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The roots of Samoans’ rise to football greatness

Samson Satele
It all started in Hawaiʻi on Oahu’s North Shore, where plantation managers and Mormon elders nurtured future generations of football stars

Long before Oahu’s North Shore became a global hot spot for football, it was a pu`uhonua, a refuge under the protection of priests. Fugitives and villagers escaping the carnage of island warfare, or punishment for violating the traditional code of conduct, found sanctuary there—as long as they abided by the priests’ rules. But Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawai‘i in 1778 shattered the islands’ epidemiological seclusion and triggered widespread death, including Cook’s. And these priestly havens crumbled after Kamehameha I occupied the island in the 1790s and eliminated them.

In the 20th century, Samoans, native Hawaiians, and Tongans gravitated to the area to seek a different sort of refuge. They soon found direction from a new priestly caste—a cosmopolitan group of football coaches who crafted a micro-culture of football excellence at and around Kahuku High School.

Over the decades, Kahuku has developed hundreds of collegiate and pro players, including winners of several Super Bowl rings. Just since 1999, Kahuku has played in 12 of Hawai‘i’s 19 state championship games, winning eight times.

Along the way, football became the North Shore’s civic cement.

This is a sports story that began with a sugar plantation and a Mormon temple. As the Kahuku Sugar Plantation fired up its boilers in 1890 and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) built a temple in nearby La`ie in 1919, the area attracted an array of proletarian wayfarers, including Samoans, Tongans and Mormons from Utah’s Great Basin. Driven by different agendas, plantation managers, and Mormon elders saw sport as a way to shape those they recruited to work and worship. These newcomers to the North Shore and their descendants embraced sport and built an ethos of their own.

Today Samoans constitute the most disproportionately overrepresented ethnic group in the NFL. This trend dates to the Samoans who began playing football on the North Shore before World War II, decades before their brethren in American Samoa adopted the game. Many were Mormons who came when the LDS decided to consolidate its La`ie beachhead with the new temple. Thirty-five miles north of Honolulu, the once aboriginal fishing village of La`ie sits between Hau`ula and Kahuku.

Hundreds of Samoan converts came to build the temple, making La`ie a close approximation of a Samoan village. They adapted on their own terms in a church-owned, plantation town, retaining a culture of fa`a Samoa—in the way of Samoa. The temple, the first dedicated outside the continental United States, became a gathering place for the faith’s South Pacific converts. One can hardly overstate its importance—a temple is the only place where the ordinances required for salvation can be conducted and redemption sought for family members who died before completing the sacraments.

The North Shore’s Samoan community expanded after the U.S. Navy closed its base in American Samoa in 1951, sending another wave of migrants to refuge in La`ie. Youth from the town of La`ie came together at Kahuku High with their counterparts from Hau`ula, Kahuku, and the more northern shorelines where the Banzai Pipeline attracts some of the most intrepid surfers in the world.

Football quickly became entrenched at Kahuku High. During the 1940s, coaches Mits Fujishige, a Japanese American, and Art Stranske, a Canadian expat, led the school to its first titles. And, in 1945, Alopati “Al” Loloati, born in Samoa and bred in La`ie, debuted with the Washington Redskins, becoming, with little fanfare, the first Samoan in the NFL.

The Polynesian wave that would reconfigure collegiate and pro ball was still decades away. But back on the North Shore, Kahuku’s teams were becoming more and more successful. In 1956, Kahuku won a state title under coach Harold Silva, a Portuguese American, who infused the program with a tough, principled athletic code and showed the community that its boys could compete with anybody in Hawai‘i.

With the sons and grandsons of earlier Samoan immigrants at its core, Kahuku became the first mostly Samoan squad anywhere in the world. As the sugar industry declined along the northern coast, football gave generations of boys a way to find their place in the world.

Read more at The Smithsonian