Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Football Explains America-Feature on Polynesian Football Players

Our CSM Bulldogs football team has a large number of Polynesian players (Think Drew Moeaki, Sosaia Mataele, Vai Liu, Ratu Rabelo, Matangi Tonga, Seta Pohahau, Will Vatuvei (1990-2010), Sosefo Maka, Patrick Latu, just to name a few; Quarterback Matthias Pelesasa is half-Samoan. A 2002 article from ESPN estimated that a Samoan male (either an American Samoan, or a Samoan living in mainland United States) is 40 times more likely to play in the NFL than a non-Samoan American =D)

Here is an interesting segment from the book How Football Explains America about Polynesian football players, which can be bought from If you use the link, it will still take you directly to the link but will donate 4% of your purchases (whatever you buy, DVDs, books etc) back to CSM.

From pg 188-190 of How Football Explains America by Sal Paolantonio

The latest immigrant culture to find a home in the game of American football comes from the Polynesian Islands.

"It is because of the way the Polynesian culture is set up-chiefs rule villages," said Vai Sikahema, who was the first NFL football player from the South Pacific island of Tonga. "And they rule islands. Questions weren't asked or posed to the chief, or they were killed. So, the idea of a football coach, the one guy in charge, was perfectly acceptable to their Polynesian athlete. That father figure on the field works in our culture because it is our culture. It's the way in their homes. Fathers have the ultimate authority in their homes. That's the nature of our people."

In 2007, there were more than two dozen NFL players of Polynesian descent-from Junior Seau of the Patriots to Haloti Ngata of the Ravens to Ma'ake Kemoeatu of the Panthers to Toniu Fonoti of Atlanta to Troy Polamalu of the Steelers to Lora Tatupu, who went to three straight Prowl Bowls for the Seahawks and recently signed the richest contract for any Polynesian player-six years, $42 million. Tatupu, a deeply religious man, signed the contract two days before Easter Sunday. "It's a great Friday," he said.

The Polynesian islands were changed dramatically in the mid-1800s when Christian missionaries arrived. But not everything changed. The Christian "Mosaic Law" fit right in with Polynesian culture. "In Polynesia, it's an eye for an eye," said Sikahema. "It's not uncommon-even in modern society-for old men to duke it out. I've seen it in my own family. Even at weddings or celebrations, if two people have an issue, they fight. When the fight's over, they gather and they hug and they kiss. But families regularly settle their disputes that way. At its core, it's a warrior culture. That's why football fits in so perfectly."

The influx of Tongan boys into the school system in Euless, Texas-not far from Dallas-has made the local high school football team a spectacular success. The Euless Trojans won the Texas 5A Division I championship in 2005 and 2007. Before each game, the Tonga boys lead the team in the Haka (here is the link to a video clip of Bulldog Vai Liu leading his teammates in a Haka Bulldog style just before last year's State Championship game)-the ancient Polynesian war chant that calls for a fight to the death. The All Blacks rugby team of New Zealand-also containing many Polynesian players-has made the Haka their signature pregame ritual. Before the game, the All Blacks will actually face their opponents and do the Haka, finishing with a slash to the throat.

"We're the Italians and Irish of this century-we've only been in this country for 30 or 40 years, so our culture is still very much with us," said Sikahema, who was a record-setting punt returner in the NFL from 1986 to 1993. "Culturally, the fact that 300-pounders can be nimble on their feet, it is because they grew up doing these dances-the Haka. The fire knife dances. The hand-eye coordination that it takes to do these things. The warrior way. It's all why we have become so closely aligned with football as a way to get our way into American culture. It was my ticket here."

Now, it's not unusual for the Sikahema household in surburban Philadelphia to be the host for young Tongan and Samoean athletes who want to make it in American football. "There is no Polynesian word for cousin because it doesn's translate well in America. But the son of my father's brother is not my cousin. He's really my brother. So we all treat each other like that. And it's the same way for any teammate. We are all brothers. Polynesians instantly connected to the American game of football in that way-belief in the father figure structure, warrior culture, and the fight to the end. There is only one way up-to fight until you win."

How Football Explains America is an unapologetic look at the game of football in America, with Paolantonio often paralleling changes in the game to major events in American history. This is an interesting read, though some readers may be turned off by his righteous tone interspersed throughout the book. Readers should heed the warning he gives in the prologue: "So, please, by all means, check your political correctness at the gate." Strictly for football fans only.

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