By Angela Greco
The growing influx of Pacific Islanders finding representation in sports does not come as a surprise for those who share the culture, but it is still a prideful thrill nonetheless. This belief is reflected in a joke told among those of Samoan heritage: Their biggest exports are tuna, military troops, and football players.
For most Pacific Islanders, playing sports does come easily. Some credit their natural knack for competition or perhaps their larger physique. City College defensive lineman Kahiau “Dino” Kahaulelio, who is of Hawaiian descent, recognized football as one of the predominant sports that he felt his culture was built for.
Similarly, Rams defensive lineman Caleb Lagafua understood he was different growing up. As a second-generation Tafuna-Samoan, he would occasionally get in trouble for playing too rough with the other kids when he was younger—not on purpose but simply because he was stronger.
Certainly, there are recognized traits players embody to succeed in the sport. “You have to be big, you have to be strong, you have to be fast. We mostly fit those three categories extremely well, and it gives us opportunities in life that sometimes other sports don’t give you. I think football was really the best option for us,” Kahaulelio said
While football was also a way for him to connect with his father and much of his family, Kahaulelio also believed that the sport could be used as a platform for further opportunities in life, such as scholarships and education.
“Most Polynesian families, their parent’s didn’t go to college. They got jobs straight out of high school to support their families, or they didn’t have any other options besides going to work,“ he said. “So having football as an escape is a way for us to go out and get a better education and get better jobs to help support our families.”
As the youngest boy of 11 cousins, Lagafua recognized the importance of family in his culture. Some of his cousins grew up in tough neighborhoods, like Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. He strived to set an example that success can be achieved despite distractions and undesirable influences.
“I play not just for me, but I also play for my cousins, for my nephews and nieces, and to show that there’s other ways to get out here,” Lagafua said.
Having 45 cousins himself, defensive lineman Jahvius Leur is more than comfortable with the camaraderie of a team sport. A third generation of Samoan descent, Leur felt that while most Pacific Islanders have a unique physique, they also have specific characteristics necessary for football.
His family instilled qualities, such as tough skin and an easy-going nature. He said that growing up in a “lively household” allowed him to carry over that attitude onto the field, where supporting one another is imperative.
This belief resonated with Kahaulelio, who said, “Most Polynesians have grown up in situations where they’ve been around a lot of family members. They’ve been someone that many people have to lean on, so having that ability to not only lead a group of people but to be dependent on is a big thing that probably helps escalate them into the NFL.”
One of the largest active NFL players today is Vita Vea – 6’4” and just under 350 pounds. He is not only of Tongan descent but a household name in the Bay Area for football fans and players alike.
Being a local boy himself, Lagafua remembered having several friends who grew up with Vea’s family. Watching Vea’s success, which he attributes in part to his own parents who migrated from Tonga, was a source of pride for the Pacific Islander community.
Lagafua said he still recalls the day the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Vea. His mom, who has always emphasized the importance of education, looked straight at him and said, “You think I was playing?” drilling in her reminder to keep focused on making grades (and plays) to have a successful future.
Lagafua said, “[My mom] would always tell me ‘I’m happy for you and your accomplishments in football, but those accomplishments won’t mean anything later down the line if you can’t finish it.’”
A darker side of the culture stems from a rivalry between Tongans and Samoans. But Lagafua was quick to point out how much that is changing, considering he has cousins who are of both ethnicities. Like Leur said, “We’re a team—we don’t care about skin color.”
A progressive shift for recent generations is this ability to acknowledge but see past ethnicity. While giving a nod to their physical strengths, there is always more than meets the eye. It is more than what they bring to the field, but the experience and ability to bring people together from a multitude of backgrounds.
Like Lagafua said, being on the football team with like-minded teammates feels like home. Their culture keeps them united, but on the field, everyone is family. He said, “There’s people from all different walks of life. Everybody’s going through something, and it’s amazing that even though we’re all struggling in different ways, we can all come together for a common goal.”