In Utah Valley, most Polynesians love football.
Drop by just about any local high school football practice and you’ll find descendents of Hawaiians, Tongans, Samoans and other Pacific islanders showing their skills on the field. That’s just part of the larger picture as Polynesians are now excelling at every level of the game.
“I don’t know if there has been anything that has had a greater impact in the last 20 years than the introduction of Polynesian athletes,” said former BYU head football coach LaVell Edwards. “There are many in the NFL and more in college who are having a great impact. They’re very special when it comes to football.”
Now those who trace their ancestry to the Pacific islands and love football will have a monument of their own to commemorate those who have come before.
A group of former players and coaches — including former Cougars Vai Sikahema and Reno Mahe, and ex-NFL stars Jesse Sapolu and Ma’a Tanuvasa — announced the establishment of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame to honor the legacy of Polynesian players and coaches.
“I’m just grateful to be around great guys like these, to be a part of something as special as this is,” Mahe said. “We’re getting the love we deserve on how Polynesian player have affected the game, but this gives them that much more. It’s been a fun deal to be a part of.”
The Polynesian Hall of Fame will announce its first induction class in October, then have the induction ceremony on January 23, 2014 (prior to the NFL Pro Bowl).
It will be established in Hawaii although a specific location has yet to be finalized. Tanuvasa said it could be built at or near the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Sapolu, who was born in Samoa and went on won four Super Bowls during his 15 years (1983-97) as an offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, said the idea of creating a hall of fame to recognize the football successes of Polynesians was something he’d thought about for the past four or five years.
“This is the right time for us,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “With the number of players in the NFL and in college, plus we have a lot of assistant coaches and one head coach, this will be a platform where we can honor the great ones who came before us.”
Tanuvasa, an ex-pro defensive lineman who played for the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers and won two Super Bowls, said establishing this hall of fame is “almost a dream come true.”
“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “People are pumped up about it and it’s really a great time.”
Edwards will join former Utah coach Ron McBride and other notable coaches as part of the selection committee.
“I thought this was a real honor when I was asked to be a part of it,” Edwards said. “It’s a big honor but also a big responsibility. The first class will be seven individuals I believe, and I don’t know how we’re going to settle it down to that.”
The Hall of Fame coach was one of those who recognized the potential of Polynesian athletes early on.
“The first thing I realized, particularly with the linemen, was that they were extremely quick,” Edwards recalled. “I don’t know if they were born with it or it was developed in the games they played growing up. Toughness is also part of their culture and it didn’t take long to realize this was a gold mine.”
Sapolu said coaches like Edwards gave Polynesian athletes opportunities through football that they might not have otherwise had.
“Edwards had a humongous impact,” Sapulo said. “One of the things about the Hall of Fame is we can recognize those who helped Polynesians play college football. They helped them get an education and helped raise them as men.”
Mahe believes BYU fans should be particularly proud of the part the Cougar program played in enhancing football among Polynesians.
“If you go back, you’ll see that BYU was the mecca for the great Polynesian players,” Mahe said. “You had a few other that went other places but for the most part if you were a big-time athletes and a strong member, you went to BYU. The first Tongan in NFL came from BYU in Vai Sikahema. From a BYU perspective, you are a grateful for an avenue to not only play sports but to go to school. You’re grateful for all those guys who kept the pipeline going.”
Sapolu explained that in the culture of the Pacific islands, family is tremendously important. Since a football team becomes a family, many Polynesians found themselves at home.
“You have a high chief in that culture who, in football, is the head coach,” he said. “The unselfishness of being on a team is very natural to us.”
Edwards said he noticed the family aspect very early on as he had Polynesian football players on his Cougar teams.
“We’ve joked that someone can walk through one of their houses and become an uncle or an aunt,” the BYU legend said. “They are very family-oriented. They all come out to games and are a part of it. They like to see others succeed and they have fun doing it. They’ll always have a ready smile or a funny comment. They would be out there playing hard but having a good time.”
Sapolu said the success of Polynesian players has made it possible for them to create their own specific Hall of Fame, but one of his goals is to make sure later generations don’t lose sight of their roots.
“I’d like to see this generation learn the history of the players who started playing football in the 1950s and 60s,” he said. “It needs to be preserved. We need to preserve our identity and our beliefs. It’s about family and respect.”
Tanuvasa said he thinks the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame will be a place all Polynesians can call their own.
“I grew up knowing some of the Polynesian football history but now I’m learning more,” he said. “These are the guys that we look up to. You go into villages in Samoa and Tonga and they have pictures of Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu. Football became a way for people to get an education and help their families.”
Tanuvasa said that when January comes and they get to the first induction ceremony, it’s going to be “like having your first child.”
“I can’t wait to meet the guys I have heard about and to be able to thank them for paving the way for us,” he said.
According to the official press release, the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame “will serve as a resource for Polynesian Football history, provide college scholarships designated for student-athletes of Polynesian ancestry, educational programs focusing on character and teamwork for Polynesian youth and support other initiatives positively impacting Polynesian culture and heritage.”
To learn more, go to www.PolynesianFootballHOF.org.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.