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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Polynesian Football Players Bringing a piece of Home, On and Off the Field

With a look of fierce intensity staring into the sled, Valley College's Polynesian football players stand in the hit-hit position, waiting for the yell from the coach, before swiftly ramming an average of 200 plus pounds of muscle into the machine. By sheer physical force, they exude power and strength, whether it's on the field or clustered together roaming the campus.

Underneath the layers of muscle lie deeply strewn cultural roots. Respect, family, and unity are strong in the Samoan culture. For those who work with them, know them as the hard working, charming men with a smile. Rosemary Smith, administrative assistant for Student Services has worked with several of the Samoans, appreciating their presence in her office and around campus.

"They are extremely loyal, extremely ethical, and being respectful to people in authority is their number one priority," she said. "And always have a smile."

Valley has ten Polynesian football players who mainly dominate the defense. Some come here when they're a young, while others come from American Samoa. Most of them live together under the same roof with Sealecu Cu'upo, the uncle of Defensive Tackle Ino Vitale and Neemia Vitale. Together, they come to valley, take classes, work, practice, and go home.

"It's a cultural thing, we always stick together," said Ino Vitale. "We're used to it … we do everything together."

For the past six years Assistant Football Coach Leon Criner has been recruiting from the American Samoa islands for Valley. He uses telephone, fax, and email to offer the gifts of pigskin, education, and the mainland. He's attracted to their home grown Polynesian size.

"They're unique," he said. "They have big skeletal structures, and they're quick, which are two qualities that we look for in football."

Criner has been recruiting for the past 15 years, and in his time he's seen three of his finds make it to the pros such, as Issac Sopoaga, defensive tackle for the San Fransisco 49ers, Lofa Tatupu linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, and Jonathon Fanene defensive end for the Cincinnati Bengals. It's players like Sopoaga that motivate Monarch defensive tackle Jacob Laumoli on the field.
"He inspires me a lot, I want to be like him," he said. "He has the same Samoa attitude, he's rough he's tough, that's why I like him. He's the baddest person on the field; he screams a lot, he plays with intensity."

Some like Laumoli, along with Neemia Vitale, Wayne Samalaou, Reggie Nifo, and Kasimili Vitalia made the trip over from American Samoa last summer to play football. Their home is a cluster of six Polynesian islands located fourteen degrees below the equator in the South Pacific, not far from New Zealand. They play the game out of love and a desire to make something for themselves.

"Football is a way out from the island. I'm trying to do something good with my life," said Wayne Samalaou, safety and linebacker for the Monarchs. "I'm trying to make my family proud, I'm trying to represent my people."

The trip over came with the traditional difficulties of becoming accustomed to a new land. In comparison to the island life, even minute things can be drastic for anyone new to town. Inside linebacker, Reggie Nifo, recalls his experience when he flew over last summer.

"The first thing came up to mind when we got here was the weather, when we got here it was June 29 [2008], it was pretty hot especially in the Valley," said Nifo. "Second thing is trying to fit in to seeing different races of people. Back at home you only see our kind, not much of those different races."

Coming from a total population that maxes out at 65,000 according to CIA: The World Factbook, back home would mean chores and helping out with their families. Plantations are common, where after school they would work on the farm producing fruits like taro and bananas.

"In L.A. it is way different, out here people are pretty much stressed out about paying rent money and buying food and stuff like that, but back at the island you don't even worry about that," said Nifo.

Another Samoan staple is the tradition of music and dance. Anyone who attended their fall games saw the team engaged in a dance, known as the war dance, before the game.

"If you saw any of our games last year we allowed them to do a pre-game war dance," said Criner. "It's was just kind of a spiritual thing, just to get the kids motivated a little bit, and it was a fun thing. The crowd was having fun watching it."

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