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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pack's Defense is Going Samoan with Mageo

BY TIM PEELER

RALEIGH, N.C. – New NC State football player Nate Mageo is looking forward to Saturday, but not just because that’s the day of the Wolfpack’s annual intra-squad spring game.

It’s also the biggest sporting day in his native American Samoa, when islanders race 40-person longboats from the individual villages (and one representing the island’s only McDonalds) over a seven-mile course into Pago Pago Harbor.

April 17 is America Somoa Flag Day, the biggest holiday of the year on the string of volcanic islands and coral atolls that were claimed as a U.S. territory in 1900 by Navy Captain Benjamin Franklin Tilley. Saturday’s Fautasi longboat races are the highlight of the three-day celebration festival.

Mageo, a junior college defensive tackle who was one of four new football recruits to enroll at NC State in January, grew up training for his powerhouse seat position, enduring two-a-day practices from February to April that were easily as difficult as his football training. He also grew up playing rugby, the most popular sport overall in the Samoan archipelago, a string of islands in the South Pacific halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand.

Or, in practical terms, about 7,000 miles from Mageo’s new home in Raleigh.

But it was football – the American Samoa’s biggest imported passion – that took Mageo from Pago Pago to New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, N.M., to Raleigh, thanks in great part to a recruiting tape from the fourth-annual Samoa Bowl, which pits the best high school players from Hawaii and America Samoa in a New Year’s Day all-star game.

“When we are young we play rugby a lot,” Mageo says. “Once we get to high school, we get to play football. Rowing is a big sport growing up. But we don’t have Pop Warner football, that’s why we play rugby. Kids are playing rugby all over the place. I didn’t start playing football until freshman year in high school.”

While the islanderes love American football, high school programs there are still rudimentary. None of the island’s six high schools have weight rooms, and junior varsity players have to share their equipment – helmets, shoulder pads, thigh pads and sometimes even shoes – with their varsity counterparts.

The island (population: approximately 75,000) has one 10,000-seat stadium, where high school football teams compete against each other in a 10-game regular season and rugby teams regularly pound each other. It’s where many players who eventually end up in the NFL first played in front of big crowds.

Samoa has proven to be prime recruiting ground for football coaches, if only because of the rugged, powerful athletes that grow up looking for a way off an island where the primary industries are tourism and tuna. (Star-Kist and Chicken of the Sea canneries are the island’s largest employers.) Many more Americans of Samoan descent are drawn to the game.

More than two dozen Samoa natives or players of Samoa descent are currently playing in the NFL and many more populate college football rosters, primarily in the Pac-10 and at Brigham Young. According to a 2002 ESPN.com story, a young Samoa boy is 60 times more likely to make it in professional football than a mainland youngster.

NC State fans remember former defensive middle guard Ricky Logo, a California native of Samoan descent who for the Wolfpack from 1989-92 and gained widespread acclaim for turning down the opportunity to become a "matai," or high chief, in Samoa when his grandfather died six months before the start of his senior season. As the oldest second generation male, Logo was first in line to succeed his grandfather, but chose instead to return to NC State to complete his college football career. Mageo has never met Logo, who is now the defensive line coach at Vanderbilt. But the two did exchange phone messages during Mageo’s two-year career at NMMI.

It’s been a crazy couple of years for Mageo, who like many island natives was planning a military career in the U.S. Air Force until the coaches at NMMI saw his recruiting tape. He developed into a three-star recruit who was pursued by several major Division I programs.

Similar to German native Marcus Kuhn, a raw talent who worked his way into the lineup not long after arriving on campus, Mageo could be a sleeper who contributes immediately to the Wolfpack defense.

“He’s a powerful guy, which is what you would expect,” Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien says of the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Mageo. “He still has a lot to learn, especially if we consider moving him around on the defensive front. He is a very tenacious player, with a lot of power, who stays after the ball.

“Those are good characteristics.”

The transition from island life to the American mainland hasn’t been easy. Mageo’s first trip off his native island was to Hawaii during high school. Then he went to New Mexico for two years, with few opportunities to return home. For the remainder of his college eligibility, Mageo isn’t exactly sure when or if he’ll go back to the island.

School didn’t pose a big problem for the bilingual Mageo, whose primary language is Samoan. But socially, its been a challenge. While in New Mexico, Mageo befriended several other Samoans, some of whom played football. He has yet to find any other native Samoans on NC State’s campus, but avoids homesickness by visiting a couple of second cousins who are stationed at Fayetteville’s Fort Bragg.

And his mom recently visited for a day. As a director for America Samoa’s Women, Infants and Children program, she was attending a conference in Washington, and slipped down to Raleigh to check on her son. Mageo isn’t sure when or if his father, then headmaster at a Christian bible college who is studying to be a minister, will be able to visit.

He doesn’t even have much communication with his family. Electricity – which all comes from diesel generators on the island – is expensive and technology is not as pervasive as on the mainlain. Mageo says he calls home using an expensive international calling card once every two weeks and exchanges e-mails with his mom and dad at the same interval.

“That’s okay,” Mageo says. “It keeps me from being homesick.”

Mageo spends most of his time learning the game that has been so good to players of Samoan descent like Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu. He spends his time following in the footsteps of Leroy Burgess in the weight room and Alan-Michael Cash on the practice field.

“They have taught me a lot already,” Mageo says. “It’s an honor to be able to watch them.”

For the most part, however, he is an island, the only guy on the team with a traditional lava-lava, the wraparound sarongs worn by native Samoan men and women, and the only person who will be interested in the outcome of Saturday’s Fautasi races.

You may contact Tim Peeler at tim_peeler@ncsu.edu.

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