Samoan Quarterbacks highlight islanders' rise in N.F.L.

By Tina Mata'afa-Tufele 29 December 2020, 4:00PM

As National Football League (N.F.L.) fans anticipate a game featuring a possible historic match-up between two Samoan quarterbacks, Samoan athletes’ rising prominence in America’s biggest sport is drawing attention. 

Samoans have, of course, played in the N.F.L. long before. But the role of Samoan quarterbacks - regarded as a team’s most pivotal player - is evidence that their prominence in the league has become cemented. 

Leading the charge are two playing sensations likely to feature in Saturday’s showdown, Samoans from the state of Hawai’i are the Las Vegas Raiders' Marcus Mariota and the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa. 

Samoans and Pacific islanders more broadly have come a long way in the game since the days of quarterback Jack ‘The Throwin Samoan’ Thompson. 

The Samoan who played for five seasons, including in a Superbowl was a rare example of islander success when he was named the N.F.L.’s number three draft pick in 1979. 

In an interview published on Sunday, Thompson told the American sporting television network E.S.P.N. he could have never foreseen a day when Samoans had risen to a position of such prominence. 

The E.S.P.N. article comes as football fans prepare to witness a possible show-down next weekend in a game led by opposing Samoan superstars Tagovailoa and Mariota.

“Back then, what could happen [next] Saturday [... the] Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Marcus Mariota facing off against one another would have been almost unthinkable,” Thompson told E.S.P.N.

“While their matchup would be the first in NFL history between two Hawaiian-born starting quarterbacks, it accentuates what an entire community believes could be just the beginning.”

Retired two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, Manase Jesse Sapolu, said that seeing fellow Samoans occupy key positions was inspiring young Samoan athletes. 

"We're right on the verge of influencing kids from our community to believe that we can play the quarterback position," Sapolu, now the executive director of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, told the sports network. 

"... When we had a guy that we called the 'Throwin' Samoan,' and he was the third pick in the draft, he was before me. But that was kind of unheard of, that was an anomaly, too. But it's no longer that."

Former University of Hawai’i football Coach June Jones said Samoan players have evolved from specialist linemen to occupying positions all over the field.

"You're starting to see those kids now throwing the football because their high schools are starting to throw it more," Jones reportedly said.

"It used to be offensive and defensive linemen and linebackers and running backs were the position. 

“Now you're seeing receivers and Polynesian quarterbacks because the offenses have changed so much."

Another Samoan player, the Detroit Lions’ defensive tackle Danny Shelton said Polynesian players are now viewed as capable of taking over top roles. 

"It's gotten to a level where you don't see Polynesian players as these linemen anymore," said Shelton.

"You see them as quarterbacks. You can see them as running backs, and that's something I really like and I think it's cool. Really cool.

"It's proving to the youth that you can be whatever you want to be. You don't have to be the lineman because the coach wants you to be a lineman because you're Polynesian."

Manase, now 59 years old and retired, says he loves to watch N.F.L. games and see Samoan names in team lineups. 

He told E.S.P.N. he thinks about how his own history and heritage helped create opportunities for the Polynesian players of today. 

"In the back of your mind, you're proud," he said. 

"But at the same time, at this point in my life, I'm not thinking that way. 

“I'm [still] pushing the envelope. ... My responsibility is to make sure when this generation retires, we're in better hands than when I was able to help start the Polynesian Hall of Fame and Polynesian Bowl.”



By Tina Mata'afa-Tufele 29 December 2020, 4:00PM

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