There was a time when I played that I’d run into a Polynesian brother about once every four games and now there are players from the islands on every NFL team — some with four or five. This is the time. It is right and it fits. —Jesse Sapolu, Polynesian Football Hall of Fame co-founder
Polynesian players have become a dominating part of football — both in the state of Utah and in the NFL. On Wednesday, organizers will launch a way to properly honor these stars with roots from the Pacific Islands after they finish their careers.
I think it’s an idea that's long overdue.
The new Polynesian Football Hall of Fame will honor the Pacific Islands' greatest football players, coaches and other contributors.
The state of Utah stands to have its share of honorees as this new hall of fame progresses.
“There have been many Polynesian football players that have made a profound impact on the game we all love,” said co-founder and four-time Super Bowl champion Jesse Sapolu. “It is our responsibility to honor these legends and help educate our young people about their significant contribution to Polynesian history and football.”
How important are Polynesian players in Utah? You can't imagine Utah, BYU, USU or Weber State — or any successful college or high school in the state — without island influence.
At Utah, Star Lotulelei was a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. At BYU, linebacker Kyle Van Noy has climbed atop numerous watch lists for the upcoming college football season.
The state of Utah hosts a Poly football camp each summer, a growing combine that draws talent from all over the country. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, with plenty of Utah ties, became a focal point of college football for most of this past year. And former Highland High star Haloti Ngata, who played at Oregon, was one of five Polynesians on rosters in Super Bowl XLVII, along with former Ute Ma’ake Kemoeatu and East High star Will Tukuafu.
"Polynesian players are built for combat, built for football — big, strong, fast," said Haloti Moala, 46, uncle and surrogate father to Ngata, whom Moala coached at Highland High in Salt Lake City. "The warrior spirit is within us. We love contact. That's been the history of our people."
Just this week, two high school Polynesian players made news headlines locally when Syracuse defensive back Kavika Fonua committed to BYU and former Timpview defensive end Pita Taumoepenu switched his commitment from BYU to Utah.
Wednesday's announcement comes out of Honolulu from a committee comprised of familiar faces to all football fans in Utah. The board membership includes former Cougars and NFL players Vai Sikahema and Reno Mahe, as well as Sapolu, Ma’a Tanuvasa, Troy Polamalu and former Hawaii football coach June Jones. The selection committee includes LaVell Edwards and Ron McBride, along with Dick Tomey, ESPN sportscaster Neil Everett, NFL legend Gil Brandt and Honolulu sportscaster Robert Kekaula.
The Hall of Fame is sure to include a myriad faces from the state’s college rosters and coaching ranks, including current Hawaii coach Norm Chow.
One of the early island stars in the game is the late Junior Seau, a Samoan, and Jack Thompson, the "Throwin' Samoan."
According to Sapolu, there are currently 60 NFL players of Polynesian decent, including perennial pro bowlers and Super Bowl champs Troy Polamalu and Ngata.
Having lived in the Tongan Islands during my teen years, I applaud this movement because the lexicon of Polynesian players and their impact on American football has become a major part of the sport. Sure, it's one of those breakout specialty deals, but so what? It is needed.
In talking to Sapolu on Tuesday, he reaffirmed how important this can be to young people who need to remember where they came from. Sapolu has been visiting Samoa regularly the past seven years, putting on clinics and speaking to potential future Polynesian talent.
“These young people face so many things we never had to growing up. With the tremendous money to be made, they can get a feeling of being invincible and it is easy for them to lose touch with their roots,” said Sapolu.
The football culture with a strong coach, says Sapolu, is similar to the Polynesian culture where each family has a chief and members of the family learn to rely on each other and respect the voice that leads them.
Sapolu has thought of doing a Hall of Fame for years, but the time was not right. He counseled with the Black College Football Hall of Fame folks and got great advice.
“There was a time when I played that I’d run into a Polynesian brother about once every four games and now there are players from the islands on every NFL team — some with four or five. This is the time. It is right and it fits.”
The inaugural enshrinement ceremony will be Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, prior to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu. Inductees will be announced Oct. 9.
I asked Sapolu if he had to make sure the selection committee was evenly divided by Tongans and Samoans to prevent stuffing of the ballot box. We laughed. He replied, “Of course.”
Sapolu pointed out that great players from New Zealand and Hawaii will also be represented.
I like it.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].