The Dominican of the NFL
Siavii is latest in long line of exports from American Samoa
by Ivan Carter
The Kansas City Star
You don't need to pore over hours of grainy game film to see how far Junior Siavii has come as a football player.
To really understand Siavii's journey, look at a map, the kind you might find folded up inside a National Geographic.
Briefly focus in on Kansas City, right there in the middle of the United States and allow your eyes to drift west, way past where Siavii developed into a man-child at the University of Oregon.
Skim past California, and let your eyes drift out into the deep blue that is the Pacific Ocean until you stop at Hawaii. Now look down. Way down there. Notice how the “A” in “American Samoa” is actually bigger than the nation itself.
That's how far Junior Siavii has come.
When the Chiefs selected Siavii with the 36th overall pick in the April 24 NFL draft, they became the latest team to tap into American Samoa, a nation which has been labeled “The Dominican Republic of football” by some scouts.
“You have to go over there to understand how seriously people take football,” said Siavii, who was born and raised in Pago Pago, American Samoa's capital city. “People get into fights over what happens in a high school game. It's serious.”
American Samoa covers only 77 square miles and has a population of around 70,000, but has produced a steady stream of college and pro football players for three decades.
Dolphins linebacker Junior Seau, Jaguars fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Rams tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, and Raiders quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, who is the son of former NFL linebacker Manu Tuiasosopo, are among several NFL players who trace their roots back to American Samoa.
In all, there were 28 players with roots to American Samoa on NFL rosters during the 2002 season and American Samoan's dot the rosters of college teams throughout the Pac-10, WAC and Mountain West conferences.
While the number of Samoans in the NFL has dipped during the past two seasons, Siavii and fellow Pago Pago native Isaac Sopoaga were both taken in last weekend's draft, bringing the number of NFL players who were born in American Samoa to at least six.
This from a tiny island nation which has a grand total of six high school football programs.
“It's amazing that a place as small as that can turn out so many NFL players,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. “I don't know what they're feeding those guys over there but I'd like to find out.”
Al Lolotai became the first Samoan to play in the NFL when he played with Washington in 1945 but football really didn't take off in American Samoa until the 1960s when television beamed college and pro games into the homes and hearts of Samoan youths.
American-born Samoans started taking to the game after their families migrated to the United States throughout the early to mid-1900s.
In the 70s, Samoans began to make a name for themselves as college stars. Jack Thompson was a star quarterback at Washington State, Mosi Tatupu was a standout at USC and Terry Tautolo and Manu Tuiasosopo starred under Dick Vermeil at UCLA.
Chiefs vice president of football operations Lynn Stiles was on Vermeil's UCLA staff in the mid 1970s and helped lure Frank Manumaleuga to Westwood, Calif. Stiles still remembers his thoughts upon seeing Manumaleuga take the practice field for the first time as a freshman.
“He was a man,” Stiles said. “The guy was 6 foot 2, 245-pounds and solid. He had a powerful lower body and was extremely strong and I don't even think he'd ever seen a weight room.”
Manumaleuga, who was born in Western Samoa, would go on to play linebacker for the Chiefs from 1979 to 1981.
Many of the physical characteristics displayed by players like Manu Tuiasosopo, Tautolo and Manumaleuga have been passed onto the current generation of Samoan football players.
Rugby remains a popular sport on the islands and many of the current NFL players with Samoan roots are linemen, linebackers and tight ends.
“In general, you are talking about guys with powerful lower bodies, great balance and amazing quickness for their size,” explained Stiles. “Take a guy like Junior. Now, he's naturally strong but he can also move. Those are the ideal characteristics for an NFL linemen.”
Jon Entine, author of the 2000 book “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It,” attempted to explain how physical and cultural factors contribute to the preponderance of Samoans in the NFL and major rugby leagues of New Zealand.
“Polynesians, especially the Samoans, are amongst the world's most mesomorphic (muscular) body types. A number of studies have shown that muscle bulk and the degree of muscularity, especially in thigh and buttock, are important predicators of success in rugby players, whereas the opposite applies in such sports as distance running. This genetic admixture helps in part explain why athletes from this region are large, agile and fast.”
Sopoaga turned heads at the NFL combine when he bench-pressed 225 pounds 42 times. Yet Sopoaga admits that he's never been into weight lifting.
“Back home, there's no such thing as weights. What you do for a workout is cut down trees, carry rocks, carry logs,” said Sopoaga, who was taken by the 49ers in the fourth round. “For my legs, I climbed up coconut trees.”
Cunningham became intrigued by Siavii when he popped in a tape of Oregon's Sun Bowl loss to Minnesota, but it wasn't Siavii's power or strength which caught his eye.
The Gophers featured a smallish but technically sound offensive line so they attacked Siavii and fellow defensive tackle Igor Olshansky with cut blocks.
“Toughness is what you look for number one and Junior has that,” Cunningham said. “But what I saw in that Minnesota game was a guy who showed great balance and athleticism. They'd try to cut him and he'd keep his feet and work through the trash to find the ball. You don't see that in a lot of those really big guys.”
Perhaps some of that can be traced to the fact that football wasn't always Siavii's favorite sport.
“I love hoop,” Siavii said. “Man, I loved getting guys down in the post where I could just kill 'em you know? They couldn't stop me down there.”
But then Siavii kept growing. And growing. By the time he entered Tafuna high school as a freshman, Siavii was all but forced onto the football field by his coaches.
Before long, it was obvious that Siavii stood a much better chance of becoming the next Keith Traylor, defensive tackle for the New England Patriots, than the next Robert “Tractor” Traylor, power forward for the New Orleans Hornets.
“I always watched football and dreamed about playing pro but I never thought I could make it,” Siavii said. “I thought I was average.
“Then I kept growing.”
So has the game of football back in American Samoa.
“People are crazy about the game,” Siavii said. “Nobody really roots for any one NFL team but everyone has a team they pull for. Monday night's are big. That's the night when people get together to watch the game and you see a lot of betting going on, things like that. They're into it.”
And do the Chiefs have a following in Pago Pago?
“They do now,” Siavii said with a smile. “All kinds of folks are going to be watching the Chiefs now.”
But Siavii won't have to make the more than 5,000-mile trip home to find a sense of familiarity. The Chiefs have put Siavii in touch with former defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua, who is Polynesian. Also, Independence has been home to a large population of Samoans for many years.
The community has even produced its share of football stars. Former Blue Springs high school star Lonnie Palelei, who was born in Nu'uuli, American Samoa, has played with the Steelers, Jets, Giants and Eagles during a seven-season career.
The drafting of Siavii has given local Samoans even more reason to pull for the Chiefs.
“Everyone's excited, he's like a hometown hero,” said Wendell Fuiamano, who is an assistant football coach at Blue Springs and traces his family roots back to Pago Pago. “I think it's particularly meaningful for the older generation. To see someone come from the islands and play for the Chiefs, it creates a lot of pride.”