story by Liza Simon
photos by Monte Costa
Pago Pago just before dawn. I follow a rutted road past the malodorous tuna cannery that dominates the harbor, then take a welcome cutoff and am suddenly surrounded by jungle-clad mountains. Samoa is full of such incongruities, including the one that has brought me here: This tiny South Pacific territory is 10,000 miles from the nearest sports coliseum, has a population of some 65,000 and yet is home to dozens of players in the National Football League. I am here on a football-driven odyssey, traveling village-to-village in search of an explanation for this phenomenon—and for the ultimate insider’s view on Samoa’s gridiron sons.
Around a hairpin curve, I see an expanse of iridescent blue, and before long I am driving along the shorefront road of the village of Afono. In the light of sunrise, men are at work with wheelbarrows and buckets, filling in potholes made by last night’s rainstorm. Each is a portrait of strength and synchronicity honed not in a gym but in a ceaseless give-and-take with nature. I stop and mention football. An older man thinks this is cause for laughter with the fellow standing next to him. They tell me that cricket is their game. “Come from work, grab your bat, your lavalava and go play,” one says—and by the way, did I know that Afono finished well in last year’s village league play?
Our sports chat catches the ear of a young bystander, who wants to know if I would like to speak with the faife‘au, the reverend. As we pad wordlessly to the church, I am guessing this is a matter of protocol in a village world bounded by no less than four churches. Soon I am face-to-face with Reverend Albert Toea‘ina and his wife Ramona. Surprise of surprises—or maybe not—the Toea‘inas tell me that their son Matt was a seventh-round draft pick for the Cincinnati Bengals this year and is now off at a rookie training camp. The handsome, hospitable parents are happy for their son and even happier that he will be donning the red-and-orange Bengals jersey with several other island boys. “They are showing the world that this small place is a gold mine of talent,” says Ramona. “But the boys also have their part to do. They know they are the stepping stones for others to follow.”
Later in the day, different village, same experience: I meet David Fanene, who wears College Bowl victory rings on his large knuckles—gifts from his son Jonathan Fanene, a three-year veteran of the Cincinnati Bengals. The senior Fanene has an all-embracing presence and he invites his wife Anna to tell Jonathan’s story. She echoes much of what I have just heard from Albert and Ramona, giving credit to the Lord for gifting their son with his skill and—even better—his humility. David, once a professional wrestler, reminisces about his own sporting days. “We used to carry coconuts on the backs of our necks, not like kids these days who can go to the store and buy palagi [foreigners’] food in a package,” he laughs. He has yet to see his son in action on the NFL field, for he and Anna are busy with Jonathan’s eleven siblings. “Football is temporary,” David says. “In Samoa, family is forever.”