The 2012 NFL season got underway Wednesday night when the Dallas Cowboys defeated the New York Giants 24 to 17 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
One presence that will be greatly missed this season is former linebacker Junior Seau. Fans were shocked a few months ago when Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, was found dead in his California home. A medical examiner’s report ruled that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
Aside from being one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game, Seau was one of professional sports’ most famous athletes of American Samoan descent. Although he wasn’t born in the distant American territory, he spent several years there as a kid before returning with his family to California to enter grade school. According to his player bio, he didn’t speak English until age seven.
His feats and outsized presence on the field, not to mention his charitable work off the field, were sources of pride for American Samoans both in the continental United States and in the South Pacific. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, probably the league’s most well-known active player of American Samoan descent, described Seau as an inspiration to Samoan youth.
To many, Seau was proof that American Samoans could make it big in one of the mainland’s most popular sports. T.J. Taimatuia, a University of Hawaii sophomore linebacker, probably summed up the sentiment of other American Samoans with dreams of making it to the NCAA or going pro when he recently described football as a “meal ticket off the island.”
There’s a tendency in this country to view such aspirations as noble, but ultimately unrealistic. I think most people would cite Americans’ habit to glamorizing professional athletes as the root cause of such impractical dreams. After all, the odds are stacked against us. Only about 200 collegiate players ever make it to the NFL every season, and NCAA fans are no doubt familiar with the Home Depot add campaigns that remind us that the vast majority of NCAA athlethes go “pro” in something other than sports.
But, Taimatuia’s description of football as a meal ticket off the island has a little more credibility for American Samoans.
According to Wikipedia, about 30 of the NFL’s nearly 1,700 players were of American Samoan descent during the 2010 season. A 2002 ESPN article claimed that 200 American Samoans play Division I NCAA football, although that number has no doubt grown in the last decade.
Alone these numbers don’t mean much, but keep in mind that American Samoa’s population is, according to the 2010 Census, only about 55,000, or the size of a small American city. Some sources estimate that a boy born in American Samoa is 40 to 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than someone born on the mainland. And, although not all of these players were born and raised in American Samoa, the news media would take note if Terre Haute, Indiana—population 60,000—had such close ties to 30 active NFL players.
So how did this come about?
Like cricket in southeast Asia and the West Indies, or rugby in places like Australia and New Zealand, football owes its popularity in American Samoa to western colonization.
The American presence in what is today American Samoa dates back to the 1870’s, although the US government did not formally annex the territory until 1900. By 1940, a few American Samoans had made their way to the US mainland and found spots on college and professional team rosters. Players like Al Lolotai, Charles Ane, and Bob Apisa paved the way for people of American Samoan descent in the early days, but the sport’s popularity didn’t really explode in the territory until the late 1960’s, when government-controlled television widely introduced the sport.
Television itself debuted relatively late in the islands because for the first 60 years of US rule, American naval administrators mostly pursued a policy of non-interference in American Samoan’s traditional, centuries-old way of life. Save for the construction of roads and some basic public schools, the US government for decades made no widespread attempt to modernize the territory.
But with the advent of John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier”—an effort to eradicate poverty and lift American living standards through an array of government spending programs—Washington altered its approach to American Samoa, and in 1961 the federal government launched a programmatic effort to modernize the islands’ economy and educational standards. Allegedly, after reading a Reader’s Digest article which detailed the territory’s poor economic state, President Kennedy tasked H. Rex Lee—a civil servant who had spent most of his career in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs—with stimulating social and economic change in the territory.
A central element of Lee’s program was reforming the territory’s schools and education system, including by introducing educational television network that could be beamed into the territory’s classrooms. The network was inaugurated in October 1964, and according to a program list found in Wilbur Schramm’s academic work on the subject, by 1965, 25 minutes were devoted to “Physical Education Activities” every Monday morning.
The high schools that H. Rex Lee established were organized in 1968 into an athletic league, and, according to former Sports Illustrated executive editor Richard Johnston, the territory-wide TV station was used to broadcast football training films. In line with longstanding practice, Lee’s changes were introduced with an eye to preserving fa’a Samoa–or the traditional, Samoan way of life–an approach that allowed Samoans to accept Lee’s reforms as additions to American Samoan culture and not “substitutes for it,” according to Schramm.
Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa’s delegate to the US House of Representatives, Congress, made this point in a 2002 ESPN interview, when he described contact sports like football as “inherent in the Samoan character.” In fact, Johnston says that in the sport’s early days, before the rules were fully understood, the enthusiasm and exuberance that the territory’s residents brought to the game produced sometimes ludicrous results, like the time when 21 players–from both teams–tackled the ballcarrier. Maybe Polynesia’s familiarity with and passion for rugby–which Faleomavaega described as Samoans’ first love–was to blame.
By the 1970’s, when commercial television became popular throughout the territory, professional football had found its way onto American Samoan television sets. Within a few years, the territory’s residents were cheering on players like Mosi Tatupu who had followed Al Lolotai to glory on the mainland.
When ESPN asked Junior Seau in 2002 why American Samoans are so disproportionately represented in football’s top ranks, he said he believed it was “tied to the work ethic within the home,” and “not taking anything for granted.”
Johnston’s SI article from the 1970’s records similar sentiment. Back then, Al Harrington, an American Samoan of Hawaii-Five-O fame who also played football at Stanford University, likened American Samoans’ drive to make it big in football to pursuing the American Dream.
“We think hard work and merit will pay off,” he told Johnston, adding that for American Samoans, “football and other sports have provided a way toward fulfillment of the dream.”
For this small, football-crazy American territory in the South Pacific, this holds true today, as American Samoans continue to make their way in the world by by merging fa’a Samoa with elements of mainland America.