- Previously covered University of Michigan for ESPN.com and AnnArbor.com
- Also covered Notre Dame for Fort Wayne Journal Gazette
- Covered the Broncos for two seasons with the Denver Post
- Graduate of the University of Houston
- A native of Jackson, Miss.
Growing up in Washington, Jack Thompson likely never could have imagined this moment. Known as the “Throwin’ Samoan,” Thompson was an NFL rarity. When he’d gone to college at Washington State, teammates asked him what position he played.
Quarterback, he told them.
Quarterback? Nah, that can’t be right.
Then Thompson played his way to being the No. 3 overall pick in the 1979 NFL draft and appeared in 51 games for Cincinnati and Tampa Bay. At the time, Polynesian quarterbacks were rare. Back then, what could happen Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, NFL Network) — Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Marcus Mariota facing off against one another — would have been almost unthinkable.
While their matchup would be the first in NFL history between two Hawaiian-born starting quarterbacks, it accentuates what an entire community believes could be just the beginning.
“We’re right on the verge of influencing kids from our community to believe that we can play the quarterback position,” said Jesse Sapolu, the two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers who is now the executive director of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. “… When we had a guy that we called the ‘Throwin’ Samoan,’ and he was the third pick in the draft, he was before me.
“But that was kind of unheard of, that was an anomaly, too. But it’s no longer that, you know, at this stage.”
Starting with the first Polynesian NFL player, offensive lineman Al Lolotai in 1945, Polynesian players were mainly considered linemen or linebackers, due in part to the style they played in American Samoa. According to Pro Football Reference, 45 of the 57 NFL players born in Tonga, American Samoa or Western Samoa were linemen or linebackers. In today’s NFL, there are more than 60 players with Polynesian roots, a lineage tracing back to Junior Seau, Haloti Ngata and Troy Polamalu, to Lolotai, Sapolu, Reno Mahe and Vai Sikahema.
A large part of that growth has happened in Hawai’i, where Tagovailoa and Mariota are from, and on the West Coast of the United States, where many players of Polynesian descent live. The pair also will underscore the latest evolution of the Polynesian NFL player — one accelerated by the proliferation of passing offenses in Hawai’i, due in part to former University of Hawai’i football coach June Jones.
Jones, who still lives in Hawai’i, has seen the evolution from linemen to positions all over the field. To him, it goes back to how players are taught early in their careers.
“You’re starting to see those kids now throwing the football 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’re seeing receivers and Polynesian quarterbacks because the offenses have changed so much.”
TAGOVAILOA FIRST MET MARIOTA as a fourth-grader at the Saint Louis School passing camp in Honolulu. Tagovailoa flashed advanced quarterback skills early, so he aimed to measure his game against other kids — many of whom pushed him aside and questioned his place at the camp. But not Mariota.
“Marcus took me under his wing. And he was the best one there. Since then, I really looked up to him,” Tagovailoa said. “Marcus has been the standard a lot of the kids back home look up to as a person, a human being. Being as good as he was, it didn’t change who he was as a person.”
Every kid athlete in Hawai’i wanted to be like Mariota, and Mariota mentored Tagovailoa, building a relationship by pulling Tagovailoa aside to give him throwing tips and taking him for food despite their five-year age gap. Tagovailoa followed him to Saint Louis School and considered attending Oregon, like Mariota. The Ducks took too long to offer, so Tagovailoa went to Alabama instead.
And it was Mariota who sent a congratulatory text to Tagovailoa in January 2018 after he came off the bench to lead Alabama to a national championship.
“Tua is a stud. He’s the next guy coming up. Proud of him,” Mariota said then. “From where that kid’s come, how he’s grown and how he handled the situation. He’s very special. … It’s nice to see someone like him continue to carry the torch from back home.”
A large Hawai’i contingent will be tuned in to see if two of the best players the state has ever produced face off for potential playoff berths. (Mariota’s status depends on the health of Raiders starting quarterback Derek Carr.)
The two are considered role models — humble, family-first men. This is important for a Polynesian community that is tight-knit and often supportive.
Tagovailoa and Mariota are proud of their Samoan culture and Hawai’i roots. Tagovailoa’s parents, Galu and Diane, are Samoan, as is Mariota’s father, Toa. Mariota, when he started with the Tennessee Titans, came out every home game to a song called “Polynesian People,” and Tagovailoa regularly wears an Aloha shirt and an ie faitaga, or lavalava (a rectangular cloth wrap that looks similar to a long skirt), on game days.
“It’s something pretty cool to look around and see that our people, Samoan people, are not always going to be on the opposite side of the ball or in the trenches, on the D-line, on the defense or on the O-line,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s pretty cool to see that guys from our culture can also play skill positions and quarterback. I think that speaks volumes to how they were raised as well and their upbringing, too.”
Thompson, who now lives and works in Seattle, knows how important that moment could be for Samoan people. Tagovailoa and Mariota representing them is helping eliminate a stigma many other Polynesian players have seen during their careers.
They know it might help change how the next generation of players is viewed and also explain their culture.
“It’s gotten to a level where you don’t see Polynesian players as these linemen anymore,” said Detroit Lions defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who is Samoan. “You see them as quarterbacks. You can see them as running backs, and that’s something I really like and I think it’s cool. Really cool.
“It’s proving 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’re Polynesian.”
WHEN SHELTON ARRIVED at the Lions’ facility this summer, he came with a gift — a small token of an understanding of a shared culture in a building full of diverse people from across the United States. It was his chance to express he felt his new colleagues were more than coworkers.
They had been Lions teammates for months, connected tangentially for years, but until training camp started this summer, Shelton, Jahlani Tavai, John Penisini and Halapoulivaati Vaitai had never met.
So one day, Shelton showed up with a mask made by the same company that makes the lavalavas he sometimes wears.
“I had this company named Missing Polynesia, they usually do lavalavas for me every team I go to, and they had sent me some masks,” Shelton said. “And I just wanted to pass it out to Polynesian guys and guys that I knew on the team.”
While more than the four Polynesian players from the Lions received the protective face coverings, it sent a message. In a season with gatherings minimized during the coronavirus pandemic, it provided them — three of whom were in their first year in Detroit — a natural avenue to converse. Tavai and Shelton discovered they are distantly related.
“Seeing another Polynesian in the league, you just know that he’s probably been through some stuff because in our culture,” Penisini said, “it’s all about family, and, you know what, with this sport, it takes a lot of time out of that.”
In the 1980s, when Sapolu was playing for the 49ers, seeing another Polynesian player across the field was rare.
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. For years, passing the ball was merely novel.
When Jones, who coached at Hawai’i for nine seasons and went 76-41, first made trips to the island to pitch the idea of holding football camps, he had to gain the trust of the governors for what he wanted to do, bringing kids from different villages together. Local leaders supported his interest. The camps thrived.
Looking to the islands — something former Hawai’i football coaches Dick Tomey and Bob Wagner had done prior — provided kids with talent in Tonga and American Samoa a way to college, either in Hawai’i or the mainland. Island life offered two ways off: football or the military.
“The biggest thing, ever since we had the success at Hawai’i, a lot of colleges go to Pago Pago now. I think it’s just opened up so many opportunities for kids who never had opportunities before,” Jones said. “And I think the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame has done that for a lot of the local kids here. And we try to make sure that we have some Samoan coaches come up every year to the enshrinement and fundraising dinner just so they can see.
“Football has had the biggest impact on the Tongan and Samoan kids more than anything else that they can have.”
TAVAI, SITTING IN HIS HOME near Detroit, jokes many people in the city wouldn’t be able to identify Samoa or Tonga on a map. He’s not wrong.
“I don’t think they realize,” Tavai said, “how small of a dot it is, basically, when they see it on the globe.”
When a Polynesian player makes it, the feeling of familial success expands from immediate family, where the player might have grown up in the United States, to the ancestral Samoan or Tongan village their family is from.
It’s a reminder of the fe’aus (chores) Tavai did as a kid, waking up at 5 a.m. — feeding pigs and sometimes having to kill them for food. Tavai admits the chores can be “extreme,” but it is part of life.
The drive behind players of Polynesian descent is familial. The mother is usually the elder of the family who makes the rules. There are expectations of assisting family members in times of need or large events. The guiding principle for a Samoan football player is Fa’a Samoa, which means “The Samoan Way,” explaining the importance of family.
Tavai’s mother is one of 18 children — so each subset of the larger family sends something to help or celebrate when a life milestone occurs.
“Those are almost like care packages, but it’s money,” Shelton said. “Like every group of that family, like if it’s a wedding or if there is a funeral, everybody is pitching in, you know. It’s not just the NFL player, it’s the guys who are working at McDonald’s, guys who are at the airport, they’re pitching in what they can as a contribution from their family.
“And that’s just the Samoan way. Whatever you can, you give and the blessings come back.”
The Polynesian players on the Lions recognize their fame and wealth fits into the contributions, too. There is also internal and external pressure to perform, and pressure to make sure you don’t do anything to embarrass your family — both immediate and extended.
And it is one of the most popular sports of the islands — rugby — that helps explain why so many Polynesian players end up having success. Tavai and Ngata grew up playing the sport at a high level. Eventually, it translated to football, because it became an easier way to reach higher education.
“Football was, was the only way to get a scholarship, you know, to achieve that goal,” Vaitai said. “And I guess it just comes down to work ethic when it comes to football. I think that’s the only thing as Polynesians we all know and appreciate, because it makes our family feel proud when we achieve something that our families didn’t achieve, because they grew up on the islands.
“My brothers and I are the first generations here in the States. And so to accomplish something like that, it’s a big deal.”
Vaitai, Tavai and Shelton saw what Ngata — who did not return messages for this story — accomplished as a five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle and a Super Bowl champion. So reaching his success became their goal. To have a career like Ngata’s — or in the case of Vaitai, to actually play with Ngata — was a dream.
Before Ngata, there was Polamalu, a Pro Football Hall of Fame safety who further showed Polynesians players could be more than linemen. Seau, who died in 2012, was the first Polynesian player who really made the entirety of the culture realize what was possible. Seau was a top-five pick, 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker, eight-time first-team All-Pro player and Hall of Famer.
Today, many NFL teams have at least one Polynesian player. They’ll connect after games, take photos and commiserate. It underscores the growth of the culture in the league.
“I would know on a team that we play in five weeks, there’s a Polynesian on that team,” Sapolu said. “Because then you go and shake their hand after the game. You look forward to it.”
THERE ARE SOME SUNDAYS when Sapolu allows what has happened around the NFL to overwhelm him. Now 59 years old and retired longer than he played, he sits back, 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 history. his own heritage that helped create the opportunities and confidence for players of Polynesian ancestry to reach the NFL.
“In the back of your mind, you’re proud,” Sapolu said. “But at the same time, at this point in my life, I’m not thinking that way. I’m [still] pushing the envelope. … My responsibility is to make sure when this generation retires, we’re in better hands than when I was able to help start the Polynesian Hall of Fame and Polynesian Bowl.”
In Polynesian culture, there is a way of handing things down from one generation to another, of continuing the success of your family and respecting what your elders brought you. In football, this is where Sapolu, Jones, Ngata, Sikahema, Seau and Polamalu have taken the Polynesian culture in pro sports.
And it’s where Mariota, Tagovailoa and others can take it in the future.
“To have guys like Tua, Marcus Mariota,” Tavai said. “See those kind of guys and try and preach to the younger crowds that, like, anything is possible, regardless of where you go to school. It’s pretty cool getting to see how many people make it out of Samoa, make it out of Tonga, when it’s just a dot on the map.”
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