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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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When a network puts a mic on the big defensive tackle, Merrill loves everything about it — the way he beats double teams, how he cracks jokes and helps players off of the ground, the way he helped the Ravens to the Super Bowl.

"He’s just a good guy," Merrill said. "And how he plays, with tenacity. He’s crazy good."

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Growing up in Salt Lake City, Ngata said he thought of football as "a way out" of a lifetime of trouble or even just construction work. And to do that, he thought that he had to leave Utah.

"There was pressure to stay home because my mom wanted me to," Ngata said. "I always thought if I stayed in Utah, I wouldn’t have made it past college. I thought if you stayed in Utah to play football, you were just going to be another Polynesian football player and be done."

Whether Ngata truly had to leave Utah to become an NFL prospect is debatable. But his decision to play at the University of Oregon impacted future recruiting.

"There’s now more of an expectation that you can get a kid out of Utah," Scout.com’s Huffman said. "Haloti Ngata is probably the most important recruit to ever come out of the state."

BYU scholarship » With his toe still broken, Merrill opted to skip a camp at the U. of U. But he wouldn’t let himself miss a camp a few days later at BYU.

His father, Toni, went to BYU-Hawaii. His mother, Sisilia, earned her master’s degree from the U. And on fall Saturdays in the Taliauli house, the girls wear red, the boys blue.

The morning of the BYU camp, Merrill said, he felt surprisingly good — maybe 80 percent healthy. That day he hustled through drills, and when it came time for one-on-one battles, Merrill shined.


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BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall offered him a scholarship. Merrill accepted on the spot.

More than football » Sisilia Taliauli was born and raised in Tonga. She met Toni, who was born in Tonga but raised in Salt Lake City, when he was serving an LDS mission on the island.

The daughter of teachers, she went on to teach middle school herself. She was lucky that way, she said. So often on the island, the children of farmers become farmers.

She loves watching her son play football, but she’s more proud of his 3.8 grade-point average.

"It has to be balanced," she said. "They’re very talented on the football field, but we have to remember why we came from so far away: opportunity and education."

For this generation of Polynesian players, education has created an opportunity. In the past decade, Polynesians have seen increases in median income and college attainment. High school dropout rates, meanwhile, have fallen and now are on par with the state average.

The stability has helped more students focus on education. In turn, they can qualify for football, coaches said.

"Like any culture or group that comes into a system, it takes a couple of generations to figure it out," Alema Te’o, the Bountiful assistant coach, said.

Merrill is too young to remember how his parents juggled him and his siblings while attending classes, but it’s a sacrifice he is old enough to respect.

"Polynesians have a lot of will because of where we came from," Merrill said. "We want to give back to our parents, especially getting a full ride."

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