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Richard W. Johnston
August 16, 1976
College coaches say that is the smart move in Samoa, where palm groves are full of young monsters with tongue-twisting names and unquenchable pride
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August 16, 1976

Shake 'em Out Of The Coconut Trees

College coaches say that is the smart move in Samoa, where palm groves are full of young monsters with tongue-twisting names and unquenchable pride

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"My father is half Chinese," Junior said recently. "My mother is pure Samoan." Does that make Junior one-fourth Chinese? No, sir! "That makes me all Samoan!" Junior declares, proudly and loudly. Junior Ah You asserted his racial heritage throughout his career at Arizona State—he was an All-WAC defensive end for three straight years—and he has been declaring it in Montreal ever since he graduated and signed with the Alouettes of the CFL.

The notice Samoans are now getting in the West may help Junior Ah You gain belated ethnic recognition; and it won't hurt Bob Apisa, now a management consultant to the Office of Economic Opportunity in Honolulu, in his campaign to be the first Samoan elected to the Hawaiian legislature. But does it really mean, as many think in Honolulu, that the Samoans are about to do for U.S. football what oil did for Oklahoma? How many Samoans are there, anyway?

The population of American Samoa is less than 30,000, and there are some 50,000 more Samoans overseas—30,000 in Southern California and 20,000 in Hawaii. But even if this minuscule total of 80,000 is cut in two (Samoan girls are good athletes, but none so far is playing college football), there is no reason to believe the pool will run dry or diminish in richness. The population has been exploding for 40 years.

"We are all Polynesians," says Al Harrington, who majored in history while playing football at Stanford and who taught at Punahou and the University of Hawaii before electing to exploit his warrior body, chiefly mien and dramatic skills as an actor in Hawaii Five-0 (he plays Ben Kokua) and as the star of a Waikiki luau show. "But Samoans have not been watered down as the Hawaiians were by the Boston missionaries and the Tahitians were by the French. So we not only tend to be bigger, but we retain a fierce sectional, cultural and family pride. The soul of Samoa still is competitiveness."

That is at least a partial definition of fa'a Samoa, a cultural structure that has endured for 2,000 years and flourishes just as vigorously today in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oceanside, Honolulu and—yes—Montreal as it does in Pago Pago. The heart of the culture is the so-called "extended family" system, in which a man's family includes his most remote relatives, all organized into a unit that resembles a Scottish clan—or a Marine regiment. Like Scots and marines, the families delight in fighting each other (centuries ago they did it with spears and clubs; more recently, in American Samoa, such games as rugby, soccer and—since 1968—American football have been substituted), but let any outsider challenge a Samoan and all the families become one.

Famika Anae, the BYU center who was the first Samoan to become head coach of a Honolulu high school, says, "It is very hard on a Samoan kid who doesn't do well, or what his father thinks is well. He is felt to have disgraced the family, and when he gets home he is likely to get a two-hour lecture that may end in a beating. This is especially true of immigrant families. They see everything the kids do as an important part of promoting the culture. A loss reflects on the parents, the chiefs and the race."

Fa'a Samoa is no more acceptive of failure in academic fields than it is of physical shortfalls. "My objective at Michigan State always was to get a degree, even beyond football," Bob Apisa says. "When I went to Michigan State it was a matter of pride for me. I was representing not only myself, my family and the Samoan community, but Hawaii, too. I had three knee operations in college and it was my responsibility to all the people back home that inspired me to get up mornings when it was 20� below zero in East Lansing and walk half a mile on crutches to an 8 a.m. class. It brings a feeling of shame on your family if you don't accomplish what you set out to do...a Samoan is going to see something through, right or wrong."

This pride and dedication—combined with the frustration that inevitably besets immigrants at the bottom of the economic ladder—has led some Samoans to choose wrong over right. "In Samoa," says la Saipaia, a native-born basketball star, "you've got only two ways to go—to the gym and school, or to become a thief. You have to make the decision." (A Samoan incursion into mainland basketball may be also in the offing: Muliufi Hannemann, at Harvard on a scholastic scholarship, played for the Crimson three years, and Saipaia, now a freshman at San Diego State, was offered basketball scholarships by two other mainland universities.)

"Samoans are very physical people," Famika Anae says. "They simply can't stand losing—either in sports or in life. They resent it when they see Caucasians or Japanese-Americans getting the best jobs, or sometimes the only jobs, and some take advantage of their physical strength to try for success along any avenue that seems open—even if it is crime." One who did take the latter route is Alema Leota, who played football for Hawaii's Iolani High in the '40s. The son of devout but very poor Mormon parents, Leota parlayed a career as a "terrorist" (a judge's description) into temporary control of a Hawaiian crime syndicate. While Samoans regretfully concede that Leota has provided both a role model and employment opportunities for a good many youths, and has been partly responsible for giving Samoans a "violent" image in Honolulu, they do not disown him.

Hawaii's Samoan Council of Chiefs and Orators is proud, however, that more acceptable models have been created by men like Apisa, Harrington, Anae, Ah You and Uperesa. "We believe in the American dream," says Al Harrington. "We think hard work and merit will pay off. Thus far for Samoans, football and other sports have provided a way toward fulfillment of the dream." Backing up Harrington are the Samoans who have finished their schooling and are beginning to appear on pro rosters, men like Terry Tautolo, who graduated from UCLA last spring and is now in the Philadelphia Eagles' training camp, and Charles Ane (another son of Charley's), who joined the Kansas City Chiefs after Michigan State.

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