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Monday, February 23, 2009

Samoan football, on the grass-roots level

(AP photo/Marco Garcia) Seattle Seahawk linebacker and former USC standout Lofa Tatupu, left, and American Samoa Federation of American Football President Meki Solomona, share a moment before a news conference at the 2008 Pro Bowl football team practice in Kapolei, Hawaii.

AP Football Writer

They practice on dirt fields, sharing shoulder pads, helmets — even mouthpieces. There’s no video of their next opponent. Sometimes, the youngsters show up unannounced at a high school tryout, with little or no background in the sport.

Yet American Samoa, the group of five volcanic islands about 2,600 miles south of Hawaii, has developed a highly disproportionate number of college football players, doing so without a grass-roots program. Soon, however, the U.S. territory of 58,000 will have the kind of building block that exists in even the smallest of American mainland communities.

Pop Warner is coming.

“It’s amazing so many of the boys come through playing American football, and yet when you go back there, there’s no Pop Warner league or any curriculum that exposes them to the game,” says Joe Salave’a, who has played eight NFL seasons as a defensive lineman.

“Because of the kids’ love for the game, that is why you see them try so hard to make it,” Salave’a adds. “For all they know, that’s football, with no proper equipment — they have never been in a program where everything is according to a safety code. You are shocked to see these kids sliding around playing the way they are.”

Yet play they do, at least once they reach one of the six high schools (four public, two private) that have teams. While rugby, soccer and volleyball also are popular, football dominates the sporting landscape, even with only one quality field where the high schools stage their games.

“Over the years, American football has become a landmark sport in American Samoa,” says Meki Solomona, president of the newly established American Samoa Federation of American Football and a former college player at UC Riverside. “I look at the great impact this sport has made in American Samoa.”

So much of an impact that in the last five years, nearly 15 percent of the young Samoans playing at home have earned football scholarships to U.S. colleges. Three of the linemen on Hawaii’s Sugar Bowl team were
from American Samoa.

Just as impressive, four natives of the island were on opening day NFL rosters last season: Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene of Cincinnati, Paul Soliai of Miami and Isaac Sopoaga of San Francisco, all defensive linemen.

Plus, players of American Samoan descent in the league include such stars as Seattle All-Pro linebacker Lofa Tatupu, Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu and New England linebacker Junior Seau -- all whom came out of USC.

The first Samoan in the NFL was Al Lolotai, who played for the Redskins in 1945. In the last five years, 12 Samoans saw action in regular-season games and two more were in training camps. There were at least a dozen more with Samoan ancestry.

Tatupu, whose father Mosi was a standout fullback at USC and then played a decade in the NFL, has not yet been to the land of his heritage. But he marvels at how influential Samoans and other Polynesians have become at major colleges and in the pros.

“Every kid that wants to could probably play in the NFL if they put their dreams toward it,” Tatupu says. “We love the game and try to respect and honor the game. There’s a few of us in the league, but we’re growing and it’s always great to see a brother make it. I don’t see why there can’t be more; the athletes are starting to get recognition and stuff.”

But they need more than recognition and stuff. They need funding for better equipment, organized leagues to serve as a feeder system, improved fields — and more of them.

That’s where USA Football, the national governing body for youth and amateur levels, comes in. It is providing financial and educational resources and sending new equipment to American Samoa to help local administrators establish the youth league. USA Football has also aided creation of the American football federation there, which will enable the island to compete in international competitions.

By building from the bottom up, Samoans eventually might have an even larger presence in the sport.

“The Samoans are incredibly passionate about football, so much so that they share helmets and other equipment. They share mouthpieces; imagine that?” says Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football’s executive director. “Out of 58,000 people, they have eight players in the NFL, which is incredible.

“This is an amazing group needing only organization and funding, resources and coaching education and actually changing lives.”

The hope is that with a feeder system to the high schools, Samoan football will become a true hotbed for college scouts. Solomona envisions eight fully equipped teams of fourth- through sixth-graders at the outset, perhaps this year. His federation will conduct fundraising and seek sponsorships for the teams, much the way Pop Warner or Little League does in the States.

“Mention Pop Warner and people jump up,” he says. “We’re looking for opportunities for assistance, have equipment, uniforms, resources, weights, etc., to be donated.”

Salave’a got a head start on bringing some organization to football in his homeland after his first season with the Titans, 1998. He established a foundation “to make it a little easier to get the funds to help promote the game back home.”

The foundation invested in soccer and some other sports, but specialized in football.

Salave’a, born and raised in American Samoa, played only rugby and baseball at home. He moved to Oceanside and wound up on the football team, eventually earning a scholarship to Arizona.

“These are the opportunities that right now are limited back home,” he says. “We’ve had them, but they’re very limited. It was not a mainstay growing up on the island, getting to play (college football).”

He believes that will change as American Samoan youngsters receive quality coaching at the grass-roots level. So does Tatupu.

“That’s where they’re eventually going to tap in and get the toughness for their teams,” Tatupu says. “That commitment and the bonds to your teammates are ingrained in me since I was young. Now those kids will have that opportunity, too.

“I’m very proud of my heritage. It provides a sense of self-worth and teamwork. There are a lot of great athletes over there and I can’t wait to see them get going, playing this game we love.”

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