The Samoan term for white man is palagi, which means "comes from the sky." The word fits because travelers headed to American Samoa from the U.S. must spend a day in the air—five hours from Los Angeles to Hawaii, then another five south and west, across the equator, past Tahiti and Bora-Bora, to the main island, a four-by-20-mile volcanic outcropping in the South Pacific that locals call the Rock and that, through a quirk of history, is an American territory. These days a growing number of college football coaches are making the back-stiffening journey part of their annual recruiting routine because the remote little isle of 70,000 residents has begun producing a supply of top-flight players out of all proportion to its population.� Samoans have been playing football in college and the NFL for years. The names are as familiar to fans as they are vowel-laden: Mosi Tatupu, Manu Tuiasosopo, Junior Seau. This fall there are more than 200 players of Samoan descent on Division I football rosters, as well as a handful in the NFL. Most Samoan players were either born in the U.S. or moved from the island at a young age. Jack Thompson, dubbed the Throwin' Samoan during his collegiate days at Washington State in the late 1970s, was born in American Samoa but moved to Seattle with his family when he was four. Seau spent part of his youth on the island but lived in Southern California from grade school on.
Their cases are typical—or used to be. A consistent flow of talent directly from the island to mainland football is a new phenomenon. Signs of change in the Samoan pipeline were apparent this past spring when Penn State assistant coach Brian Norwood became the first Nittany Lions coach to visit the territory, normally the exclusive province of West Coast schools. The changes will be more apparent next spring when Isaac Sopoaga, a University of Hawaii senior defensive tackle who's on the watch lists for the Nagurski and Outland awards, is expected to be the first player drafted by the NFL who completed his high school in American Samoa.
But to understand the football cauldron the island has become, the most telling bit of information is this statistic: Of the 800 boys who graduated from high school in American Samoa in the past two years, 97 left the island to play football at two-or four-year colleges in the U.S. That amounts to approximately one in eight American Samoan males moving on to high-level football Stateside. It's as if the football gods, searching for the perfect conditions to breed players, found them on this remote isle, with its singular mix of Polynesian culture and modern American influence.
Signs of the West are plentiful in Pago Pago, American Samoa's capital, on the main island of Tutuila. There's a Quality Inn and a McDonald's. The local paper carries H�gar the Horrible and Cathy, and, thanks to the American Forces Network, TV viewers can catch Good Morning America. Though poor by mainland standards, the island is more developed than one might imagine. StarKist and Chicken of the Sea canneries employ about a third of the workforce and dominate Tutuila's harbor. Whatever paradise smells like, it's probably not tuna processing plants.
Modern trappings notwithstanding, Samoa is still the South Pacific. Palm trees sway, and waves crash on the reefs. Though most islanders speak English, the primary language is Samoan, heavy on vowels and silences. There's centralized government, but tribal chiefs run the villages. Men still get their bodies tattooed from waist to thigh, all the way around. (Says high school football coach Bryan Miscoi of his tattoo, "It goes right up under the sack.") The saronglike lavalavas are worn by women and men alike. Football players wear them at their leisure and sometimes at practice.
Some of these men in lavalavas grow large. Affect-the-tides large. Samoan footballers often remain lean through their adolescent years and then, when they hit American college weight rooms and training tables, expand prodigiously. Matt Toeaina was recruited by Oregon as a 215-pound fullback. After redshirting as a freshman in 2002, he's playing this season as a 266-pound defensive lineman. Jonathan Fanene quarterbacked at 210 pounds in high school in Samoa. After two years in junior college he's lining up for Utah this year—as a 300-pound defensive tackle.
But sheer bulk does not explain Samoans' success at football. In fact, when American coaches discuss the distinguishing characteristics of Samoan players, they talk about the passion the kids bring to the game and their cultural identity, two traits that merge seamlessly in the huddle.
The hallmark of Samoan football is hitting. "They're so physical," says Utah assistant coach Bill Busch, who has made three recruiting trips to the island. "Even in scrimmages they go all out." Terrence Apted, a 6'5", 280-pound high school offensive lineman who will likely draw the most recruiting attention among Samoa's class of 2004,. didn't appreciate the ferocity of the Samoan game until he visited cousins in the States and saw their teams play. "When the ball's snapped, you don't hear the crunch in the lines," he says of the off-island game. "Here you can hear it in the stands."
Samoan high school football is as fevered as it is in Texas or Florida. American Samoa has six teams: four from public schools, one from the vocational school and another made up of kids from the island's four private schools. Those six teams share a 5,000-seat stadium that hosts five games each weekend for four months beginning in September—two jayvee games on Friday night and three varsity games on Saturday. More fans follow from home on TV and radio. Schools play each other twice a season, then meet in the playoffs. As teams go round and round with each other in the tropical humidity, rivalries can grow testy.
After a contentious championship game two years ago between Leone High and Samoana High, the players met at midfield to shake hands peacefully. Fans, however, rushed from the stands on opposite sides of the field and met in the middle for an all-out melee. Says Mac Ane, the island's high school athletic director, who was announcing the game on the radio, "It was like a scene from Braveheart Last year fans frequently fought and threw rocks after games, not just during football season but through basketball season and beyond.