10/05/09 10:15 PM PDT
SAN JOSE, CALIF. — San Jose State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a got a phone call just as a football staff meeting was breaking up last week. Much of his village, Leone, on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, was destroyed by a tsunami.
"As they were telling me the bad news my heart was breaking," the former NFL player said Monday. "I had three aunts get caught in the waves and a cousin's body was later found. By some miracle, my brother was found alive."
Salave'a left home in 1989 to play football at the University of Arizona under Dick Tomey. His father was visiting San Jose when their village was hit last week by tsunami waves that resulted from an underwater earthquake with a magnitude of up to 8.3.
The disaster killed 177 people in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.
"After that came more phone calls and I tried to remain calm," Salave'a said. "I knew a lot of people there."
In 2001, when he was playing with the Tennessee Titans, Salave'a created the Joe Salave'a Foundation to promote sports programs in his native land, hosting a series of free football camps among other things.
Salave'a, one of eight children, is in the process of revamping his foundation toward relief efforts. His goal is to personally deliver, along with some of his current San Jose State players, whatever he can raise before the end of the football season.
"When you're faced with tragedy, you retreat to your family," Salave'a said. "Sometimes we get caught up in our own lifestyle but something like this puts things in perspective. The hardest thing I've had to do is call relatives the past couple of days. Those were hard phone calls to make."
Tomey, in his fifth year at San Jose State, coached Salave'a at the University of Arizona.
"This hits you in so many ways," Tomey said. "It's a part of the world that is precious to me. It's such a tight-knitted community. Joe was a pleasure to coach and an outstanding student. He exemplified all the characteristics you look for in football player both on and off the field."