Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
The Notre Dame-Nevada matchup the first weekend of the 2009 season might not have captured the country’s interest, but Amini Silatolu was watching.
A Nevada signee who didn’t qualify academically, Silatolu watched the game from the living room of his parents’ home in northern California – a man without a school.
“They’re playing at (Notre Dame), and I’m sitting at home watching,” Silatolu said. “And watching them running out on the field, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that could’ve been me.’ ”
It took a couple of years at an out-of-the-way football outpost in north Texas, but what could have been has become what will be for the 6-foot-4, 311-pound offensive lineman.
Through his academic struggles and stops at a California junior college and little-known Midwestern State, Silatolu never lost sight of his goal of making it to the highest level of football – even if he never said much about it.
Having made it to the NFL as the second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers, the soft-spoken giant who manhandled Division II opponents isn’t going to start boasting now.
“Off the field I’m the nicest person you’ll ever meet. I’m really quiet and don’t talk too much,” Silatolu said during a recent phone interview. “I’ve never been that overconfident guy that runs his mouth. Instead of doing a lot of talking, I do a lot of walking. That’s just who I am.”
Silatolu’s journey would have humbled just about any player. But Silatolu was humble long before he became a road-grading lineman.
Silatolu learned the value of hard work from his parents, Saia and Lupe, who held a series of menial-labor positions after moving to the United States from Tonga in 1985 for a better life.
And if the YouTube clips of Silatolu driving defensive linemen out of the video frame aren’t enough to quicken the pulse of Panthers fans, his college coach advised: Wait until fans see him in person.
“For a guy that no one knows anybody about, you’re going to be excited about watching him block,” Midwestern State’s Bill Maskill said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t know but one speed. He goes as hard in practice as he does in games. He just goes all the time.”
Saia and Lupe Silatolu settled in California after moving from Tonga, a country comprised of 176 islands in the south Pacific. Saia took a job at a gas station, while Lupe worked as a housekeeper at a hotel until her two sons were born 17 months apart.
When the boys were toddlers, Lupe took them to Tonga to live with her mother for a year while she returned to the States to look for work. While living in Tonga, the boys attended their uncle’s rugby games, the closest thing to American football on the island.
“As soon as they came back, you could tell they were really into football,” Lupe said. “So Saia took them to join Pop Warner.”
Silatolu played no other sports growing up. Football was his love, and everything else was a distant second – including homework.
Despite his parents’ encouragement, “Amini wasn’t really good at school,” his mother said.
After high school in Tracy, Calif., Silatolu attended San Joaquin Delta College in nearby Stockton. He started two years at left tackle, and had visits scheduled to Hawaii, California and San Jose State, as well as a scholarship offer from Tennessee.
But they all backed off after seeing Silatolu’s grades. He signed with Nevada, but was ineligible to play for a Division I school because he hadn’t finished his associate’s degree.
During an unofficial visit to Cal, one of the Bears’ coaches asked Silatolu to name his No. 1 goal, expecting him to mention NFL aspirations. Silatolu surprised him by saying he wanted to play for a four-year school.
“That’s how it all starts,” Silatolu said. “I never got ahead of myself. I just thought about the next step to get where I needed to be.”
That next step was Midwestern State, a school with an enrollment of 6,000 in Wichita Falls, Texas, and the alma mater of Dr. Phil (McGraw) of TV fame.
Within Silatolu’s first three days on campus, Maskill realized he had a devastating blocker.
“He just knocked the hell out of people,” Maskill said.
Silatolu dominated the Lone Star Conference from his left tackle position. According to Midwestern State, Silatolu was on the field for 560 pass plays during his two years with the Mustangs, and allowed a half of a sack.
Silatolu, 23, was a consensus All-American last season while anchoring the top offense in Division II in terms of total yards (531.9 yards a game) and points (48.6).
But it was the manner in which Silatolu finished blocks that caught the Panthers’ attention.
“We call it black line,” coach Ron Rivera said the night the Panthers drafted him 40th overall. “You take a guy and take him outside the black line of the (video) screen and he was just gone. That was impressive.”
Maskill told every scout who visited Wichita Falls (population, 101,000) that Silatolu was a throw-back.
“He’s mean. He’s tough. He’s nasty. He plays hurt,” Maskill said. “All the things the old guys used to do, he does it.”
Maskill said Silatolu broke his hand his first fall at Midwestern State. Doctors told him he’d be out the rest of the season. Silatolu missed two games after pins were inserted in the bone, and was back in the lineup.
Silatolu’s toughness and quiet leadership did not go unnoticed by his teammates, who voted him captain before his senior year. How unassuming was Silatolu? Maskill said he didn’t want to call the coin toss before games.
“I really don’t think he wanted to be a captain. He never got up in front of the team and spoke. He did not want to bring attention to himself,” Maskill said. “Everyone respected him for what he did, and how he did it.”
The fact that Silatolu did it against lesser competition was one of the knocks on him before the draft. Another question: How would someone not fond of textbooks handle an NFL playbook?
Silatolu said he kept his GPA around 2.5 at Midwestern so he could stay eligible. And while Maskill concedes Silatolu “wasn’t a fan of the classroom,” he’s plenty smart.
A friend of Maskill’s who is a Cleveland Browns assistant put Silatolu at the dry-erase board to diagram plays and go through blocking responsibilities. Silatolu aced it, the coach told Maskill.
Silatolu also was at the board with Carolina and wasn’t sure he did well. But when the Panthers called him the second night of the draft, he figured it must have gone better than he thought.
“He’s somebody we’re excited about,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. “When you watch tape, the whole approach he takes, the physical play comes out immediately. He puts opponents on the ground. He’s a very driven young man who’s come a long way.”
Minutes after hearing from the Panthers, Silatolu got a call from his younger brother. Paul Silatolu, a Naval petty officer, was calling from the USS New York – a ship whose bow includes 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center wreckage – off the coast of Italy.
It was a touching moment for the entire family. Nearly a week later, Lupe cried as she recounted the phone call between her only two children.
“It was very meaningful for us,” she said.
Though his path to the NFL was more circuitous than most of the other top picks, Silatolu never lost his way.
“I’ve always believed in myself. Football was always the main thing in my life,” he said. “I knew I always wanted to get to this point. But it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2012/05/05/3219838/carolina-panthers-blocker-amini.html#storylink=cpy
Friday, May 4, 2012
When a U.S. football team begins competition in the Under-19 World Championship tournament next month at Burger Stadium, it will begin play against what will likely be a wide-eyed team of teen-agers from the South Pacific islands of American Samoa.
America needs no introduction to Samoa.
American football coaches, anyway.
For years, they've beaten a path — or rather, taken the 11-hour flights from the West Coast — to the small U.S. territory that's about the size of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Prominent head coaches like Urban Meyer and Mike Bellotti have made their way from their previous jobs at Utah and Oregon to the five volcanic islands that make up American Samoa to scour them for hefty linemen and physical defenders to supplement their rosters.
Oregon State just signed a linebacker and offensive lineman from American Samoa. Washington State picked up a nationally recruited tight end from there who had once committed to Alabama and a defensive lineman. About half of Hawaii's roster includes players that come from American Samoa lineage.
"Football's like a meal ticket off the island," said Hawaii middle linebacker T.J. Taimatuia, a redshirt sophomore who was born in Fagasa, American Samoa, but played his high school ball in Artesia, Calif. "It's either the military or football."
Just three weeks ago, the Marines swore in 30 teen-aged Samoan recruits, and dozens more consider the Coast Guard, Army Reserves and two Army engineering units. Otherwise, they have to try to find work at the local Starkist tuna cannery, the only one left after the Chicken of the Sea factory closed in 2009 and eliminated 3,000 jobs.
The unemployment rate for a country of about 60,000 stands at 30 percent and rising, according to Mel Purcell, a quasi-general manager for American Samoa's Under-19 national team.
"Football is opportunities," said Purcell, whose three sons all played the sport, one of them a former Hawaiian player who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, and another a Penn State linebacker. "Football is an avenue to leave home, get a better education and get to the next level. The NFL is really icing on the cake."
Go through any Pac-12 roster, said Hawaii assistant coach Tony Tuioti, who leaves for a recruiting trip to New Zealand and Australia on Thursday, and "there'd probably be at least 10 players minimum of Samoan descent." And Samoan players are starting to pop up in the SEC; Tuioti said Hawaii recruited a Samoan guard who ended up signing with LSU.
Football first came to American Samoa in the 1960s, when ex-Washington Redskins linebacker Al Lolotai, a former pro wrestler in Hawaii, brought the game to his native land and NFL games were later televised on Blue Sky cable. The Samoans took to it like their favorite dish, palusami, which these large extended families serve during huge feasts on Sundays that always included church and the NFL, not necessarily in that order since the games air at 5 a.m. in the South Pacific.
"That's like caviar to Polynesians," Tuioti said, referring to the local delicacy of corned beef and coconut milk with onions wrapped in taro or spinach leaves. "Samoans have such a passion for football. They have the most football players per capita of almost any country. It's like the Dominican Republic producing baseball players."
More than 200 American Samoans now dot Division I college rosters, and 30 have progressed to the NFL, none more famous than Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He's immensely popular in Samoa — his parents were born there — and he returned there last year with donations of football equipment and uniforms.
They're also partial to current and former NFL players with Samoan ties, like Chargers and Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko and Patriots defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene and Raiders quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, although America Samoa produces very few skill-position players.
By nature as well as body structure and diet, Samoan football players are both aggressive and big-boned. That's one of the reasons American recruiters relish them. They're disciplined and, because they're not always promised three meals, they tend to still be growing.
"A player will come over to the mainland at 6-2, and then he'll be 6-5 and 300 pounds," Tuioti said.
"Samoans like contact. They like to hit things," Tuioti said. "That's why you see most of them on defense, but you're starting to see more and more offensive linemen. We're starting to get some fullbacks because they're similar to linebackers in body type, but we don't have many wideouts that have flat-out speed."
The game played at American Samoa's six high schools leans heavy to the run game. Hawaii running back Joey Iosefa is a converted 190-pound quarterback who played at the island's powerhouse program at Fagaitua High, which again won last season's championship. Iosefa's weight has grown to 240 pounds.
American Samoa also has won six of the last eight Samoa Bowls that pit the island's best team against Hawaii's second-tier players. Coaching clinics are all the rage. A youth football league was formed a year ago. Everything's on the rise.
But American Samoa, as the eighth and last seed in the Under-19 World Championship starting June 30, drew the top-seeded Yanks for its first of three games.
"We have to go up against the biggest giant in football," Purcell sighed.
And if American Samoa springs the upset?
"We'll be able to swim home," Purcell said. "We wouldn't need a plane."