynesian players too — there's a personal pride with toughness, a pride in following authority and doing things the family way," Bellotti said. "And, there's so much respect."

Kavienga said football is a great release for him, but he doesn't want to be the next Ray Lewis, Chris Claiborne or Brian Urlacher.

"I don't look up to football players," Kavienga said. "I look up to family members."

The Brotherhood

Inside the Trojan locker room, the Tongan players also feel a bond with the Samoans. On the streets, though, and it's a different thing.

Samoan Chief Tua'au Pele Faletogo spoke about the tensions after a suspected gang battle led to a fatal shooting at a Samoan festival in Carson, Calif.

"It's become dangerous to do something good for the community," Faletogo said in the Aug. 8 Los Angeles Times. "Tongan and Samoan rivalries are out of control."

Moala said he has family members involved in Tongan gangs, and he knows the tension that can exist.

"We hear about it all the time," Moala said. "I have Samoan and Tongan friends, and sometimes they don't get along. It's so prideful with where you come from. I steer clear of it."

But the only colors that matter to the Trojans' Pacific Islanders, though, are cardinal and gold.

"We're cool with the Samoan dudes," freshman offensive lineman Martin Coleman said. "All that stuff is in the past. Our cultures are really similar. The bond between us is really strong."

Senior linebacker Rey Maualuga is Samoan, and he said he feels a connection with the Tongan players that goes beyond being just teammates.

"Back in the day, we were rivals," he said. "It's like a brotherhood we have. We come here, and really, we're all the same. There are jokes that fly around, though. That's all just fun and games.

"We're the minorities of the team. When someone with a similar heritage comes here, we form a bond. They formed an even closer bond because they're all Tongans."In moments throughout the day, it's easy to see what Maualuga means.

In spare minutes during summer workouts and even in fall practice, the Tongan players on the team share laughs. They talk football, and they talk about life.

"We just gravitate towards one another," Moala said.

It happens when other Tongan players visit campus, and it happens when Tongan players are on the opposing team.

Moala said it's always a little special when he lines up against another Polynesian.

"We embrace each other," Moala said. "You see other Tongans or Samoans, and it's not a hate thing. Of course, there's some pride there — some 'We're better than you.' That's just football though. Whenever you see other Tongans, you embrace them.

"We're basically the same people. We're cut from the same mold. We're all here trying to make the most of our opportunity."

That bond grows even stronger when two Tongan players line up next to one another.

Sophomore defensive tackle Christian Tupou said he feels lucky to look to his left and see someone who is more than just a teammate.

"It doesn't get any better than playing with Fili," Tupou said. "He's Tongan, and I'm Tongan. For him playing right next to me, I know he's been through everything. He's like a big-brother type. I can relate to him — same blood and everything. It just helps to have a Tongan brother right next to me."

Family and football collide in the same sentence often when speaking to one of the Trojans' Tongans.

"With football, we're a team. It's basically a family," Coleman said. "We look at all these guys as our brothers. We do everything together."

Havili said he's aware that this belief isn't always applied within the football community.

"A lot of what football is today is players trying to be individuals," Havili said. "Coming from where we come from, it's no about us. We're just really happy to be here, and we're happy to be contributing to this awesome program."

And when someone has a bad day of practice, misses a tackle or block, they know where to turn. They look for one of their brothers, and they get picked right up.

The Culture

When a middle-aged coach walks into a Tongan house, he's probably in for a surprise or two.

Bellotti said recruiting Ngata gave him some lessons about Tongan culture."Language is a barrier. There are those different customs," he said. "You need to understand who is truly the head of the household and who you should talk to and direct the conversation towards.

"You need to take off your shoes."

Chances are, you may need to get your stomach ready as well.

"My favorite food is Tongan food," Moala said.

In addition to the greens, fruits and juices, Carroll and other coaches have had some interesting meals along the recruiting trail.

"I had chance to have dinner at Uona's place, and we had some stuff," Carroll said. "I had some horse — delicious."

As arbitrary as it may seem, the decision to happily accept the Tongan delicacy on his plate helped the Trojans secure Kavienga's commitment.

"It definitely mattered," he said. "I thought it was really cool that he'd just eat it."

The exotic foods are just part of the Tongan experience. Coleman grew up playing rugby on the Tongan island Vavau, giving him unique perspective on the differing cultures.

"Tonga's called the Friendly Islands. We're really family-oriented. Family comes first before anything. There's no individuality," Coleman said. "It's nothing like here. The island life is way laid back. There's nothing going on like here. Here, there are cars all over the place, running from morning to night.

"There, during the day, it's silent."

Moala credits his parents with giving him his strongest characteristic — one that he's very proud of.

"I'm so grateful that my family taught me to be a giver and not a taker," Moala said. "Even when you have nothing, you give until you can't give any more. It makes me come out here and work even harder."

With such strong ties to their pasts, Carroll said it's easy to coach his Tongan players.

"There's a very strong sense of family and knowing their place with those guys," he said. "They've got a lot of respect for their community and it really adds to their character."

The culture learned from back home has served the Tongans well on the practice field.

"You worry about others before you take care of yourself. That's something that Fili's done with me," Tupou said. "He's really helped me out a lot. Other guys do that too, but that's a big thing for Tongans."

Quarterback Mark Sanchez lives with Havili, and he has a front-row seat to the lighter side of Tongan culture.

"They're musically inclined. I swear, they all can sing," Sanchez said. "Martin and Uona play the ukulele. They're awesome. They can make stuff up, one of the other guys will come in and throw in a beat.

"All of a sudden, it's a music video in there. "

Sanchez also gets to see the spiritual side, as Havili will host home meetings for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Havili, Moala, Kavienga and Tupou are all members.

"It's not only on the field. We help each other off the field," Havili said. "We're all members of the LDS religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Not only do we have that relationship on the field, off the field, we make sure one another's all right."

Coleman isn't a member — yet.

"We're working on Martin," Moala said.

Having Tongan players already on the roster, particularly ones who practice the same religion, made it easier for Kavienga to choose USC over BYU — a popular destination for LDS athletes.

Religion, family, loyalty and hard work all fall under a one-word umbrella — respect.

"It's a different culture. We're big and we're laid back," Kavienga said. "And unless you mess with us, we're friendly."

Belotti's reaped the benefits of coaching Tongan players on the field and off.

"The Tongan players I've had, I love them," he said. "They're great family people. They're outwardly friendly. They're willing to hug men. It's a different thing.

"Oh, and they tend to get big — really big."

The Future

Moala is the one who started it all.

"He's the grandpa," Sanchez said.

Moala, the first Tongan player to play for Carroll at USC, started something that won't be reversed any time soon.

"The way I was told, Fili was the first Tongan player to have ever played here. That blows me away. Now, we have five," Carroll said. "That's remarkable. I don't know how that happened. There certainly has been an influx of Tongan kids playing and involved in recruiting.

"They're doing a beautiful job all over the place, not just here."

Even with Moala leaving at the end of the season, the Trojan defensive line will still have a strong Tongan presence next season.

Defensive tackle Hebron Fangupo committed to USC in May. The 6-foot-2, 330-pound defensive tackle currently stars at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif.

Fangupo lived in America with his family until he was 8, when tragedy struck.

"The house burned down when I was really little," Fangupo said. "Actually, I was the one who burned it down. I was playing with matches in the garage. The fire started, and I got scared, so I ran away. There was no one around to put it out."

The family moved back to Tonga until it came time for Fangupo to begin high school. His parents saved up enough money and sent him back to America.

After high school, Fangupo, also a member of the LDS religion, went on a mission to the Philippines. He returned with a clear head and a more mature body, and he began to star on the football field.

Next season, he'll be a Tongan Trojan, joining a lineage of players that have starred under Carroll.

"It's definitely special, especially at USC. There aren't too many Tongans or Polynesians playing college football," Havili said. "We're all coming up, but it's still a small percentage. It's definitely a treat to be with all these Tongan kids here at USC and have the culture here."

For Moala, football's afforded him a chance to do something he's always been taught to do — give back.

"A lot of us are first generation, and our parents come from humble beginnings. We see this as a great opportunity to better ourselves and to give back to our family," Moala said. "They've always said, 'Your money is your money.' But the way I was brought up, I can't do that. I'm going to buy them a big ole' house.

"I've been given so much."

As he reflects on the past, Moala's words begin to take on more meaning. The emotion crackles through his voice.

He talks about families giving up their last pig to feed another family in need. He talks about his parents' journey from the islands to the States. He talks about the chance he has for a better life.

He talks about never forgetting, and he smiles.

"For me to even be here right now, I give a lot of props to my parents," Moala said. "The chance to give back to them — man..."

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