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Pacific Islanders change the face of football in Utah

Decades after Polynesian families arrived and put down roots in Utah, children in their community can’t escape the influence of the sport — it’s in their blood.

First Published Feb 01 2013 08:53 am • Last Updated Feb 07 2013 09:05 am

In the back of a tidy split-level Glendale home, Merrill Taliauli gazes up at a giant flat-screen television and flips between a pair of college basketball games. The 17-year-old cares little about either. His father, Toni, played hoops in college, but it never was Merrill’s game.

His love was football. Always football.

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Merrill was 8 the first time he pulled a red-and-white East High Leopards jersey over his pads. That fall, his father stood on the sidelines, motioning to his son the moves he should use against opposing linemen, all the while beaming. His mother, a teacher, worried about her son’s safety until she saw him tackle; then she worried about the other boys.

The game is "in his blood," his father says, just as it’s in the blood of many Polynesians from Merrill’s Salt Lake City neighborhood. Ricky Heimuli, a rising star at Oregon, grew up just down the street. Simi Fili once accepted an offer to play for the Ducks, too. Nate Fakahafua starts for the University of Utah. Stanley Havili plays for the Philadelphia Eagles now.

Utah’s college football programs have long turned to small islands in the south Pacific for gridiron stars. But decades after opening up the Polynesian pipeline that began reshaping college football in this state, the young men and families who moved here from Tonga, Samoa or Hawaii have put down roots.

The result: a level of high school football that Utah has never before experienced, and a pool of local Polynesian talent that has transformed the state into a must-stop recruiting ground for colleges across the country.

"Uniquely gifted" » Proselytizing Mormons first visited the Polynesian Islands in the mid-1840s. About 170 years later, football coaches, like missionaries with whistles around their necks, returned to the islands promising a more temporal glory.

Players and coaches call former Utah and Weber State coach Ron McBride "the Godfather." Famika Anae, father of BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae, arrived in Provo nearly 50 years ago. Since then, more than 100 Samoans have played for the Cougars.

"I don’t think it’s overstating it," said Vai Sikahema, a member of BYU’s 1984 national championship team, "to say that the impact Samoans and Tongans have had in the state of Utah is not unlike what Dominicans have been to baseball."

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Sikahema, who went on to become one of the first Tongan players in the NFL, believes Polynesians are "uniquely gifted to play American football." He cites a culture that respects authority, traditional dances that develop rhythm and nimble feet, and natural muscularity as reasons.

"They say Polynesians are bred to play it," Woods Cross linebacker and Utah commit Filipo Mokofisi said, "and I fully believe in that."

Mokofisi, who shares a first name with his father, is one of several sons of former players who have helped elevate Utah prep football in recent years.

When Dave Peck took over Bingham’s football program in the early 2000s, he had one Polynesian player on his roster. At that time, Peck expected to see only a handful of Utah players get scholarship offers from major Division I schools. But over the past decade, Utah has begun to blossom into an important recruiting stop. Although it is not Texas, Florida or California — the country’s recruiting epicenters — major college programs no longer overlook it.

"Utah is absolutely must-recruit territory," said Erik McKinney, ESPN’s West recruiting coordinator. "You have to know who is in Utah at this point."

On National Signing Day Wednesday, more than 40 (and as many as 60) Utah high school seniors will sign letters of intent to play football for Division I programs. Nearly half of the top 40 prospects are of Polynesian descent.

"Utah started to go from a novelty-type state to a legitimate state," said Brandon Huffman, Scout.com national recruiting analyst. "You could probably start to say Utah is rivaling Arizona as the second-most-fertile recruiting state in the West. And pound for pound, I might say Utah is putting out better depth."

This year, Peck counts at least a dozen of his former players at Utah State, BYU and Utah, including Star Lotulelei, a projected first-round NFL pick. This week, six of Peck’s players will sign letters to play D-I football, headlined by Lowell Lotulelei, Star’s younger brother.

"They were huge" » This rise did not happen overnight. In fact, Merrill Taliauli, who just completed his senior season at East, hardly has noticed it. He’s been part of the groundswell his entire life.

The defensive tackle, described in one ESPN report as a "big strong kid who can be a stout presence in the heart of the trenches," takes up most of a love seat. He turns off the games he is watching and presses play on a nearly decade-old highlight video. He and his father laugh at the miniature Leopards scampering across well-worn fields.

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