Inside Football Island: How Samoa Is Breeding The World’s Best Football Stars
Deep down in the heart of the South Pacific -- about 5,000 miles off the coast of California and another 2,500 miles away from Hawaii -- lies a remote island country that prides itself on three simple things: family, tradition and football.
American Samoa, or "Football Island," as its known to some outsiders, is a place where there aren't many opportunities in life. But a simple game that many of us take for granted here in the States serves as a beacon of hope.
That's because Samoa produces more players in the NFL than anywhere else in the world.
For a country that stretches only 19 miles across and has a population of 65,000 people, there are over 30 current players in the National Football League and another 200 plus athletes playing in division one college who are of Samoan descent.
Imagine 30 current NFL players coming out of any other town in America? No city in the US even comes close.
While the island has been considered US territory since 1899, it isn't under the same laws and jurisdiction nor is it a priority, which would explain why two-thirds of the country's population is below the poverty level.
To put things into perspective, the average yearly income for a tuna cannery worker in Samoa -- the most popular profession and the country's main source of economy -- is a little over $4,000 a year.
Having a son or brother who earns hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in the NFL would change any family's situation in ways many of us wouldn't even understand.
Still, these are proud people who live off the land and couldn't care less about all this technology growing around them. Instead, they preach old school values like discipline, humility and hitting the sh*t out of each other once the pads go on.
During his first time pilgrimage to Samoa, Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu learned about the culture firsthand in Pago Pago, the area where his parents grew up before moving to southern California. What he discovered was a community extremely raw with talent but blessed with a measureless amount of love and potential.
"They play football harder than we've ever seen" Polamalu said about the high school prospects in Samoa. "The IQ level wasn't where it should be, but had they had the football IQ to coincide with their passion, you would have the ultimate football player."
Playing with some of the most dilapidated equipment that would never meet safety standards in the US and on fields that we'd hardly consider fields -- not to mention without any locker rooms or weight rooms -- Samoan athletes don't let anything stop them from competing and playing for pride.
The traditional Haka dance is a popular way for players to channel their inner warriors and call up to their ancestors to give them strength before and after games. Plus, it's just awesome to watch.
What's most interesting about the football culture in Samoa, however, is that youth football wasn't initiated until 2011, when the NFL and USA Football decided to begin extending the game to the younger generations.
That means before 2011, nobody in Samoa played any kind of organized football up until high school, which is scary considering how quickly they're able to pick it up.
Clearly the league realizes the massive potential these kids have and feel that with more development, training and and guidance, the small island country can become an even better pipeline for talent than what it is today.
According to Scott Pelley's 60 Minutes report on football in Samoa, a boy born to Samoan parents is 56 times more likely to make it in the NFL than any other kid in America. A lot of that has to do with pure instincts they develop from living in such a rural environment, but even more has to do with fact that with the fact that these islanders are born massive.
Most Samoan players in the NFL are easy to point out on Sundays, typically with long flowing manes and traditional pa'e tattoos draped all over their arms. But what makes theme even more recognizable is their natural ability to play purely with instincts, often times overpowering opponents with impressive strength and nimble feet.
However, what really separates Samoan football players from all other athletes in the world is one thing and one thing only: passion. The way they play the game with so much aggression and tenacity compared to who they are once the whistle's blown says everything we need to know.
They're gentle people who respect each other as brothers, often times even taking to the field hand-in-hand with their opponents, and play as a community to build each other up rather than to tear each other down.
What the game means to them is much more than just the chance to play in the NFL or making a fancy salary and being able to provide for their families. It's the opportunity to put their God-given talents on display and compete for their brothers.
With all of the recent exposure, and more and more scouts discovering about these hidden gems, we can expect even more talent to start pouring out of the pacific islands. With the proper funding and care, this entire country could begin to benefit with even more of their kids leaving to the mainland to get an education and expand their horizons where they'll get a chance to take care of their families back home.
When your only options in life are to join the US military, can tuna or play football, which would you choose?
Top Photo Courtesy: Troy 43