Pop Warner Ready to Feed
Samoa's Football Hunger
Friday, February 22, 2008
They practice on dirt fields, sharing shoulder pads, helmets
- even mouthpieces.
There's no video of their next opponent. Sometimes, the
youngsters show up unannounced at a high school tryout, with
little or no background in the sport.
Yet American Samoa, the group of five volcanic islands about
2,600 miles south of Hawaii, has developed a highly
disproportionate number of college football players, doing
so without a grass-roots program. Soon, however, the U.S.
territory of 58,000 will have the kind of building block
that exists in even the smallest of American mainland
Pop Warner is coming.
"It's amazing so many of the boys come through playing
American football, and yet when you go back there, there's
no Pop Warner league or any curriculum that exposes them to
the game," says Joe Salave'a, who has played eight NFL
seasons as a defensive lineman.
"Because of the kids' love for the game, that is why you see
them try so hard to make it," Salave'a adds. "For all they
know, that's football, with no proper equipment - they have
never been in a program where everything is according to a
safety code. You are shocked to see these kids sliding
around playing the way they are."
Yet play they do, at least once they reach one of the six
high schools (four public, two private) that have teams.
While rugby, soccer and volleyball also are popular,
football dominates the sporting landscape, even with only
one quality field where the high schools stage their games.
"Over the years, American football has become a landmark
sport in American Samoa," says Meki Solomona, president of
the newly established American Samoa Federation of American
Football and a former college player at Cal-Riverside. "I
look at the great impact this sport has made in American
So much of an impact that in the last five years, nearly 15
percent of the young Samoans playing at home have earned
football scholarships to U.S. colleges. Three of the linemen
on Hawaii's Sugar Bowl team were from American Samoa.
Just as impressive, four natives of the island were on
opening day NFL rosters last season: Domata Peko and
Jonathan Fanene of Cincinnati, Paul Soliai of Miami, and
Isaac Sopoaga of San Francisco, all defensive linemen.
Plus, players of American Samoan descent in the league
include such stars as Seattle All-Pro linebacker Lofa Tatupu,
Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu and New England linebacker
The first Samoan in the NFL was Al Lolotai, who played for
the Redskins in 1945. In the last five years, 12 Samoans saw
action in regular-season games and two more were in training
camps. There were at least a dozen more with Samoan
Tatupu, whose father Mosi was a standout fullback at
Southern Cal and then played a decade in the NFL, has not
yet been to the land of his heritage. But he marvels at how
influential Samoans and other Polynesians have become at
major colleges and in the pros.
"Every kid that wants to could probably play in the NFL if
they put their dreams toward it," Tatupu says. "We love the
game and try to respect and honor the game.
"There's a few of us in the league, but we're growing and
it's always great to see a brother make it. I don't see why
there can't be more; the athletes are starting to get
recognition and stuff."
But they need more than recognition and stuff. They need
funding for better equipment, organized leagues to serve as
a feeder system, improved fields - and more of them.
That's where USA Football, the national governing body for
youth and amateur levels, comes in. It is providing
financial and educational resources and sending new
equipment to American Samoa to help local administrators
establish the youth league. USA Football has also aided
creation of the American football federation there, which
will enable the island to compete in international
By building from the bottom up, Samoans eventually might
have an even larger presence in the sport.
"The Samoans are incredibly passionate about football, so
much so that they share helmets and other equipment. They
share mouthpieces; imagine that?" says Scott Hallenbeck, USA
Football's executive director. "Out of 58,000 people, they
have eight players in the NFL, which is incredible.
"This is an amazing group needing only organization and
funding, resources and coaching education and actually
The hope is that with a feeder system to the high schools,
Samoan football will become a true hotbed for college