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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Don't count out the nation of Tonga for football talent

Dick Harmon
sports writer | Jan. 19, 2010 at 5:00 p.m.

The decision by Harvey Unga looms big for not only himself and BYU, but the latest generation of football players with roots and ties to Tonga.

You may have tuned into CBS' 60 Minutes last Sunday and viewed the fine piece on American football in Samoa. A few hundred miles to the south is the Friendly Islands of Tonga, which has far greater potential than Samoa for providing football players to U.S. colleges and the NFL.

American Samoa has a population of about 60,000, if I recall the figures mentioned in the CBS piece. There are 260,000 Tongans in the world. During a lunch this past week, I discussed this with Timani Tonga, whose family lived with my family at Liahona High School near Nukalofa, Tonga in the 60s. Timani's cousin is the father of Manase and Matangi Tonga, both recruited by BYU out of the San Mateo area in northern Calif.

Timani told me Tongan athletes have favored BYU as a choice for several generations, it just seemed to be the place where many sent their kids when they migrated to Laie, Hawaii to attend school. It was a church thing. But it's getting harder for BYU to expect that kind of loyalty with other recruiters making solid pitches with promises to take care of their sons. Rival Utah has been extremely successful recruiting Tongan players since Ron McBride made it an emphasis. If you look at Pac-10 schools, Polynesian players, Tongans in particular dot the rosters at USC, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, ASU, Arizona and other schools.

It's a unique dynamic. Many of the Tongan players on BYU's team, guys like Harvey Unga, Manase Tonga, Fahu Tahi, Fui Vakapuna and others grew up in the United States. Same for Utah D-coordinator Kalani Sitake, who grew up in Missouri. Only a few, like the generation of BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi have actually lived in Tonga. Kaufusi returned to Tonga to serve an LDS mission. There are five Tongan LDS stakes in the U.S., three of them are located in Utah and two in California.

According to Timani, it is the only ethnic group in the LDS Church that has specific status in stakes. Other ethnic groups may have branches or wards that are of a specific ethnicity, but the Tongans carry a very unique role in the church when it comes to these stakes.

According to Timani, who worked in the Tongan government as an accountant and also served in many LDS leadership roles in the Islands, of the 260,000 Tongans, 140,000 live outside Tonga, a country that boasts at least 18 LDS stakes. Timani said 52 percent of all Tongan are LDS.

Harvey Unga's parents come from the Island of Vava'u in Tonga and are tied to the Unga and Langi name line. Most all Ungas and Langis are related through this line.

That Harvey Unga could possibly return, get a degree and become one of only nine college players to ever rush for 1,000 yards for four-straight seasons is a big thing for Tongans because it sets a solid example for the others who may choose the Cougars, Utah, USU, SUU or other FSB programs. Haloti Ngata, a Tongan who starred at Highland High before going to Oregon and then the NFL is also a huge inspiration for his countrymen.

Several Pac-10 schools out of the College of San Mateo heavily recruited Matangi Tonga, expelled from BYU after being involved in law-breaking activities as a freshman. He was offered by ASU's coaching staff but according to reports, the administration intervened and refused to allow Matangi a scholarship. He will enroll at Houston.

According to sources, former BYU safety Shiloah Teo, a Samoan, will enroll at Washington and play for Steve Sarkisian. I haven't seen his list among Washington 2010 recruits. He may have already enrolled as a mid-year player.

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