Dolphins ‘Tua Tagovailoa, Raiders’ Marcus Mariota symbolize the future of Polynesian NFL players

Jack Thompson grew up in Washington and probably never imagined this moment. Known as “Throwin ‘Samoan”, Thompson was an NFL rarity. When he went to college WashingtonTeammates asked him what position he was playing.

Quarterback, he told them.

Quarterback? No, that can’t be right.

Then Thompson played his way to number 3 in the 1979 NFL Draft, appearing in 51 games for Cincinnati and Tampa Bay. At the time, Polynesian quarterbacks were rare. What Could Happen Back then on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, NFL Network) – Miami Dolphins Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Las Vegas Raiders Quarterback Marcus Mariota compete against each other – would have been almost unthinkable.

While their matchup would be the first in NFL history between two Hawaii-born starting quarterbacks, it emphasizes what an entire community thinks is a start.

“We are on the verge of influencing kids in our community to believe we can play the quarterback position,” said Jesse Sapolu, the two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman San Francisco 49ers Who is now the executive director of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. “… When we had a guy we called ‘Throwin’ Samoan ‘and he was the third choice on the draft, he was ahead of me.

“But that was kind of unknown, that was an anomaly too. But it’s not that anymore, you know.”

Starting with the first Polynesian NFL player, offensive lineman Al Lolotai in 1945, Polynesian players were primarily considered linemen or linebackers, in part due to the style they played in American Samoa. According to the Pro Football Reference, 45 of the 57 NFL players born in Tonga, American Samoa, or Western Samoa were linemen or linebackers. There are more than 60 players with Polynesian roots in today’s NFL, a line that goes back to Junior Seau. Haloti Ngata and Troy Polamaluto Lolotai, Sapolu, Reno Mahe and Vai Sikahema.

Much of that growth has happened in Hawaii, where Tagovailoa and Mariota are from, and on the west coast of the United States, where many players of Polynesian descent live. The pair will also highlight the Polynesian NFL player’s recent evolution – one that has been accelerated by the spread of crime in Hawaii, in part due to earlier ones University of Hawaii Soccer coach June Jones.

Jones, who still lives in Hawaii, has seen the move from linemen to positions across the field. For him, it goes back to how players are taught at the beginning of their careers.

“You’re starting to see these kids throwing football now because their high schools are starting to throw it more,” Jones said. “It used to be offensive and defensive linemen and linebackers, and running backs were the position.

“Now you see receivers and Polynesian quarterbacks because the crime has changed so much.”

TAGOVAILOA FIRST MET MARIOTA as a fourth grader at the Saint Louis School Passing Camp in Honolulu. Tagovailoa showed advanced quarterback skills early on, so he wanted to measure his game against other kids – many of whom pushed him aside and questioned his place in camp. But not Mariota.

“Marcus took me under his wing. And he was the best there. I’ve really looked up to him since then,” said Tagovailoa. “Marcus was the standard by which many children at home look up as a person, as a person. Since he was as good as him, it didn’t change who he was as a person.”

Every kid athlete in Hawaii wanted to be like Mariota, and Mariota mentored Tagovailoa and built a relationship by pulling Tagovailoa aside to give him tips on throwing and getting him to eat despite their five-year age difference. Tagovailoa followed him to Saint Louis School and considered visiting Mariota Oregon. The ducks’ offer took too long, so Tagovailoa went to Alabama instead.

And it was Mariota who did sent a congratulatory text to Tagovailoa in January 2018 after coming off the bank to run Alabama to a national championship.

“Tua is a stallion. He’s the next to show up. Proud of him,” said Mariota. “Where the child comes from, how it grew and how it dealt with the situation. He is something very special. … It is nice to see that someone like him continues to carry the torch from home.”

A large Hawaiian contingent is set to see if two of the best players the state has ever produced compete against possible playoff spots. (Mariota’s status depends on health by Raiders from quarterback Derek Carr.)

The two are considered role models – humble men who come first in the family. This is important to a Polynesian community that is closely connected and often supportive.

Tagovailoa and Mariota pride themselves on their Samoan culture and Hawaiian roots. Tagovailoa’s parents, Galu and Diane, are Samoans, as is Mariota’s father Toa. Mariota when he started that Tennessee Titans, came out to a song called “Polynesian People” every home game, and Tagovailoa regularly wears an aloha shirt and one ie faitaga, or Lavalava (a rectangular fabric cover resembling a long skirt) on match days.

“It’s pretty cool to look around and see that our people, the Samoans, won’t always be on the opposite side of the ball or in the trenches, on the D-line, on defense or on the O-line” Tagovailoa said. “It’s pretty cool to see that guys from our culture can play skill positions and quarterback too. I think that speaks volumes about how they were brought up and their upbringing too.”

Thompson, who now lives and works in Seattle, knows how important this moment could be for Samoans. Tagovailoa and Mariota, who represent them, are helping to remove a stigma that many other Polynesian players have seen throughout their careers.

They know this can help change the way the next generation of gamers see and explain their culture.

“It’s reached a level where you don’t see Polynesian players as these linemen anymore,” he said Detroit Lions defensive device Danny Sheltonwho is Samoan. “You see them as quarterbacks. You can see them as running backs, and I really like that and I think it’s cool. Really cool.

“It proves to the youth that you can be whatever you want to be. You don’t have to be the lineman because the coach wants you to be a lineman because you are Polynesian.”

WHEN SHELTON ARRIVES At the Lions facility this summer, he came with a gift – a small token of understanding a common culture in a building full of diverse people from across the United States. It was his chance to express that his new colleagues were more than just employees.

They’d been Lions teammates for months, tangentially for years, but until training camp started that summer, Shelton, Jahlani Tavai, John Penisini and Halapoulivaati Vaitai never met.

One day Shelton showed up with a mask made by the same company that makes the lavalavas he sometimes wears.

“I had this company called Missing Polynesia, they usually do lavalavas for me on every team I go to, and they sent me some masks,” Shelton said. “And I just wanted to pass it on to Polynesian boys and boys I knew on the team.”

While more than the four Lions Polynesian players were receiving the protective face covers, she sent a message. At a time when gatherings were minimized during the coronavirus pandemic, it was a natural way for them – three of them were in their freshman year in Detroit – to chat. Tavai and Shelton discovered that they are distantly related.

“When you see another Polynesian in the league, you just know that he has probably been through some things because our culture,” said Penisini, “is all about family and you know what, it takes a while with this sport Lots of time like that. “

In the 1980s when Sapolu was playing for the 49ers, it was rare to see another Polynesian player on the field.

Some of it had to do with how they were taught to play. In Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, they had outdated football equipment and strategies. Passing the ball was just new for years.

When Jones, who trained in Hawaii for nine seasons and played between 76 and 41, first traveled to the island to pursue the idea of ​​holding soccer camps, he had to win the trust of the governors for what he wanted to do with children from different backgrounds Villages together. Local guides supported his interest. The camps flourished.

The view of the islands – something former Hawaiian soccer coaches Dick Tomey and Bob Wagner had previously done – offered talented children in Tonga and American Samoa a route to college, either in Hawaii or on the mainland. Island life offered two options: football or the military.

“The biggest thing since we were successful in Hawaii is now a lot of colleges going to Pago Pago. I think it has opened so many opportunities to children who have never had opportunities before,” said Jones. “And I think the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame did that for a lot of local kids here. And we try to make sure that every year some Samoan coaches come for dinner and fundraising dinners so they can see.

“Football has influenced the Tongan and Samoan children the most than anything else they can have.”

TAVAI SITTING IN HIS HOME Near Detroit, many people in the city of Samoa or Tonga cannot identify on a map. He’s not wrong.

“I don’t think you realize,” said Tavai, “how small a point is when you see it in the world.”

When a Polynesian player makes it, the sense of family success expands from the immediate family the player may have grown up with in the United States to the ancestral Samoan or Tongan village their family came from.

It’s a memory of that fe’aus (Housework) Tavai did it as a kid when he woke up at 5 a.m. – fed pigs and sometimes had to kill them for food. Tavai admits the chores can be “extreme” but it’s part of life.

The drive behind Polynesian players is family. The mother is usually the oldest in the family who makes the rules. There are expectations to support family members in times of need or at major events. The guiding principle for a Samoan soccer player is Fa’a Samoa, which means “The Samoan Way” and explains the importance of family.

Tavai’s mother is one of 18 children – so each subgroup sends something to the larger family to help or to celebrate when a life milestone comes.

“It’s almost like care packages, but it’s money,” Shelton said. “Like any group in this family, like if it’s a wedding or if there’s a funeral, everyone gets involved, you know. It’s not just the NFL player, it’s the people who work at McDonald’s, people who.” At the airport, you throw in what you can as your family’s contribution.

“And that’s just the Samoan way. Whatever you can, you give and the blessing comes back.”

The Lions Polynesian players realize that their fame and fortune fit into the entries too. There are also internal and external pressures to perform, and the pressures to make sure that you do nothing to embarrass your family – both immediate and extended.

And it’s one of the islands most popular sports – rugby – which explains why so many Polynesian players have success. Tavai and Ngata grew up with the sport at a high level. Eventually it was translated into football because it became an easy way to get a higher education.

“Football was the only way to get a scholarship to achieve that goal,” said Vaitai. “And I think work ethic only matters when it comes to football. I think that’s the only thing we Polynesians know and appreciate because it makes our families proud when we achieve something that is ours Families have not reached. ” because they grew up on the islands.

“My brothers and I are the first generations here in the US. To achieve something like this, it’s a big deal.”

Vaitai, Tavai and Shelton saw what Ngata – who returned no news for this story – did as a five-time Pro Bowl defender and Super Bowl champion. So it became her goal to achieve his success. Having a career like Ngata’s – or, in Vaitai’s case, actually playing with Ngata – was a dream.

Before Ngata, there was Polamalu, a Pro Football Hall of Fame security, which further demonstrated that Polynesian players can be more than linemen. Seau, who died in 2012, was the first Polynesian player to truly show the whole culture of what was possible. Seau was a top 5 player, 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker, eight-time all-pro first-team player, and Hall of Famer.

Today, many NFL teams have at least one Polynesian player. They will connect, take photos and feel sorry for after the games. It highlights the growth of culture in the league.

“I would know in a team that we would be playing in five weeks. There is a Polynesian in that team,” said Sapolu. “Because then you go and shake their hand after the game. You’re looking forward to it.”

THERE ARE SOME SUNDAYS if Sapolu lets what happened in the NFL overwhelm him. Now 59 years old and retired longer than he has played, he sits back and watches the game he still loves and sees the names.

Shelton. Mariota. Tagovailoa. Tavai. Vaitai. Mike Iupati. Ronnie Stanley.

Sapolu will think about his own story. his own legacy, which helped give Polynesian players the opportunity and confidence to reach the NFL.

“In the back of your mind you’re proud,” said Sapolu. “But at the same time, at this point in my life, I don’t think so. I am [still] Push the envelope. … I am responsible for ensuring that we are in better hands as this generation retires than we were when we founded the Polynesian Hall of Fame and the Polynesian Bowl. “

In Polynesian culture, there is an opportunity to pass things on from one generation to another, continue your family’s success, and respect what your elders have brought you. In soccer, Sapolu, Jones, Ngata, Sikahema, Seau and Polamalu have adopted Polynesian culture in professional sport.

And this is where Mariota, Tagovailoa and others can put it in the future.

“Having people like Tua, Marcus Mariota,” said Tavai. “Look at these guys and try to preach to the younger crowd that anything is possible no matter where you go to school. It’s pretty cool to see how many people make it out of Samoa, out of Tonga, if it’s only one point on the map. “

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