Young Polynesians Make A Life Out Of Football Scroll NFL and college football rosters and you'll see the distinctive names from the Pacific Islands. With their traditionally broad, solid bodies and competitive nature, Polynesians have distinguished themselves at the elite levels of the game. Many start at high schools in Utah.
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Young Polynesians Make A Life Out Of Football

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Young Polynesians Make A Life Out Of Football

Young Polynesians Make A Life Out Of Football

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Scroll down most NFL rosters — and many major college football rosters — and you'll see distinctive names like these: Polamalu, Tatupu. Polynesians have distinguished themselves at the elite levels of football, and many start their climb up the football ladder at high schools in Utah. The state is a hub for Pacific Islanders living on the mainland U.S. For our series Friday Night Lives, NPR's Tom Goldman has this story about young Polynesians using football as a way to express their culture and as a way to move beyond it.

TOM GOLDMAN: We start with a Polynesian connection: Two people with high school football experiences 30 years and thousands of miles apart, yet with much in common because of a shared heritage and culture.

Mr. ALEMA TEO (Assistant Football Coach, Bountiful High School): My name is Alema Viva Teo.

GOLDMAN: Teo is a 47-year-old assistant football coach at Bountiful High School in Bountiful, Utah.

Mr. THOMAS HAMILTON (Student Athlete, Bountiful High School): My name is Thomas Hamilton. I play defensive tackle.

GOLDMAN: Hamilton is a 17-year-old senior on the Bountiful High team. Both stand 5 feet 11 inches and weigh 300 pounds, the classically thick Polynesian build that Miami Dolphins football exec Bill Parcells once called perfect for the trenches, the area around the line of scrimmage inhabited by the biggest players on the field.

(Soundbite of Polynesian dance music)

GOLDMAN: Teo says he and Hamilton, decades apart, learned traditional Polynesian dance, which added agility to their size.

Mr. TEO: Going to dance practice, it was like doing the ladder drill. You know, you got to step the proper way, move your hips the right way, move your head and your shoulders and your hands, so there was a lot of coordination in our work being involved when you do these traditional dances.

GOLDMAN: Of course the biggest, most agile football player is nothing without a mean streak. And here, Alema Teo and Thomas Hamilton are equally confounding. Because in the traditional Polynesian way, both are nice, respectful, laid-back guys, but in pads and helmet, snarling, Samoan warriors. Teo, when he was playing high school ball in American Samoa.

Mr. TEO: Your mentality is to get ready to kill somebody. That is no joke. We would spend hours, you know, talking about, this is our village, this is our family, you know, this is that, you know, and so the coaches would build that up to that first hit.

(Soundbite of football practice)

GOLDMAN: And Thomas Hamilton is a modern-day warrior as he crunches his way through his senior year for the Bountiful Braves.

Mr. HAMILTON: Just hitting and making the other person cry, it's so amazing. I love it. I love it.

(Soundbite of Haka dance)

GOLDMAN: Some high school teams with Polynesian players like to choreograph their aggression in a traditionally menacing war dance called the Haka.

(Soundbite of Haka dance)

GOLDMAN: Bountiful doesn't do a pre-game Haka. Polynesian senior tight-end Helam Heimuli says Thomas Hamilton is all the team needs to get fired up.

Mr. HELAM HEIMULI (Student Athlete, Bountiful High School): Oh, he scares everyone, not just me. He scares the whole team. We're walking out of the locker room all calm and cool, like coach Wall likes us to be. And once we get on the field, you hear Thomas just start yelling, oh yeah, and he starts smashing people already — our own team. So we're just like, yeah, just get on the field before Thomas kills someone on our own team. So, you know, that's how we play every Friday.

GOLDMAN: So far, it's worked. Bountiful is undefeated this season. Hamilton, at least the calmer side of him, is doing well in school with a 3.7 GPA. He plans, like many Polynesian players, to do a two-year Mormon mission before pursuing his goal of college and, he hopes, the NFL. Overall, 18 of the 28 Division I football scholarships given to Utah high school players this year went to Polynesians. This upward trajectory is heartening to Alema Teo.

Nine years ago, he started what became known as the All-Poly football camp, an inexpensive camp blending football and academics. Initially, it was geared just for Polynesian players, many of whom weren't making it in school, Teo says, nor ultimately in football.

Mr. TEO: There's been a trend over the last 10 years, you know, a lot of our kids — we have good football players, but then, you know, there's a vast majority of them that will, you know, get married early, or maybe not finish school, or go to college for one year and fizzle out.

GOLDMAN: Ironically, Polynesian culture may be partly to blame. The same culture that fuels young football players - part of it may inhibit some as they try to push forward in life.

Mr. FOTU KATOA (Director, Pacific Islander Affairs): Please come on in, come on in.

GOLDMAN: For the past five years, Fotu Katoa has been Utah's director of Pacific Islander Affairs. His office in downtown Salt Lake City is a virtual Polynesian experience. Filled with shells and weavings and Polynesian art, the office also includes thick binders on a shelf labeled Utah Meth Task Force, Pacific Island Inmates, Gang File. Signs of trouble in a population that now numbers close to 30,000 in Utah, says Katoa.

Some in those files, certainly not all, are in them because of a tough transition from the Pacific to the U.S. mainland. Many came to Utah to practice their Mormon religion. Some succeeded, more struggled in low-paying jobs with little or no English skills. Their culture, with its emphasis on family, remained strong, but in succeeding generations, says Fotu Katoa, who was born in Tonga, Polynesian tradition clashed with the norms here.

Mr. KATOA: For example, the way I'm raising my children, I'm raising them to be independent, and to move on. After you graduate, you're going to college. And the traditional way is I'm raising you to take care of me, your parents, your grandparents and the extended family.

GOLDMAN: For many Polynesian young men, playing football in the U.S. and seeing that experience through to the end seems to be a way to straddle this culture gap. On one hand, the sport is a source of great pride among many Pacific Islanders. On the other, it can be the classic means to an end — Fotu Katoa hopes a much bigger end.

Mr. KATOA: Football has been good to us, has been really good to us in the sense of publicity and getting our kids out there and some going on to the NFL arena. We just want to be known for more.

GOLDMAN: Recently, high school football star Bronson Kaufusi has had time to think about more.

Mr. BRONSON KAUFUSI (Student Athlete, Timpview High School): And lay on back and then just gravity, let gravity do the job.

GOLDMAN: This week at a clinic in Provo, Utah, physical therapist Brett Mortenson worked on Bronson Kaufusi's damaged right knee. Kaufusi, an all-state senior defensive end for perennial power Timpview High School, tore up the knee in an early season game, ending his high school career. There were tears at first, but now he's back on track planning to heal up his body on his upcoming Mormon mission and then resume football at BYU in Provo, where he committed to play when he was just a sophomore. Kaufusi, whose dad was born in Tonga, has a Tongan language chi-chi on his cell phone and a goal.

Mr. KAUFUSI: My dad always says, you always want to be better than my mom and dad where - so they grew up on an island - shack. He's here in America, you know, great house, great job. So I'm trying to be better than him.

GOLDMAN: A young Polynesian with a plan for football, for life.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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