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Postcard from Hawaii: The American Samoa Dream

KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- Think about it: In the last five years, 15 percent of boys playing football for the Samoa Island's six high schools have earned football scholarships from American universities, according to a recent Washington Post report.

Now think about this: It has been estimated that a Samoan boy is 40 times more likely to reach the NFL than a boy growing up in the United States.

And this: There are an estimated half million Samoans in the world, and more than 200 play Division I college football.

And this: Very few of those 200 played organized football before high school.

But all of that is about to change in a big way. On Friday, in between NFC and AFC team photo shoots at the Pro Bowl, USA Football and American Samoa announced the establishment of the island's first youth tackle football league and the creation of an American Samoa Federation of American Football, enabling the island to field "national" teams for international competition.

What does all of that mean? A lot more Samoan influence in college football and eventually the NFL.

"Back home, there's raw talent," said Meki Solomana, president of the American Samoa Federation of American Football who made the 2,300-mile trip from the 54-square-mile volcanic island in the South Pacific for the announcement. "We do not have the facilities that you have here. We do not have the great weight rooms. And we don't have the setup of programs from the elementary level to the junior high. They start in high school. These kids are just raw talent."

And while he was surrounded by the NFL's greatest talent, Solomana made it clear his goal for the new program is not about the NFL. His goal is much more simple than that.

"I want more and more of our young kids to be able to further their education through scholarships," he said. "I want them to become good citizens. We're not looking at football as a way to get out of the country. We're looking at football as a way to get an education.

"That's the American Dream -- the American Samoa Dream."

USA Football, the sport's national governing body on youth and amateur levels, has promised to provide shoes, uniforms and helmets for 240 kids in an eight-team league, as well as coaching and officiating resources. "A good start," said Solomana, "but so much more is needed."

There were four native-born American Samoans on opening-day rosters in the NFL this season: Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko, Bengals defensive end Jonathan Fanene, Dolphins defensive tackle Pail Soliai, and 49ers defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga. Other players of American Samoan descent currently in the NFL include Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupa, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, and Jets quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo.

"This is an island and a culture that breeds incredibly good football players," said Scott Hallenbeck, USA Football executive director, pointing out that the only other country with more players in the NFL is Canada, with 15. "And if we can help the sport grow and develop (in American Samoa), very likely we'll see that number increase considerably."

Tatupa, in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, started playing football when he was 7 years old, in Pop Warner. He was born in Southern California, grew up in Massachusetts and attended USC, but he knows of the stories of his father's native land, and marvels at the accomplishments of the American Samoa kids who were able to play on the college level despite the lack of playing experience.

"If I had to walk into high school and play, I don't think I'd be playing football today," said Tatupa, whose father, Mosi Tatupu, was an American Samaon pioneer who played 15 years in the NFL. "Those kids over there are so deserving of a shot, an opportunity."

Now they'll get one.

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