Offensive lineman Conan Amituanai is one of the current Wildcats with Polynesian ties. His uncle is UA defensive coordinator Mike Tuiasosopo/2007 Tucson Citizen photo
The Arizona football team, building on its tradition of recruiting American Samoa and players of Polynesian heritage, has added defensive tackle Aiulua Fanene to its recruiting class.
Fanene, the brother of defensive end Jonathan Fanene of the Cincinnati Bengals, is from Tafuna High School on the island and was part of a recent “60 Minutes” feature on football in Samoa. You can watch it here. I’d recommend watching the whole thing if you haven’t seen it, but the part with Fanene begins at about the 6:12 mark.
Fanene was recruited by UA defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo, who has known the family since he recruited Jonathan to Utah.
In a 2006 story in the Tucson Citizen, Tuiasosopo talked about Arizona’s connection to the island.
“Others claim they have been there, but if anybody has a history, or can make that claim it is Arizona,” said Tuiasosopo, who was born in Samoa and has a nearly endless list of relatives who have played football in the United States.
“Utah and BYU can make a claim they have been involved because of their Mormon influence, but Washington and Oregon, I get a tickle out of that. They can say that now, but trust me, Arizona has a history.”
Former Arizona coach Dick Tomey, who had previously been the head coach at Hawaii, was, “instrumental in building the Samoan pipeline,” as described in a 2003 Sports Illustrated story titled “Football in Paradise.” And not just the pipeline to Arizona — the prolific pipeline from Samoa to colleges to the NFL.
The magazine wrote that Tomey had more than 120 Samoan players on his rosters at Hawaii and Arizona, spanning 24 years.
“There are no athletes that are, in my estimation, more competitive, more athletic or more family-oriented, or who fit into a team concept as well as Samoan athletes,” Tomey told SI. “The more we could get on our team, the better I felt.”
The Wildcats have sent at least a dozen players of Polynesian ties to the NFL: DL Stan Mataele, OL Mu Tagoai, OL Pulu Poumele, OT Edwin Mulitalo, TE Brandon Manumaleuna, DE Van Tuinei, OL Makoa Freitas, OL Makai Freitas, OL Steven Grace, OL Kili Lefotu, OL Manu Savea and DT Joe Salave’a.
The long list of Polynesian players at Arizona includes quarterbacks George Malauulu and Willie Tuitama. Malauulu is the president of the AIGA Foundation, which, according to its blog, seeks to “bring exposure to Pacific Islander football players excelling at the high school, collegiate and professional level.”
Many of the current and former Arizona players with Polynesian ties come from Hawaii or the West Coast, but some have come directly from American Samoa, including Savea and the late Young Thompson.
Salave’a, who was born in Samoa and grew up there, lost several family members in last September’s devastating tsunami and has been active in relief efforts through his foundation.
In another good story on the subject, this one a 2000 story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer written by Ted Miller, now of ESPN.com, then-UA defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson was quoted about the values of the Samoan culture.
“Their physical profile is outstanding for the game,” Ellerson said, “but I think the cultural profile — the family values, the idea of sacrifice, taking pride in your performance, the importance of toughness — that’s also important. Their chances of success are impacted by how close they are to their culture.”
Family values, sacrifice, pride and toughness: In the 60 Minutes profile, Aiulua Fanene was said to “do a day’s work before school under the direction of his father, David.”
Fanene will see plenty of friendly faces when he arrives in Tucson, and he won’t be fazed by the rigors of coach Mike Stoops‘ fall camp.