Polynesian pride celebrated on the football field

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Makana Garrigan and Sam Atoe stood there at midfield Saturday, facing the stands at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles with 59 other Pacific Islanders, all of them in a single line, in football uniform, the game just moments away, when they began the Haka.

In unison, they stomped their feet, vigorously crossed and uncrossed their arms, chanted, stuck out their tongues in an exaggerated style, opened their eyes wide. As pregame shows go, it doesn’t get any more distinctive or personal. Think of the baritone voice of James Earl Jones propelled with great vigor through a megaphone.

Makana Garrigan of Casa Grande was one of two Empire football players (with Sam Atoe of Maria Carrillo) to participate in last Saturday's Polynesian All-American Classic in Los Angeles. For Garrigan and Atoe, the experience gave them a chance to celebrate island culture and bond with the other Pacific Islanders on the field. “It was like I had known everyone for at least five years,” Garrigan said. Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

“There was so much energy,” said Garrigan, a wide receiver/safety from Casa Grande. Now, days later, Garrigan admitted, he still gets goose bumps just from the re-telling of it.

The Haka is a posture dance, its origins from the Maori of New Zealand. It can be used as a welcoming gesture or as a ceremonial rite. Most commonly, it is displayed before a football game by Polynesians.

“To intimidate our opponents,” said Atoe, the running back/linebacker from Maria Carrillo.

This time, however, it was done not to intimidate but to celebrate a culture. This was the First Annual Polynesian All-American Classic football game, a collection of the best senior high school talent in America with Pacific Island heritage. And it was quite a collection, 61 players from nine states. At least 23 of them have verbally committed to Division I NCAA universities.

Atoe was one of them, having verbally committed to San Diego State on Sunday before last.

Garrigan has been offered a full ride to both Fresno State and UC San Diego, is being pursued heavily by others, and will wait just before National Letter-of-Intent Day on Feb. 2 to make a decision.

It’s a wise decision, considering what happened on the fifth play of Saturday’s game.

Atoe took a pitch from the quarterback and took off to the right as if to run. Garrigan, at wide receiver, blocked his cornerback for three seconds and then released downfield on a streak. Atoe’s pass found him perfectly.

“I felt someone behind me and so I changed direction,” Garrigan said. “A bit later I felt someone else behind me and changed direction again.”

Garrigan made it 50 yards before being tackled. He caught five passes for 75 yards. You would think that 50-yarder would be the game’s highlight for him. It wasn’t. It was being with his brothers, 60 of them, 61 kids with that same island DNA in them, 61 kids that really needed no introduction, an island culture, small in numbers, strong in shared identity.

“It was like I had known everyone for at least five years,” Garrigan said.

“It all happened so fast,” Atoe said of his five days in L.A. “I wasn’t ready to go home.”

How could Atoe? At halftime, Hawaiian reggae star J Boog was singing on the sideline. Within seconds a dozen players from the Black and White team gathered at midfield, formed a circle and began dancing. Atoe was one of them.

“It was so cool,” Atoe said.

It was so cool when 49ers guard Mike Iupati met with the players on Thursday, the player with Samoan heritage who told them to go to college, get an education and be proud of who they are, be proud of their origins, be aware of who they represent.

Like Iupati had to say anything at all. The pride of an Islander who plays football is like the eternal flame, it never goes out. Probably because it never can. Not after everything that’s happened. Not after the reputation they have earned in both college and pro football. Pacific Islanders make up just 0.3 percent of the American population. Yet 63 of them are playing in the NFL and at least 200 of them are on NCAA D-I rosters. ESPN statisticians calculate that a kid growing up in American Samoa is 40 times more likely to play in the NFL than a kid growing up on the mainland.

“When I talk to college scouts,” said Casa Grande football Trent Herzog, “it’ll come up in conversation: ‘I got a player who has the blood.’ The college guy will just nod, smile and ask me for some tape. Everyone in college football knows what ‘they got the blood’ means. It means a player who is respectful, honest, tough, with the heart of a warrior, who will do anything for you.”

Sounds like the perfect definition of a football player, when phrased like that.

“Yep,” Herzog said.

To get a sense of that engine that drives a Pacific Islander in football, a simple image can bring it into quick clarity.

“When I step on the field,” Atoe said, “I feel it.”

The surge. The electricity. The hot wire. The feeling of being plugged in, of belonging nowhere else. The feeling of home, actually.

“It’s indescribable, really,” Garrigan said. “It’s like something inside me just clicks on.”

As a Pacific Islander once said, “We grew up loving rugby but football pays better.” Contact, the tie that binds.

“When I hit someone,” said Rancho Cotate defensive end Mike Tuaua, who will play for SRJC this fall, “I don’t feel a thing.”

Or to put it another way: “I’ve always been more aggressive than anyone else,” Garrigan said. “I know I can lay someone out. It doesn’t matter how big they are. When I played in high school, there were some players who took plays off. Not us (Pacific Islanders). We go 100 percent all the time. That’s why Saturday was so much fun. You knew everyone was playing the same way, smashmouth. It’s like the sport is made for us.”

Not to mention their bodies.

“There weren’t any little kid bodies out there Saturday,” Garrigan said.

College and pro football are becoming aware of Polynesians playing football the way Major League Baseball first became aware of the talent in the Dominican Republic. That was the purpose for the all-star game Saturday, to raise awareness. It was the brainchild of George Malauulu, a former University of Arizona quarterback. And with that talent came certain assumptions.

“I thought everyone was going to be cocky,” Garrigan said.

Then Garrigan realized where he was, who he was with, as best illuminated by Atoe.

“We are a humble people,” Atoe said. “That’s how we are raised. To respect everyone. For me to disrespect someone, I would be ashamed. It would be embarrassing. If I did that, I couldn’t look that person in the eye. I am always aware of the people I represent.”

Would it feel like betrayal of his culture?

“Yes,” Atoe said. “Betrayal.”

Atoe offered his response to success, a response you wish could spread among all cultures, one that does not have a strut to it or a Sharpie signing a football.

“After games this year,” Atoe said, “people might come up to me and congratulate me on a good game. I wouldn’t know what to say. It’s like I don’t deserve it, like I know I could do more. I’d blush.”

Blush, after a compliment?

“Yes, I would,” Atoe said.

That’s why Atoe and Garrigan loved last Saturday. No one betrayed the culture. No one took plays off. Everyone did the Haka. Everyone knew this was a flashpoint unique to anything they ever experienced.

“A bunch of us were talking,” Garrigan said, “and we all came to the same conclusion. If this was a high school team, we’d be state champions.”

And then some.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blog.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.