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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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Former Bingham standout Doug Fiefia never was going to escape football. His uncles were All-Staters at Kearns High in the 1980s, and his cousins were standouts at Utah State.

But it was Fiefia’s brother, 10 years his elder, who got him into pads.

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"I kind of didn’t have a choice," he said. "He taught me everything he knew growing up. I was the little brother who had to run sprints and throw the football and do tackling drills with him. There was no doubt in my mind I was going to be a football player. I think that’s very similar with most Polynesian boys."

Doug Fiefia introduced the Haka, a traditional dance once performed by warriors, to coach Peck in 2005 — that same year, Fiefia was the first Polynesian student body president to lead the Miners. And while football helped Fiefia get to college and focus on grades, he warns of the danger of overreliance on the sport.

"Polynesians have depended too much on football," said Fiefia, who walked away from the game with eligibility still left at Utah State. "It’s hard to overlook the natural talent and abilities and the size their children are given. But it’s been hard to get them to focus on the schooling and the books and their studies. That’s what they’re good at [football]. That’s what they’re comfortable with."

Former Herriman and Highland coach Larry Wilson says he’s starting to see a shift among his players.

"For so long, you either read about them as a football player or a gang member," Wilson said. "That’s changing. We’re seeing within the culture acceptance of other things. Not every Polynesian boy has to be a football player to be successful."

"It’s like two different games" » When a young lineman walks into his office at Herriman High, Wilson hits him with a pop quiz. Kailisi Moli lives in West Valley City but came to Herriman through the state’s open enrollment policy. Too many of his cousins had dropped out of Cyprus High, he said. Now Wilson wants the sophomore to tell him what he needed to do to be ready for next season.

"Work out. Keep my grades up."

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"Or his mother will whip him," Wilson says with a laugh. "And the last thing?"

The last thing is to make a highlight tape and send it out to colleges.

"He will get some interest already," Wilson, who teaches a course on how to be recruited, says of his sophomore.

Football in Utah has come a long way since he started coaching in the 1980s. "It’s like two different games," he said. And the future is bright.

Huffman, the recruiting analyst, sees next year’s recruits as a "pinnacle class" for the state.

"There are six guys who are already in our early [list of the top 300 recruits in the country]," Huffman said. "That’s kind of unheard of for Utah. And that doesn’t take into account guys who are really going to start to blossom."

Seeing the future? » Framed newspaper clippings of Merrill, the All-Stater, hang on a wall in the back room of the Taliauli house. In a corner opposite the gurgling aquarium are photographs of Merrill’s senior season. There’s Merrill sacking Timpview’s quarterback on a snowy day in November, and Merrill in Mountain View’s backfield, blowing up another play.

"It takes a few people to stop him," says Toni.

The room is Merrill’s sanctuary, where he comes after school. It’s where he and his teammate and best friend since kindergarten, Patrick Palau, often went to study playbooks and talk football. Palau, an East linebacker, will play fullback for the Cougars.

The room is where, after Merrill is gone, Toni and Sisilia will sit on Saturdays and watch on TV their son and his friends play. It’s where the family will gather to watch today’s Super Bowl — with Highland’s Ngata in the middle of the Ravens’ defensive line, and East High’s Will Tukuafu wearing 49er gold and red as a fullback and defensive end.

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