American Samoa sits in the South Pacific, a group of small islands six hours’ flight from Hawai’i. Yet it’s a place that even football fans who aren’t versed in geography know well: A disproportionate number of college and pro stars trace their origins to this culturally unique U.S. territory, including retired Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu.
University of Pittsburgh history professor Rob Ruck tells the story of Samoa and its surprising relationship to the sport in his new book, Tropic of Football: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans to the NFL (The New Press).
Ruck specializes in studying what he calls “microcultures of sporting excellence.” He’s also written books about African-American sporting culture in Pittsburgh (with a focus on baseball’s Negro Leagues) and on baseball in the Dominican Republic. Like the latter, football in Samoa is an instance of an American sport taking hold in an isolated and economically poor but culturally rich society.
Tropic of Football is stocked with the stories of individual coaches and athletes spanning decades. But Ruck is careful to provide historical context.
Samoa is situated amid a group of islands populated by ethnically Polynesian people, and until World War II it was virtually devoid of outside influence. One big exception was the imported British sport of cricket, which Samoans made their own, forming teams out of whole villages that played festival-style matches that went on for days. (The islands’ most famous non-native resident remains Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish author of Treasure Island who lived his final days there in the late 19th century.)
Samoans lived a subsistence lifestyle based on fishing and farming. U.S. military presence during World War II introduced a wage economy, changing life there forever. Yet even today, Ruck said, traditional culture remains surprisingly strong.
“People there live in villages, for the most part on land that's communally owned by their extended family that might have been in the family for 3,000 years and can't be sold, and they live in a culture that is more intact than any culture I've ever experienced, with what they call fa’a samoa, ‘in the way of Samoa,’” said Ruck, who logged considerable time on the islands while researching the book.
Ironically, it is fa’a samoa that helped make football seem a natural fit. Samoan culture is very hierarchical, said Ruck, and prizes competitiveness, teamwork, humility and respect for elders. It’s a highly physical society, where kids take easily to running into each other – hard – and don’t complain about pain, even when their shins are torn up by the chunks of volcanic rock that dot Samoan playing fields.
“There's a warrior ethos that you do everything for your village and your family and for your team, and you add the fact that this is a culture with a lot of military discipline,” said Ruck. “These kids, as one man once described to me, are quintessential teammates. Whatever the coach tells them to do, they do.”
Football caught on in Hawai’i starting in the 1940s, and in Samoa in the 1960s – after a Reader’s Digest article branded Samoa “America’s Shame in the South Pacific” and the U.S. started building high schools there. Still, football grew largely from the grassroots.
“You get a rudimentary version of the game that’s being played in the States,” said Ruck. “The coaches are men who learn about the game by reading about it. The kids might play barefoot. They exchange helmets. They might share a pair of shoes, even mouth-guards.”
Samoans made their way to mainland collegiate squads; Ruck writes that there were 13 Samoans in the NFL in the 1970s. But the number’s only grown, with prominent players including Jesse Sapolu, an offensive lineman who earned four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers, and Junior Seau, the Hall of Fame linebacker.
Seau committed suicide in 2012, at age 43, and after his death it was learned that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition common among longtime football players that researchers trace to repeated blows to the head. Ruck uses Seau’s story to illuminate the risks that young players are willing to face for a chance at a pro contract.
But the inducements go beyond the financial, Ruck said. Sports, and football in particular, has become a part of Samoan identity.
“I think that Samoans have grasped sport as a way to tell their story to the world. There are only about a million people of Samoan origins on the planet,” he noted. “And, you know, as many people told me on the island or in these communities, that name on the back of your jerseys not just your name, it is your extended family, the hundreds of Polamalus and Pomeles and Seaus and Tuiasosopos. You're representing them, your village, your church. There's a lot of pressure on [the players], and I think that's why they acquit themselves so well and in such a disciplined manner on the playing field.”
Polamalu’s story helps illustrate the Samoan diaspora: Though his parents were born in Samoa, Polamalu himself was born in the U.S. and raised in California and Oregon by his extended family. Yet the cultural ties are such that Ruck builds Tropic of Football in part around a 2013 visit by Polamalu and other successful pros to Samoa to run a football camp for kids – just one of the many ways athletes of Samoan descent help out the island they consider “home” whether they were born there or not.
“There's a good deal of give-back to the community.” Ruck said. “People don't forget where they're coming from, and they don't forget who made it possible for them to make it to college to make it to the NFL. So a lot give back, whether it's Domata Peko or Jonathan Fanene or Jesse Sapolu ... They see that as their responsibility. You know, Troy Polamalu grew up in California and Oregon, not in American Samoa, but he feels responsibility, and he's done, I think, four camps. He's going back this summer. And not for football or sport but for health and literacy and computing.”
But for all its appreciation of the fun of football, and the pride Samoans take in their achievements, Ruck doesn’t overlook the sport’s dark side. Another focus of Ruck’s writing on sport has been the exploitation of young athletes from low-income communities or societies – a dynamic prevalent in baseball in the Dominican Republic, and increasingly in Samoa.
“I think wherever you go around the world today and you look at sport you find that more and more kids are being made into commodities, often disposable commodities, and the relentless effort to find kids who can become professionals, as not only bastardized the notion of play, but its often had a pretty bad physical and neurological impact on these kids,” he said. “So the downside of these microcultures of sporting excellence is that talented youth end up overtraining at a younger and younger age.”
Ruck gives a free talk on Tropic of Football at 6 p.m. Thu., July 26, at the Carnegie Library, in Oakland. The event is part of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Made Local series.