Since Mike Leach hired him away from his alma mater at the end of the 2011 season, Joe Salave’a has made at least one recruiting trip a year home to American Samoa. Four years into Salave’a’s tenure at WSU, this flourishing Samoan pipeline is paying dividends for the Cougars.
Look down right before Washington State’s kickoff against Arizona this Saturday, and you’ll see a circle of big Polynesian football players clad in Cougars jerseys, holding hands while down on one knee, eyes closed. Praying.
Home or away, they gather on the edge of the field before and after every football game. Religion is a big part of the Samoan culture, and this season, the pre- and postgame prayer circle has become part of the game-day ritual for the Cougars’ growing community of Polynesian players.
“We do it before and after, win or lose. We’re just blessed to have the opportunity to play the game,” said Darryl Paulo.
WSU @ Arizona, 1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
The Cougars have 15 Polynesian players on their roster, and are one of only three Pac-12 teams that have managed to recruit and retain players directly from American Samoa.
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“The islands,” as defensive line coach, and Samoa native, Joe Salave’a likes to call his home territory, can be a difficult place to recruit.
Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, closer to Australia than America and a 23-hour travel ordeal from Pullman, American Samoa has its own unique culture and traditions.
There’s a huge emphasis on family, and it’s not always easy for an outsider to break into that circle.
“Not everybody recruits the islands,” said Salave’a, who grew up in Leone, American Samoa, but went to high school in Oceanside, Calif., before playing college football at Arizona. “They may say there’s a perception on paper that they recruit the island, but everybody’s kinda doing it through social media. You may get a kid here and there for some of these programs. But to sustain the trust with the family, you have to get your feet on the rock.”
Since Mike Leach hired him away from his alma mater at the end of the 2011 season, Salave’a has made at least one recruiting trip a year home to American Samoa.
It takes a full day of flying to cover the 5,380 miles between Pullman and Samoa. (In contrast, the distance between Pullman and Miami, the farthest end of the United States, is 3,080 miles.) Flights leave out of Hawaii only twice a week.
Yet, despite how difficult it is to get out there, Salave’a and the Cougars keep going back to the islands for talent, in part because of the good football players who’ve come out of Samoa, and in part because Salave’a feels a responsibility to his people to try to help give their sons a leg up in life.
“It’s all about trust and having a family-based culture, and if a coach will go down there and be sincere and take the time to visit with the families, that’s the thing. Those families would not be inclined to let their kids visit just anywhere,” Salave’a said.
Samoan players at WSU
DL Robert Barber (redshirt junior)
DL Daniel Ekuale (redshirt sophomore)
DL Destiny Vaeao (senior)
LB Frankie Luvu (sophomore)
Nickelback Logan Tago (freshman)
FS Shalom Luani (junior)
OL Amosa Sakaria (freshman)
Four years into Salave’a’s tenure at WSU, this flourishing Samoan pipeline is paying big dividends for the Cougars. WSU has signed at least two Samoan players per year in the Leach era, with a record three this year.
WSU leads the league with seven Samoan players — six of whom have earned spots on the Cougars’ two-deep.
Destiny Vaeao and Robert Barber form a Samoan front on the defensive line, with backup Daniel Ekuale showing promise behind them. Frankie Luvu and Logan Tago are second-string linebackers, and Shalom Luani has become a formidable force at free safety, earning Jim Thorpe and Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors for his two-interception outing against Oregon State.
The Cougars’ Samoan pipeline all started with Salave’a and two recruits — redshirt junior nose tackle Robert Barber and Destiny Vaeao, the senior defensive end who was also the founder of the Cougars’ game-day Samoan prayer circle.
Vaeao was the first Samoan player Salave’a went out to visit, and the first he got to commit to WSU.
Vaeao said he signed with the Cougars not because of their facilities or any vague promises of football glory, but because of Salave’a’s priorities, and the similarities he saw between Pullman and his hometown of Pago Pago. WSU was Vaeao’s final stop on his tour of American colleges. Before he came to Pullman from Pago Pago, he’d taken official visits to Alabama, Washington and Oregon State, and was on the verge of committing to the Beavers.
He visited Pullman on a whim, as a chance to see his older sister, a student at WSU at the time, and out of respect for Salave’a, whose nine-year NFL career made him something of a legend in Samoa.
In Pullman, the first meeting on Vaeao’s schedule was about academics. Oddly enough, despite having never thought of school as anything other than a vehicle to continue his football career, that resonated with him.
“It kind of opened my mind and opened my eyes,” Vaeao said. “It made me realize that without school, I’m not going to play football.”
Afterward, the tour of Pullman sealed the deal for Vaeao. More so than any other college town he’d visited, Pullman felt like home. He loved the community feel, and the proximity of everything from his dorm to classrooms to the football facility.
Pullman’s small-town feel and remote location relative to many of the other Pac-12 schools can work in its favor when it comes to getting guys off the islands.
“It’s not for everybody,” said Salave’a, who often has to explain to Samoan parents that Pullman is not in Seattle. “If people want to go to the big city and look for chandeliers, this is not it. If you want to go to a safe place with a college community and have those experiences in college, you might want to take a look at us.”
When Vaeao and Barber first got to WSU in 2012, they were the first Samoans the Cougars had signed straight from the islands since defensive tackle Tolo Palelei played for WSU in 1988.
But it helped that there were other Polynesian guys on the team. Tongan Toni Pole, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, took Barber and Vaeao under his wing, and the pair have followed in his footsteps, developing into stout starters on the defensive line.
Having the Samoan duo in Pullman has helped Salave’a on the recruiting front. Vaeao and Barber now host every Samoan recruit Salave’a brings in for an official visit. So far, Vaeao said, every Samoan recruit he’s hosted has ended up committing.
The Cougars’ Samoan and Polynesian players are a close-knit group who hang out regularly, often over a home-cooked Samoan meal courtesy of Barber — whom Vaeao says is their resident chef.
Salave’a is often around. He takes very seriously his role as father figure and mentor to his Polynesian flock.
“It’s a personal responsibility. When I go to Samoa and visit with a family, they know I’m not going to sell them anything that I don’t live by,” Salave’a said.
During his playing career, Salave’a always thought he’d go into law enforcement and become a federal agent after retiring from the NFL. But that plan has since given way to the current one. Salave’a sees his coaching and mentoring as his life’s calling and loves getting the chance to help so many kids from his home territory.
“I told coach Leach, I’m not trying to bring the islands here. Just the kids who are worthy of the opportunity and deserve the chance to pursue academics through their athletic abilities,” Salave’a said. “It’s thrilling for me to see the number of Polynesian kids coming off the island in all different divisions in college (sports) doing so well.
“It continues our legacy and tradition of great student-athletes and a lot of professional players.”