The clearest expression of the Samoan passion for the game, however, is not the behavior in the stands but the willingness of the players to endure their conditions. Shoulder pads are a hodgepodge of ill-fitting hand-me-downs held together with string and duct tape. One senior, Lui Tuitele, described how he and his teammates augment the pads with a little "Samoan technology": using cut-up sandals, tied in with shoelaces, to replace the missing padding. A player might have to supply his own mouthpiece and sometimes share it, dipping it in water and handing it off to a teammate headed into the game. Steve Greatwood, an Oregon assistant who has made several trips to Samoa, says most helmets in use on the island wouldn't pass a safety test in the States. "When you see the conditions these kids are subjected to in order to play the game," he says, "you realize they're playing it because they love it." He'd like to be able to donate used Oregon equipment to Samoan schools—"It would be far better than anything those kids have"—but can't. That would violate NCAA rules.
Even more pitiful than the equipment are the practice fields for the island's high schools. At Faga'itua and Samoana, the topsoil has been worn away down the middle, leaving an exposed layer of tightly packed lava cinders. Manny Atuitasi, an official in the government's athletic office whose duties include escorting recruiters around the island, remembers taking a coach to a scrimmage at Faga'itua, where a receiver laid out to catch a ball, crashed hard into the packed-in red cinders below, then brushed himself off and got back to the huddle. The American watched in disbelief. "Only in Samoa," the recruiter said.
American Samoa has been a U.S. territory since April 17, 1900, when the government annexed it at the request of island chiefs who wanted a powerful friend in the era of tribal and colonial antagonism. Ever since, Samoans have embraced their relationship with the mainland. They celebrate the anniversary of the annexation every year with as much vigor as mainlanders do the Fourth of July.
For the first decades after annexation the Navy administered Samoa, which it used as a refueling stop. During World War II, the island served as a staging area for the Navy, which built airstrips, power stations and paved roads. That provided Samoans with their first true taste of the American way of life—fa'a America, as it became known.
The good times lasted only until 1951, when the Navy handed administration of Samoa to the Interior Department. By the end of the decade U.S. government expenditures related to American Samoa amounted to less than $1.4 million a year. The consequent debasement of the territory was chronicled in a 1961 story printed in The Reader's Digest, the reaction to which prompted the U.S. to devote more money and resources to its South Pacific outpost.
By the end of the 1960s the number of public schools had tripled, from one to three. In 1969 a U.S. government official decided those schools should field football teams; a year later Al Lolotai, the first player of Samoan heritage to suit up in the NFL—for the Washington Redskins, in 1945—came to Samoa to help develop the game there. The early years featured power running, but as other Samoans with mainland experience came back to coach, the game grew more sophisticated (although, as most of these coaches are former linemen, the play is still more advanced in the trenches than at the skill positions). Now, after three decades of America's game in the South Seas, football is a Samoans best shot at fa'a America.
The people of Samoa are relentlessly, almost comically hospitable to visitors, as if they want to reward travelers for the effort spent in getting to the island. "Usually when I show up someplace on a recruiting trip I'm on my own," says Utah's Busch. "There, I've got people meeting me at the airport, inviting me to dinner. They roll out the red carpet."
Samoan culture still revolves around family and faith. Church is a requisite on Sundays, and grace is still said before meals. Nowhere did Christian missionaries have more success than they did here. "Structure and respect for one's elders is big for Samoans," says Thompson, now a mortgage banker for Chase in Seattle. "That's why coaches loved us."
One of those coaches was Dick Tomey, who was instrumental in building the Samoan pipeline. Now an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, Tomey was coach at Hawaii from 1977 to '86 and at Arizona from 1987 to 2000. He first visited the island in the early '80s to lead skills clinics and quickly learned how tight-knit the far-flung Samoan community was. When he made recruiting visits to athletes of Samoan heritage in the U.S., most had already heard about his work on the island through relatives back home. During his tenures at Hawaii and Arizona, Tomey had more than 120 Samoan players on his rosters. "There are no athletes that are, in my estimation, more competitive, more athletic or more family-oriented, or who fit into a team concept as well as Samoan athletes," Tomey says. "The more we could get on our team, the better I felt."
Islanders still talk about Tomey's final trip to Samoa, in 1997. He was at Arizona then, coaching Joe Salave'a, who now plays defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers. Salave'a had grown up in Samoa but moved to California to live with relatives during high school. He had come to Arizona as an academic partial qualifier, and his father, Mild, took out a loan to pay for his first semester. But Salave'a threw himself into his studies and graduated after 3� years, with a season of eligibility left. Degree in hand, Salave'a had no reason not to go to the NFL, but he chose to stay at Arizona for one final season and work toward a graduate degree. Tomey was moved, and he decided to thank Joe's dad in person. He flew to Samoa, met with Miki at the airport for a couple of hours while the plane refueled and hopped back on for the long flight back home. "I wanted to be sure they knew how grateful I was," Tomey said.