Warriors of the Gridiron
A Path to a Promising Future
Over thirty years ago, a trend took root. Brigham Young University Head Coach LaVell Edwards planted the initial seeds of what would change the football landscape in ways only imagined by select men. University of Utah Head Coach Ron McBride saw that vision and followed in his footsteps. Their plan was simple: Hit the islands of Tonga, American Samoa and Hawaii in search of aggressive and massive football warriors. The reward for those young men: A path to a better life through the gridiron and education.
The path was made easier due to the already strong LDS Church presence on those islands.Meanwhile, those distant communities began longing for a better opportunity—an education and good jobs. “The LDS Church has a big influence on showing them education and what they can have here in the states,” said former Utah offensive lineman Doug Kaufusi. “That was a big thing, being able to come here and have that opportunity.”
Kaufusi was born here in the states, but his brothers Steve and Rich, were born in Tonga. They’re part of the early generation of Polynesian football players to make their names at BYU, Utah and Utah State. While football provided them an opportunity for a free education, the island culture they were accustomed still had to undergo a long learning process and some difficult adjustments.
“We didn’t really understand the game,” said Rich Kaufusi. “My high school coach used to say, ‘Use your peripheral vision,’ and I had no clue what he was talking about. I’d take in a play to the huddle and I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the concept. It was just fun to run around and knock people down.”
The Kaufusi family are all trailblazers. Doug and Rich are part of six brothers who all were successful at Division I football. Still, in the early years, finding success was the exception for families from the islands, not the norm.
“You saw kids that had all the tools, but they were lazy, they didn’t want it,” Doug said. “A lot of kids have God-given ability, but that’s all they go off of. They won’t do any extra. You still see that now, I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be. Nowadays, there’s a lot more to offer kids as far as training. When we were growing up, we didn’t have all these camps.”
Kaufusi is referring to camps such as the one originated by Alema Te’o, founder of the prestigious All-Poly Football Camp. The camp includes all races and ethnicities and educates all participants on Polynesian culture. Since a humble start in 2001, the All-Poly camp now attracts coaches from all around the USA, each trying to mine the gridiron gold that is basic to Polynesian football players.
“This is the third or fourth generation of Polynesians (in football), so you’ve got a lot of Polynesians who have been through the process of graduating high school, going to college, getting their degree and who have become professionals,” said Te’o. “Because more of them have college degrees and have established themselves in society, they’re raising their kids to do the same thing, too.”
Football has been played in American Samoa for decades, but the youth circuit didn’t start until 2010. Accordingly, locals like Gabe Sewell Sr. realized the potential of football for his own boys and family. In 2012, the Sewell family moved from American Samoa to America, eventually settling in St. George, where they discovered Te’o’s All-Poly camp.
“For my sons playing football here in Utah, they’re able to do it on a stage accessible and able to be reached,” said Sewell. “It has allowed them to go see other things, get a degree, have a great experience off the field, and to network with coaches who will probably be lifelong mentors and friends. There’s so many benefits we’ve received and we’ll continue to receive those benefits for moving out here.”
Sewell’s son, Penei, is currently one of the most sought after offensive linemen in the class of 2018, receiving dozens football offers from the likes of Utah, USC and Alabama. He soon will become part of a growing community of Polynesians receiving Division I full-ride athletic scholarships. According to Te’o, roughly
47 Polynesian athletes in Utah received four-year scholarships in 2017. That is nearly seven times the number of Polynesians receiving scholarships just a decade ago, before the All-Poly Camps.
Rich Kaufusi now works as the Director of Opportunity Scholars for the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. He’s preached his whole life about the importance of education, and his son, Loa, will soon attend Stanford University due to accomplishments in both the classroom and on the gridiron. Even with the demonstrable progress of the Utah Polynesian community on the field and off, Rich believes there’s still work to be done. For that reason, he’s initiated a mentoring program pairing his Polynesian students with kids attending Glendale Middle School and East High School.
As the Polynesian community flourishes in Utah through the efforts of Te’o, Sewell and the Kaufusi families, among many others, they’ll never forget two legends who made it possible for them to dream.
Coach McBride and LaVell had,” said Rich with a laugh. “It’s gotten out and I think the rest of the country is so into it now. When LaVell came to our house, it was a different thing for us because we actually didn’t view him as a college coach, we viewed him as a church leader.”
Te’o agreed with that sentiment and notes how the impact of Edwards and McBride continues far beyond the lifespan of their respective coaching careers. “We have more educated Polynesians and the majority of that credit goes to those two gentlemen,” said Te’o. “Those guys were the bridge that reached across to our community to bring us over.
“Their legacies are in the kids that are coming up, right now. The generation of kids coming up right now are the sons and daughters of a lot of the players that were recruited by Ron McBride and LaVell Edwards. Their legacy will forever be etched in stone in our community for what they’ve done.”