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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.

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"That’s me," Merrill says, pointing to the smallest lineman on a team so big it had to play up a grade in tournaments.

In one highlight, Merrill grabs a running back, spins him and throws him to the ground. In another, he pulls from his spot on the offensive line and blocks downfield for Sione Palelei, now one of Louisiana’s top running-back recruits. There’s a quick shot of John Fakahafua, the East wide receiver who has committed to Utah State.

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Merrill learned early on he could compete outside Utah. His Leopards traveled to Las Vegas four times to play tournaments against teams from across the country.

That first year, Merrill remembers, the boys were intimidated by a team called the Raiders, who were all dressed in matching sweat suits as they arrived for the game.

"They were huge," Merrill said.

"Our guys looked like the Bad News Bears," his father recalled.

But in the first quarter, Merrill hit the Raider quarterback, knocking him out of the game. A big trophy now sits in Toni’s office — representing one of four championships the team won in five undefeated seasons.

"I got a huge hit" » When he watched last month’s Fiesta Bowl, Bountiful High assistant coach Alema Te’o instantly saw familiar faces.

Brighton High’s Ricky Heimuli anchored Oregon’s defensive line. When the ball changed hands, Te’o spotted West High’s Vai Lutui in the purple and silver of Kansas State.

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Te’o, great-uncle of Heisman trophy finalist Manti Te’o, founded the annual All-Poly Camp at Bountiful and sees what his camp nurtured in nearly every college game.

Brandon Fanaika attended the camp before Stanford landed him as Utah’s top recruit of 2012. Other coaches have taken notice, too.

"Over the years, I’ve seen how football has gotten better in Utah," Stanford assistant coach Lance Anderson said. "There are more prospects each year."

As the camp approached last summer, Merrill Taliauli was unsure he would be able to attend. He had broken his toe but decided to push through it.

The camp attracts about 400 Polynesian players, mostly from Utah, and it has grown so much in recent years that Te’o has had to move it from Bountiful to Layton High. The camp also draws some of the nation’s top coaches. New Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen sent Te’o a text to make sure he would have a spot at the camp.

Merrill found himself on a team so bad they weren’t allowed to scrimmage until the last day against a team stacked with three- and four-star recruits. Merrill broke through the O-line and grabbed the quarterback for a sack, then another.

"I got a huge hit," he said, "and I saw a couple coaches turn their heads."

Utah State, Hawaii, Central Florida, Arizona — they pulled him aside. How much did he weigh? What other offers did he have? They promised to call him.

"He’s crazy good" » Ask a young Polynesian football player, especially a defensive lineman such as Merrill, who his favorite athlete is, and one name comes up more than the others.

Haloti Ngata was the top-ranked defensive player coming out of Highland High School in 2002. Merrill’s eyes transfix on Ngata when he watches the Baltimore Ravens play.

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