Exclusive with Author Rob Ruck on his new book, The Tropic of Football: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans to the NFL

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First, let me know what drove you to this topic Rob.

Well, I finished a couple of books in 2010 and 2011 – a co-written biography of Dan Roooney and Raceball, about players and race in baseball. I needed a new book project – for me it was like not being able to run. Something was missing.

I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I’ve always been fascinated by micro-cultures in sports – ones that produce a disproportionate number of athletes. Like runners from Kenya, football players from Brazil… I knew there were a number of Polynesian players in the NFL and of course being from Pittsburgh I was always entranced by Troy Polamalu. His athleticism and intellectual approach to the game. And his wonderful demeanor off the field.I got a grant to travel to American Samoa in 2011. There are a number of small islands – the biggest is only nineteen miles long, this volcanic island that shoots out of the sea. Only 90,000 people live there. I got there late July  – it was twenty-four hour, three flight trip. Driving into town from the hotel I saw kids jogging with t-shirts and shorts, carrying football helmets. It struck me then that it was just like the Dominican Republic – just football instead of baseball. But then a week later it dawned on me that it wasn’t really like it at all. Even though the Samoas were an American territory, it has never been conquered. Families have lived on the same land for over three-thousand years. None have ever been enslaved. They were led by Matai’s – Samoan chiefs and lived by a code of Fa’a Samoa – a way of living that places a real premium on respect for elders and leaders. And an emphasis on religion. In fact, there are more Samoans per capita in the military than any other group in the United States.

I’ve spoken to a number of players from Samoa and they talk about that “Warrior Way” and how it’s helped them in the NFL…

It was a culture I’ve never seen before. So yes, I was interested in how they got to be so good. What I didn’t understand was that a lot of Samoans live in Hawaii and California now – most live in the states. There are over one million Samoans and just one-quarter live in the American territory. I counted about fifty Samoans in the NFL last year – three percent of NFL players. That means they are 38-40% over-represented in the NFL.

Part of it too – with any sport, especially football – is that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are always over-represented. The biggest difference is that Samoan boys grow up with incredible discipline. You do not talk back in the Samoan communities. You don’t talk back to parents, teachers…reverends and coaches…. They are held in the highest respect. Coaches love them because they are the quintessential team players. In the 60’s a journalist once called the Samoan culture the perfect form of Communism – and meant that in the best way. They grow up in extended families, highly religious often with family in the military. They are the perfect teammates and the center of many locker rooms.

But this culture can have it’s drawbacks as well…

I think football locker rooms are the closest fraternity of all sports, and their self-definition as warriors fits in with that. They are often stoic about pain which I fear will lead into a health crisis for their community. Especially with neurological damage from starting preparing for the season in January for an August date with sub-standard helmets and fields that have chunks of volcanic rock on them.

Does that “Warrior mindset” also cause some issues with how they are perceived by coaches/front office people? Like Black quarterbacks who were moved to other positions due to stereotypes and prejudice, do Polynesian players have that same issue and risk?

That’s a good point. A lot play skill positions in Samoa but are shifted to offensive or defensive line positions in college. Even if they played quarterback or tight end. They often have great footwork – they wear flip flops everywhere and traditional dances require great footwork. So they are nimble and agile, even when they go from 215 to 315 pounds.

It is changing though. Now, most Polynesian players are not from the territories. They are from Samoan communities in Hawaii or California. Many move as kids to the states to live with families there and to get a better education and to play sports. One of the most prominent is Marcus Mariota who grew up in Hawaii and played for one of the greatest high school coaches.

Did you get a chance to see/speak with many of the players?

I talked to many players that played in the NFL across my four different trips to Samoa. I spent several weeks there on each trip and on one of those trips attended Troy Polamalu’s football camp. That was a great example of Samoan athletes giving back.

Polamalu grew up in California and Oregon – that was just his second time going to Samoa but even so he made a commitment to Samoa and brought players and coaches to the camp. He also funds a volleyball camp, computer camp, and health initiatives.

We spoke before of the risks of the Polynesian culture. Another is the fact that Polynesians, despite many being great athletes, are at the top of the global charts in obesity and diabetes. It’s a paradox, much like how African Americans put out a disproportionate number of athletes but their health rates versus the average is terrible.

Give me an example of some of the guys you spoke with that really impressed you or affected how you view their impact on the sport.

Of all the work I’ve done over my career, three people impressed me the most. Moise’s Alou, Dan Rooney, and the third, Jesse Sapolu. Jesse won four Super Bowls with San Francisco. He was born in Independent Samoa and moved as a kid to California and Hawaii. He went to the University of Hawaii and had a great career there and now spends so much time on Samoa returning and giving back. He was one of the founders of the Polynesian Hall of Fame. Also, when ESPN did a documentary of Polynesian players years ago, Jesse was invited to attend by the High Chief. During the Cava Ceremony they held at the time he was offered a Matai and although he was worried about the responsibility, accepted it. it would have been a great insult if he didn’t. He’s spent years working to improve the conditions of the Samoan community. For Jesse it wasn’t about the limelight. It was about giving back and living life the way it should be lived. The righteous way. When he was playing he had heart issues and had heart surgery, and he came back and played again. I am incredibly impressed by him.

Tell me more about the Polamalu camp experience…what stood out most for you about that?

It was interesting who came to the camp. Ryan Clark came with his son who is now a big college prospect. You could just see the respect for Troy. The highest praise everyone gave was how humble he was. I didn’t see this personally but heard many talk about his trip to the tuna cannery, which is the major factory there employing mostly women who cut up the tuna for then Starkist.

They held a service at the cannery and stopped production and Troy broke down crying when he started to speak. They have a fourteen-foot high wooden statue of a tuna in front of the cannery that they remade for Troy, with his long hair and fins for feet and a Steeler jersey on.

Any other thoughts before I let you go? And tell us how we can get the book!

One other person to shout out too is Coach Suaese “Pooch” Ta`ase. He is a high school coach on Samoa – a small high school at the far end of the island.  It’s a village life there – no shops or movies… They live as close to the land as you can get. Pooch made his kids into the top high school football team on the island, beating the bigger schools with more and bigger kids.

He and his brother were sent from the island when they were kids to San Jose to get a better education, but  he ended up instead in the Sons of Samoa gang, selling crack. He was sent to a boys camp and went back to Samoa and remade his life. Now I think he’s the vice president of the high school. It’s just a great case scenario of how people can use sports to grow and develop.

To Purchase Rob’s book, click here:

 

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