Oct. 22, 2010
LOGAN, Utah -
By Adam Nettina / USU Athletic Media Relations
Visitors to the Utah State University campus can expect to see a number of things while in Logan. Beautiful mountains, pristine streams, and historic buildings likely top most peoples' lists of the most frequently seen attractions. As do busy college students scurrying off to classes and darting in and out of traffic on bikes and skateboards. The occasional sidewalk guitar performance isn't anything to write home about, nor is it unusual to see groups of friends relaxing in the warmth of a late summer evening.
One sight probably not encountered on that list is that of several well built Polynesian young men strumming ukuleles, while singing the native songs of Hawaii. Yet the group, decked out in shorts and sandals and sporting long hair and beards, are just as much a part of the Utah State campus as its clean cut, suit-clad missionaries. No, they're not foreign exchange students, and no, they didn't come all the way to Utah as tourists; but rather to play football for one of the nation's up and coming young coaching staffs.
Far from their original homes on the west coast or the Pacific islands, the 17 players of Polynesian descent currently on USU's roster have brought a distinctive island flair to Logan, keeping a vital part of their heritage and culture alive even amidst the landlocked state.
"We have a connection because we have this island thing going on" said senior defensive tackle Sean Enesi. "We feel more connected between each other. We always talk about our heritage and our culture, not just at practice but off the field. It's just like an automatic friendship thing."
Enesi hasn't just been a rock on Utah State's defensive line since he arrived in Logan via El Camino Junior College, but has been a trailblazer in beginning the "Polynesian pipeline" that has directed the Aggies' recruiting philosophy over the last two season. Along with Wailukiu, Hawaii native and fellow El Camino teammate Kamaloni Vainikolo, Enesi originally arrived in Logan to find a different world from the west coast city where he grew up.
"This is nothing like home," Enesi said. "It was a big change for me, because it's like the complete opposite of city life where I'm from. But I got used to it. There's nothing bad out here, and the community is very friendly."
Having a community to identify with wasn't a luxury the two seniors had when they first arrived in Logan. While in-state programs like Utah and Brigham Young had maintained strong recruiting presences on the islands and the west coast with Polynesian players since the 1980s, USU had a scant few players of Polynesian descent on the roster as late as the 2008 season.
All that changed when Gary Andersen took over the program, bringing not only his legendary defensive mind to the Aggies, but also a pair of up-and-coming Polynesian assistant coaches with him. Together with Ilaisa Tuiaki and former Weber State assistant Chad Kauha'aha'a, Andersen drew out a plan to attract more players of Polynesian descent to Logan, beginning with the two young men from El Camino.
"One of the major things when we came here was to build up our number of Polynesian players on the team, and Sean and Loni were both junior college guys that we recruited when we first got here," Andersen said. "They are tremendous young men. I'm very, very proud of them."
Coming from the University of Utah, Andersen has had a long history with Polynesian players, and was convinced that the values the close-knit players share would pay dividends for a rebuilding Aggie program in need of a common bond.
"I kind of grew up around Polynesian kids while I was playing and while I was coaching," Andersen said. "They are young men who, to me as a person, I love to be around. You know what you're going to get, and understand every single day that once you get their loyalty, and once they have belief in you, that belief isn't going anywhere."
Loyalty to the team isn't the only reason Andersen and his young assistants began recruiting players like Enesi and Vainikolo. Tuaki, who coached with Andersen while at Utah, said the physical makeup of Polynesian players, combined with their work ethic and values of loyalty and hard work, make them ideal football players.
"I think the sport is just built for guys like us," said Tuaki, laughing. "Polynesians, we're big, strong, athletic guys, and when it comes to football, and teams and unity, and all of that, it's something that just goes along with all the values of the Polynesian community."
Kauha'aha'a, who coaches defensive ends for the Aggies and recruited both Enesi and Vainikolo out of junior college, agreed with his fellow assistant.
"The good thing about our Polynesian kids is not only the physical and mental toughness they bring to the football field, but what they bring to the team with the family atmosphere," he said
There's no better symbol of that family atmosphere and community bond than the ukuleles which Enesi and Vainikolo carry with them around campus.
"We all have one," said Vainikolo. "That's how we come together. We play music. We sing, and we harmonize."
"We play them almost everywhere we go," Enesi added with a grin. "We even get in trouble with it, but it makes us feel comfortable around campus or wherever. We even bring it on trips."
For Andersen, the influence of players like Ensi and Vainikolo is a much needed reminder that the game is sometimes about more than wins and losses.
"They love life as a whole, and they're fun to be around," Andersen said. "It is still a game, and we need to remember it is a game. These kids are going to give it their all, and it's important for them to win and go out and play well, but at the end of the day there are many more things which are more important than wins and losses."
Enesi and Vainikolo may keep it light off the field, but they and their fellow Polynesians play a different tune when it comes to what happens on game day. Not always the biggest or the strongest, Polynesian players like the 5'11'' Enesi instead make up for their lack of ideal size with an air of unmatched intensity and aggression on the field. According to Kauha'aha'a, it's a trait which sets Polynesian players apart, and comes from the way in which many were raised.
"You see these guys with their wild hair and their tattoos and all of that stuff, and their aggression comes out on the football field, for some reason it's just a natural thing," Kauha'aha'a said. "It goes back to how we grew up."
Enesi and Vainikolo channeled that aggression in Utah State's historic 31-16 win against BYU. They're proud of not only beating their rivals for the first time since 1993, but of hopefully proving to more Polynesian high school players that Utah State is a rising power worth joining.
"Beating BYU at Utah State is definitely a priority," Enesi said. "It has to be like a go-get them attitude game for us. Beating them the way we did was unbelievable. It was surreal."
The two seniors have already brought a lot to Logan. But for all their accomplishments, beating BYU, bringing more Polynesians to the program, and staying on track to graduate, the pair's greatest accomplishment may be the lasting influence they've exerted on Utah State's players and coaches.
"They are tremendous young men," said Andersen. "I'm very, very proud of them. They are very hardworking, and they love the game of football as a whole. At the end of the day they make your football team better."