Long before the first TV satellite dish ever appeared in any American backyard, images of football reached Samoa the Samoan way, via the provocative voices of real men, the very first Polynesians in the NFL. There were only a few, but that’s enough to have an impact in Samoa. One of those voices belonged to Tu‘ufuli Uperesa. “Everything he said was like gospel to us,” Simon Mageo told me. “Go talk to him.”
“Duke,” as he is known, signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973. His nickname suits him: He does exude a John Wayne vibe as he walks toward me with never-say-die vigor—a counterpoint to his ragged gait, a hangover from a career-ending knee injury. I’ve sought him out on the field behind Samoana High School, where he holds a free workshop for athletes who want to supplement their regular practice. Now retired, Duke was part of the Samoan school system for many years, but his past also includes a stint as Don Ho’s bodyguard and “downtime” during his years with the Eagles spent in the city’s Italian section with off-duty police officers.
Right away, Duke tells me what he tells the boys: Put time into your practice and be on time. That’s the way it is in the NFL. In the white man’s world, time is money. His memories of his time in the league are not
particularly happy ones: He recounts injuries, poor medical care, unjust treatment. When he returned to Samoa in 1979, he must have felt a little like the veterans home from Vietnam earlier in the decade. How could he explain to those who hadn’t been there his battles against a nascent corporate industry with bottom-line tactics? But perhaps the mark of a man is making sure that those who follow in your tracks don’t learn the hard way. Duke has found redemption in delineating the difference between the business of football and the joy of the sport. The contrast mirrors the mix of muddy earth and golden sun on the field where we meet. “The game is the game is the game,” Duke says. “Football will always be football, and it’s great. Oh, I love it!”
Samoa’s other resident veteran of the NFL bears the island’s name twice—the basis for his league nickname, Repeat. Samoa Samoa is tall and trim, with an economy of movement that marks him as a true athlete. In fact, he is one of the most celebrated quarterbacks of Polynesian descent. He played for the Cincinnati Bengals in the early ’80s and his memories of his pro days are more positive than Duke’s. But he, too, wants to ensure that Samoans reap only the best rewards from their football talents. He worries about conditions in heavily Polynesian neighborhoods on the Mainland: gangs, drugs, joblessness, hopelessness. “This is sad. We have to educate our people here in Samoa before they go live that lifestyle,” he says. If not, the football that many hope to ride to success will shut down. “Football talent comes from the heart of Samoa, right from the heart,” he says, thumping his own well-muscled torso. “But when you lose the heart, the talent goes down the drain!”
The free conditioning workshops that Duke holds help keep that heart strong and the joy of the game alive. At the moment, he’s reached out to a small group, some of whom have been overlooked by college recruiters, boys he nonetheless believes have the right stuff. This includes a compact boy with a serious expression named Kurt Sufia. Duke first chastised him for walking into the school gym with cleats, then sought him out to say he was sorry for coming down on him so hard. Stunned, the boy told the NFL vet that no one had ever apologized to him. Kurt turned out to be the oldest of eight siblings, with a burning ambition to be the first in his family to go away to college.
When I visit the Samoana playing field, I watch Duke’s group train. It’s drizzling, and after Duke leaves, the rain turns into a downpour. But the boys linger under some construction scaffolding, giddily agreeing to an interview. They are a mottled-looking bunch in all manner of T-shirts, aloha shirts, surfer shorts and lavalava. Some have blooming afros, others ponytails. Asked to name a favorite Samoan NFL player, they cry “Polamalu!” unfazed by the fact that despite his ancestry, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star player Troy Polamalu has only been to Samoa for a brief visit. They all want to play defense. When I ask if anyone wants to be a quarterback, one says that carrying the ball is too boring for a Samoan. “We like to hit,” they say in unison, laughing rakishly. They want to use their skills on college campuses and chime in with a litany of names they’ve heard from TV: University of Miami! USC! University of Hawai‘i! Yes, they are working on their SATs, too, because it goes without saying they’ll be looking for scholarships.
When the group scatters, only Kurt is left. He says football is the greatest stress reliever he’s ever found. Stress in Samoa? “There’s a lot of pressure in big families,” he explains. “In football, you get to blow off a lot of steam.” He ends up interviewing me about the Mainland. Is it as unfriendly as some say? He tells me that his family is depending on him to do well and not to come back, as he puts it, empty-handed. “I cannot let them down,” he says, resolutely.