Through our film, we follow these young players as they, like my uncle and so many before them, negotiate numerous pressures and influences — from family to religion to society — all while striving to preserve their traditions and ultimately create a better life. —Tony Vainuku, the film’s director
If there is one movie at the Sundance Film Festival that will catch local interest it is almost certain to be “In Football We Trust,” which premiered this weekend after nearly five years in the making. It was made by a pair of Utahns, filmed entirely in Utah, and tracks the lives of four Utah Polynesians for four years as they navigate life and football through high school and beyond.
That such an undertaking would occur in Utah is no surprise. It is home to a large population of Polynesians, and their foray into football has been unfolding right under our noses for about three decades. But this is more than a football film; it’s the story of a group of people who place unrealistic hopes for a better future on their kids’ football fortunes, with predictable results. Where have we heard that before?
Tony Vainuku, the film’s director (the first Tongan director in Sundance history), has had a front-row seat to the Polynesian football dream. He attended Highland High and grew up a block away from where his movie is playing. He witnessed the family pressures put on his uncle, Joe Katoa, an all-state football player who, once he lost football, turned to crime. Katoa, who was released from prison a few months ago and planned to attend the premiere, was Vainuku’s impetus for the movie project.
“Through our film,” says Vainuku, “we follow these young players as they, like my uncle and so many before them, negotiate numerous pressures and influences — from family to religion to society — all while striving to preserve their traditions and ultimately create a better life.”
According to the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, nearly 60 Polynesians played in the National Football League in 2014. CBS’s “60 Minutes” reported there were 200 Polynesians playing Division I college football, and that was two years ago. Such numbers are a remarkable statistical anomaly considering the population of Tonga, Samoa and America Samoa — the primary source of such players even if they weren’t born there — totals only about 350,000. According to the film, Polynesians are 28 times more likely than any other ethnic group to play in the NFL.
Through some mix of genetic soup, Polynesians are big, big-boned, fast, aggressive, physical, and possessed of an unusual combination of size and agility. Haloti Ngata, a star nose tackle for the Baltimore Ravens who was raised in Utah, is the prototype: 6 foot 4, 340 pounds, and able to run 40 yards in less than five seconds.
All of which is good news and bad news for Polynesians. Many of them have found fame and fortune on the gridiron, but many more have not. That would be fine except many of the players and their families bet everything on an NFL paycheck and have no fallback plan. As the film illustrates, parents put immense pressure on their sons to excel at football and little else. Football isn’t the means to an end, such as an education; it is the means to itself, and ironically it costs them an opportunity for the better lives they are seeking.
“The success we’ve had in football also hurts us because so many families push their kids to go to the NFL at the expense of everything else,” says Vai Sikahema, one of four former or current Polynesian NFL players interviewed in the movie (along with Troy Polamalu, Star Lotulelei and Ngata). “Polynesians are all related somehow, and so when they see Haloti at social gatherings or they see cousins who play D-I football, they feel this connection and it makes them feel that much closer to being in the NFL. But in reality, it’s still a pipe dream.”
The movie struck especially close to home for Sikahema. His parents left their Tonga home and moved their family to the United States so that young Vai — only 8 years old at the time — could pursue a boxing career that would lift the family out of poverty. It placed immense pressure on the boy, who was reminded daily of his role and the family needs simply by their living conditions. They lived in a garage in the sweltering heat of Arizona while Vai, under his father’s constant guidance, trained for boxing. Eventually, he found success on the football field and after playing for BYU he became the first Tongan to play in the NFL.
After watching the film, Sikahema says, “It was hard to see the enormous pressure placed on these young men to carry their families forward financially by playing football. One mother tells her son, ‘You are our salvation.’ I don’t think the mother realized the power of that word. My father raised me that way. I was going to be the breadwinner through boxing. I carried that burden and to some extent still do. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. My heart bleeds for these kids. It was hard to watch something you’ve lived, understanding the pitfalls they don’t see. They are blinded to areas they don’t see that are coming.”
Sikahema describes pressures that begin as early as Little League football. Polynesian boys are expected to excel and dominate at the game, and when they come home at night, parents and siblings lecture them about how to improve as football players.
“When they talk about education, it’s in the context of getting a football scholarship,” says Sikahema. “You don’t hear much said about what they’re going to major in or what they are going to do outside of football.”
The movie tells the story through the lives of four Utah football players:
The second of nine children who starred for Bingham High, Langi was recruited by many colleges. He chose Utah, then transferred to BYU after serving an LDS Church mission.
Leva and Vita Bloomfield
According to the film’s press release, the Bloomfield brothers, who played for Hunter High, “are struggling to live up to the legacy of their father, a former BYU running back, who also founded the first Polynesian gang in Utah. Despite efforts to disaffiliate, the original family ties make it nearly impossible for the brothers to stay away from gang life.”
Kaufusi is seen living with an aunt, sharing her two-bedroom apartment with eight other children while attending Highland High. He is a talented player, but a knee injury spooks college recruiters, and he must decide between continuing to pursue football or serve a church mission.
Vainuku and producer/co-director Erika Cohn (a Skyline High graduate) filmed the four boys daily in the style of cinema verite. They were the proverbial flies on the wall as the young men and their families went about their daily lives. Even when Cohn and Vainuku were not filming, they left cameras for the subjects to document their lives as they saw fit.
The result was a whopping 600 hours of video that had to be edited to 90 minutes while following four storylines. Not surprisingly, post-production required three editors and 1½ years to complete.
“It was hard to know when to stop,” says Cohn. “When does the story end? They had made their way into college. We were shooting all the way through post-production in 2013.”
Cohn describes feeling awestruck when she saw the finished product. She believes it delivers a powerful message. “It really highlights how our country is obsessed with chasing the American dream,” she says. “It’s all about making it to the top and the obsession with that. It’s putting all your eggs in one basket and not living in the present. Often it can leave people entrenched in the very conditions they are striving to overcome.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]