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While the sentiment behind the visit was genuine, Tomey admits to an ulterior motive: Miki Salave'a was a high school vice principal, and Samoa is a place where it helps to be on good terms with the people in authority.
No high school coach on the island in recent years commanded more respect than Moamoa Vaeao. A former offensive lineman, he cuts an intimidating figure: He's 6'2", 287 pounds, with a square jaw and a guttural, raspy voice. He began coaching high school as an assistant in 1987 and was a head coach from '97 to 2002.
Vaeao laughs as he says that if he had coached on the mainland, "I'd probably be locked up." He explains, unapologetically, that he was not above reinforcing his orders with "a spanking" if he felt it necessary. "The Bible says that if you love your lads, you discipline them," says the 43-year-old Vaeao, now a minister of the First Samoan Gospel and Pentecostal Church in Los Angeles. "It's not that I'm going to be abusive. I'm doing it for compassion."
While Vaeao might be considered an anachronism—or worse—in the U.S., he is a natural part of the landscape in Samoa, a place where masculinity takes its timeworn forms. It's not fighting that's discouraged, but losing fights. "If you want to be a man, you stand up for yourself," says Francis Tuitele, 47, a longtime coach who played noseguard at Idaho State in 1978 and '79.
Sulu Petaia, 28, who played at Colorado from 1993 to '95, says he developed his toughness when he was eight. A cousin who was a high school freshman would run at him with a football and demand that Sulu tackle him. The price for not going along was a thrashing, so Sulu went along. He is now back on the island as a government accountant but plays rugby every week in the island's competitive recreational league. When he spoke, he had two large bruises on his forehead from a recent game. "When you get knocked out, that's when you stop," he says, defining the Samoan sporting credo. While it isn't necessarily the best guiding principle for life, it seems to work well for raising football players.
The story of how Petaia got to Colorado shows how much recruiting has changed in the last 10 years. In the early 1990s he and high school teammate Donnell Leomiti were coached by Okland Salave'a (Joe's brother), who, after high school in the U.S., had played at Boulder and then returned to the island. Salave'a called the Colorado coaches and recommended the two players; late in the recruiting season they were both offered scholarships. No Buffaloes staffer had seen them play, and neither kid had visited the campus.
Contrast that with the prize of Samoa's class of 2003, Amani Purcell. A 6'3", 240-pound defensive end (who is now up to 250), he received home visits from Hawaii, Utah and Penn State. He also visited all those schools, plus Colorado. Penn State, with which he signed, had heard about him through George Malauulu, a former Tomey recruit at Arizona who runs a foundation called AIGA (an acronym for All Islands Getting Along, as well as Samoan for "extended family"). Manned by players of Polynesian heritage, AIGA operates scouting combines for high school kids and touts them for athletic scholarships. It began six years ago, working with Polynesian players living in the U.S., but since 2000 it has also been staging annual combines in Samoa.
AIGA is but one means by which the isolation of the Samoan athlete is diminishing. For the past three years Joe Salave'a has run instructional clinics on the island, and over the last two years top high school players from American Samoa have come to the States for weeklong instructional camps (this past summer's camp was at Utah; the previous year's at Oregon), partially subsidized by the Samoan department of education. Athletes on the island, seeing the opportunities, are pouring themselves into football more than ever. "Why not use what God gave you?" says Malauulu. "You wouldn't mind putting a golf club in their hands, but you have to be be realistic. I don't see a [Samoan] Tiger Woods out there. We're going to use what we know."
The number of Division I recruits the island can produce is limited not only by the small population but also by academics. With its substandard school system (and the fact that English is a second language), many high school graduates are best suited to junior college. Tuitele believes that if the kids would devote themselves to school the way they throw themselves into football, "in 10 years all the colleges will come in and recruit." At this point, though, many schools skip the flight out and simply wait to see who rises up through the juco ranks.
Of course, that means missing out on a player like Purcell—"On the mainland he would have been been recruited nationally," says Penn State assistant coach Norwood—or staking an early claim to a hot prospect such as Paul Soliai. A 6'3", 285-pound high school senior at the island vocational school with plans to become a welder, Soliai met Busch, the Utah assistant, on a recruiting trip in 2001. Impressed by Soliai's size and the film he saw, Busch asked him to come to Utah, but Soliai didn't qualify academically. He enrolled at Coffeyville ( Kans.) Junior College, at which he grew two more inches, put on 50 pounds and, as a freshman offensive lineman in '02, earned juco All-America honorable mention. Suddenly recruiters from schools like Miami, Michigan and Florida were interested. Soliai, however, says that when he finishes with Coffeyville, he's going to Utah, the program that wanted him when no one else knew who he was. "They did a lot for me," he says. "They gave me a lot of good advice."