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Everest Matagi
Utah's six players and three coaches participating in the 2019 Polynesian Bowl, an all-star game that celebrates Polynesian culture.

OREM – On paper, it was just another all-star game.

But for players like Puka Nacua, it’s much more than simply another opportunity to play football on a national stage.

The Polynesian Bowl is a chance to celebrate his culture and its connection to the game he loves.

“The biggest difference is just the feel of the culture, the love,” said Nacua after earning Offensive MVP honors for leading Team Makai over Team Mauka 27-7. “The feel of being out there was different, not necessarily more relaxed, but more friendly, just being around all of the Polynesian boys and Polynesian coaches.”

In addition to Orem High’s Nacua, Bingham’s Simote Pepa, Junior Tafuna and Lolani Langi, East’s Siaki “Apu” Ika and Skyridge’s Logan Sagapolutele participated in the game. There were also three coaches who participated, including Everest Matagi, Alema Te’o and Jeff Kaufusi, all from Alta.

Te’o, who is on the bowl committee, said the three-year-old game allows them to showcase the country’s best talent while celebrating their Polynesian heritage with football fans.

" It’s a great opportunity to celebrate what football means to our culture. We get to share that with the non-Polynesian players and the fans. "
Alema Te’o

“It’s a great opportunity to celebrate what football means to our culture,” he said. “We get to share that with the non-Polynesian players and the fans.”

When the teens arrive, organizers teach them a special Haka (traditional dance) that welcomes them to a unique football experience. The players visit the Polynesian Cultural Center, where visitors are educated about the many different Polynesian cultures, as well as Pearl Harbor.

“The players really develop a brotherhood while they are here,” said Te’o. “If you talk to any of the non-Polynesian (players), it’s by far their best experience. They love it. They love being there, and they love the family atmosphere.”

That, Nacua said, is one of the biggest differences between the Polynesian Bowl and other elite or all-star competitions.

“Everybody was out there calling each other aunties and cousins,” Nacua said. “Everybody is feeling the brotherhood.”

The atmosphere makes creating team bonds very easy, he said. “Some of those kids I’ve never met before,” he said. “But we're put on the same football team, and we’re able to become one.”

Te’o said the Polynesian culture has a unique relationship with the game of football that is becoming more valued at all levels of football.

“Polynesians are built for football because of our size and stature, and really just the way we are raised,” Te’o said. “Polynesian players are great outside of football, but they’re great teammates, great in a locker room, respectful of elders, and this allows us to share and celebrate the best parts of our culture.”

The players meet the Polynesian players who paved the way for them to become an integral part of the game.

Among this year’s returning stars was Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

“He talked about how he’s not just representing himself,” Te’o said. “He represents our culture. When we have that opportunity in the spotlight, we know it’s more than just us.”

He said all of the players understand they play for more than themselves when they take the field.

“These kids are told as they come up that they represent their culture, their family, the place you come from, and they’ve got to stand tall,” Te’o said.

Nacua said it’s that cultural connection that almost instantly bonds them. The beauty, however, is that it also includes non-Polynesian players who participate in the bowl game.

Nacua’s experience was about more than football, but he made an interesting Utah-related connection during the game. Nacua, who had six receptions for 93 yards, caught a spectacular touchdown pass from Arizona quarterback Jacob Conover.

Conover is committed to BYU, one of the schools that recruited Nacua, who committed to USC several months ago. Nacua’s older brother Kai played defense at BYU, while his other brother, Samson, plays wide receiver for Utah.

Nacua said part of the magic is that his non-Polynesian football friends get to experience his culture firsthand.

“They get to feel the love, to interact and have fun, and for kids who don’t know the Polynesian culture, they get to feel what it’s like,” Nacua said. “Faith, family and football, that’s a widely-known thing about us.”

While Polynesian players are now common at all levels of the game, they were once a rarity. But Nacua said the game’s requirements and lessons mirror what his culture emphasizes.

“Love, discipline and respect,” he said of what his culture shares with the game of football. “It’s a chance to love the game, to be disciplined, to be a brotherhood of teammates.”

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Te’o said bowl organizers try to combine history, culture and sports in a unique week-long experience.

“We took them out of school for a week, but there were life-long lessons these guys were able to experience,” he said, adding that in addition to trips to the beach, they also spent time with children from Shriners Hospital. “They put a smile on the kids’ faces.”

Te’o said on and off the field, Utah’s players stood out.

“Our kids performed outstanding,” he said. “I was proud of all of our boys.”