When Star Lotulelei was selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft, the nation caught a high-profile glimpse of what has become a common occurrence in recent years. Lotulelei, who was born in Tonga, is the latest in a long line of Polynesian players whose success at the University of Utah has led to opportunities in the NFL.
It’s not a coincidence that so many Polynesians have found success on the field and beyond at Utah.
When Ron McBride took over as head coach of the Utes in 1990, he made recruiting Polynesian athletes a major component of his plan to build the program. “The Polynesian kids were a big factor (in our recruiting strategy) because there was a good reason for them to be here,” McBride said. “We tapped into Hawaii, American Samoa and Tonga — all of those areas. There’s a reason because of the (LDS) church for them to be here, and because most of them have relatives here.”
McBride’s recruiting vision helped usher in a new era of success for not only the Utah football program, but for a large number of Polynesian players that have played for the Utes. Since 2002, players such as Sione Pouha, Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Chris Kemoeatu, Paul Soliai, Matt Asiata and Jonathan Fanene have gone on to see success in the NFL after starring at Utah. Now that he’s a member of the Carolina Panthers, Star Lotulelei will look to carry on that strong NFL tradition.
Under Kyle Whittingham, Utah continues to have success attracting many of the best Polynesian players in the nation. Eight members of Utah’s signing class of 2013 are Polynesian, including Texas recruits Sam Tevi, Gaius Vaenuku and Salesi Uhatafe; California recruits Myron Aiava and Sese Ianu; and in-state recruits Lowell Lotulelei, Uaea Masina and Filipo Mokofisi. In addition to those that signed in February, two more Polynesian players — tight ends Evan Moeai and Siale Fakailoatonga — will also join the team this fall.
That trend continues to be strong for the recruiting class of 2014, with Amone Finau and Alani Havili having already committed to sign with the Utes. According to Havili, Utah’s strong tradition of helping Polynesian players succeed on and off the field was a major factor behind his decision to commit to the Utes.
"That was a big thing for me. When Sione (Pouha) used to play for East, I knew him and my mom grew up with Haloti (Ngata) and everyone. I know Star (Lotulelei). I'm really close to everyone. That's the big thing going to Utah, because I know Polynesians that played on the defensive line and went to the NFL. Ma'ake (Kemoeatu) just went to the Super Bowl with the Ravens and helped them win," Havili told UteZone.com in February.
Utah’s Polynesian connection isn’t just limited to the players. Polynesian coaches such as defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki and strength and conditioning coach Doug Elisaia help make up one of the most ethnically diverse coaching staffs in all of college football. Embracing that diversity is a big component of the culture that Whittingham has worked hard to instill in his program.
“It’s not like we go out and say we need to have a certain number of Polynesians that we sign. It’s about finding good young men that are tough, that love football and that we can work with. It just so happens that a lot of those guys happen to be Polynesian,” Sitake said.
“The environment at Utah is primed to suit any person whether they’re Caucasian, African-American or Polynesian, it doesn’t matter. When recruits come in, they talk about how wonderful a family environment there is at Utah. In the Polynesian community, a lot of it is about family, so it makes sense that Polynesian athletes feel that they fit in here. I feel like we offer that better than anyone else,” Sitake continued.
Defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki echoes Sitake’s sentiments and said that the values that are embraced by the Utah football program resonate strongly with players from the Polynesian community.
“Polynesians have a strong family background,” said Tuiaki. “They come into the program and feel the values that they hold dear and have grown up with all of their lives. That’s what they’re looking for, and Utah just has that. There’s a lot of familiarity with common values. A lot of the values in the LDS community and the Polynesian community are similar, and we have that at Utah.”
Because the Utes have 34 Polynesian players on the current roster, the Utah program is attractive to many of the nation’s top Polynesian high school football players. “The big thing is just having Polynesians on the team. When recruits come in, they just want to be around each other. Their personalities kind of click,” Tuiaki said.
It’s readily apparent that the Polynesian pipeline is alive and well at Utah. Now the question is whether the current batch of Polynesian stars at Utah such as projected starters Tenny Palepoi, Jeremiah Tofaeono, LT Tuipulotu, Junior Salt, CJ Poutasi, Nate Orchard, V.J. Fehoko and LT Filiaga can continue the tradition of on-field success and forge their own paths to the NFL.
Dan Sorensen is the editor in chief of UteZone.com, part of the Rivals.com network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and Basketball Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected].