Purcell's story is clearly different from Soliai's: The former knew from an early age what sports could mean to him. Both of Purcell's parents were athletes: His father, Mel, who is head of human resources at the StarKist plant in Pago Pago, played basketball and volleyball at BYU-Hawaii. His wife, Moana, who works for Hawaiian Airlines, played volleyball and basketball in high school in Hawaii. Realizing that sports offered the chance for an affordable education for their five children, they installed a basketball rim in the driveway and converted their laundry room into a minigym. All four college-age children have attended school in the U.S. on scholarship. Amani's sister Meleisha played basketball and volleyball at Missouri Baptist, and brother Edward plays hoops there. Their brother Mel plays football at Hawaii.
Amani's choice of Penn State was a surprise, because so many Samoans end up at schools in the western U.S., near large Samoan communities. Several players with Polynesian roots have gone as far east as Nebraska, and Western Kentucky won last year's Division I-AA championship with two players straight from Samoa on its squad, recruited by Samoan assistant coach Mike Fanoga. By going to Penn State, Purcell, who's redshirting this season, has set the Eastern beachhead for a football player coming directly from the island.
Purcell recognizes he's part of a new generation of Samoan athlete whose football forebears have returned to the island to carry on the tradition as coaches. "Before them no one taught technique," he says. "When they made it to college, they came back and tried to teach what they knew to us. Before, Samoan football used to be all about power, the muscles; the hitting was all there was. Now it's more about speed, the mental game."
Purcell could have been forgiven for feeling overawed as he stood on the sideline of Beaver Stadium on Aug. 30, for the first Nittany Lions home game. The crowd that day numbered 101,553—one and a half times the population of American Samoa. "The whole time I was standing there," says Purcell, "I was looking around and thinking, Wow, this is really happening." But he says he's prepared for the changes in store for him as he tries to make it in an elite football program such a long way from home. "I knew it would be tough," Purcell says. "I knew I would miss my parents. But as long as I stick to what I believe, there will be nothing wrong."
One last thing about Amani Purcell. Maybe it's trivial, or maybe it's the essential detail in the story of Samoan football. Purcell is the great grandson of Palepoi Mauga, a tribal chief who was among the Samoan elders who signed the deed of annexation that made their island an American territory in 1900. Without that first step, it's likely football would never have taken root on the island. When the chief put his name on those papers years ago, not only did he set in motion events that would land his great grandson in Happy Valley, Pa., but he also ensured that a century later, palagi will continue to come from the skies—college coaches seeking football commitments, with more papers to be signed.