POCATELLO — American Samoa has been coined “football island,” a reputation built around producing premier gridiron talent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Over 5,000 miles away, in the middle of the Mountain West, Idaho State University has its own version of island football.
The Bengals football team carries 15 Polynesian players and coaches, whose origins trace back to American Samoa and neighboring islands, including Tonga and independent Samoa. The islands claim a unique cultural-to-professional carryover, as Polynesian communities are tethered by faith, family and, most importantly, football.
“Our main motto is God, family, football,” linebacker Paea Moala said.
ISU's Polynesians came to Pocatello from as far as southern California and Hawaii, but they say it was easy to find a niche. Football teams consider themselves 100-person families, a mindset Polynesians practice at more intimate levels.
Offensive lineman Jack Tufono came to ISU from the Big Island and met fellow Polynesian Aren Manu, a Pocatello native, on his recruiting visit. It was a strong selling point, as the relationship and cultural common ground quelled any nerves Tufono had about leaving his familiar surroundings.
“The first person I met was Aren,” Tufono said. “He told me his last name was Manu, and I was like, 'Bro are you Samoan?' He was like, 'Yeah, bro.' That was so relieving for me. I didn't think there was any Samoans in Idaho.”
Tufono and Manu both come from a long line of football success. Manu's father, uncle and older brother all played football at ISU, a cousin played football at Yale, and another brother currently plays linebacker at Washington. Tufono has had family members play collegiately at Washington and Hawaii, among others. His younger brother recently committed to play for USC.
But football plays a larger role for many Polynesians. Bengals defensive line coach Steve Fifita said the possibility of playing college football opened his eyes to a world outside the mundanities of staying in his hometown. Manu said he likely wouldn't be in college if it wasn't for football.
He's not alone.
Seven of Fifita's defensive linemen are Polynesian. Running backs coach David Fiefia added a Polynesian to his position group this summer. Offensive line coach Roman Sapolu has two Polys in his. ISU's three Polynesian coaches lead their Poly players with a sense of pride and hope to pay forward the lessons and blessings they were afforded as young Polynesian men.
“Now that there's more of us coaching, there's more guys playing Division I football, NFL, I don't think (college) is as far of a stretch,” Fifita said. “But before, it did used to be like, well, college is something that we don't do. We don't have the money for it. We gotta work and help the family.”
More than any other sport, Polynesians gravitate toward football. A 2015 Forbes report said Samoan males were 56 percent more likely to play in the NFL than a non-Samoan male.
Sapolu said many Polynesian values directly translate to football: family, loyalty and respect. Tufono and Fifita said Polynesians' physical makeups and natural aggression make football the perfect match.
Because, it's easy to see, most Polynesians are big.
“It's in all the chicken,” Manu said.
ISU's Poly population is a major draw for future Polynesian recruits. Just this year, the Bengals added four Poly players, and three more joined the team two years ago.
“Having three full-time Polynesians on staff (as) full-time assistants plays a huge factor in how we recruit the Polynesian kids that we go after,” Fiefia said. “I think that's a big push for us to be able to bring Polynesian kids in, guys that we're looking at and we might be battling with other schools inside the conference. I think that's a strong pull that we have.”
Polynesians are also making waves in other sports. Steven Adams and Jabari Parker highlight NBA players of Polynesian descent. MLB's Kolten Wong played in the 2013 World Series, and Sean Manaea pitched a no-hitter in April. Golfer and Salt Lake City native Tony Finau is the first Polynesian to earn a spot on the American Ryder Cup team.
But football holds aces. Many Polynesian players attend all-Poly football camps, and there's a hall of fame dedicated to honoring the best Polynesian football players of all-time.
Sapolu's father, Jesse Sapolu, was induced into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame in 2015 after winning four Super Bowls as an offensive lineman with the San Francisco 49ers.
Polynesians have immense respect for each other, Tufono said, and football is one of the culture's strongest binding forces.
“It's within all of us,” Tufono said. “It basically embodies our culture. That's why we love it so much.”