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'Tropic of Football': Samoans in NFL

Newsday Book Review

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Everything that’s rousing and distressing about block-and-tackle football is encompassed in “Tropic of Football,” Rob Ruck’s illuminating chronicle of the Samoan presence in the American mainland’s most dominant sport. It’s inspiring, on the one hand, how passion for the game among young men growing up in the South Pacific territory of American Samoa is distilled into individual discipline and collective triumph.

But it’s also disquieting to come across stories of persistent economic and personal hardships in the region as well as concerns about players’ health and safety that threaten the game’s long-term future.

Those whose knowledge of football is less than rudimentary may be surprised that the Samoan experience in the game is worthy of a book-length study.

But Sunday-afternoon devotees (or addicts) will easily recognize such boldface names as Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu, San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Jesse Sapulo, ill-starred San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and up-and-coming Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.

They’re part of the rich history recorded in “Tropic of Football,” as are such lesser-known heroes as Charlie Ahe, a lineman for the swashbuckling 1950s Detroit Lions offense; and running back Bob Apisa, who starred in the backfield of the mid-1960s Michigan State Spartans, whose roster also included the legendary Bubba Smith.

Over time, Ruck writes, Samoans found in sport an outlet for what he and others characterize as their “warrior” tradition. “Because for Samoans,” Ruck writes, “sport was often as rough as war. Both were conducted with violence and ritual,” an ideal combination for American football, which was first embraced among Samoan families who immigrated to Hawai’i, California and other states because of job opportunities or military service.

In short, what’s happening to football in Samoa mirrors what’s happening to football in America.

“Tropic of Football” reminds us that the best sports books take up far bigger subjects than final scores.

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