Available July 2018
Football is at a crossroads, its future imperiled by the very physicality that drives its popularity. The game’s grass roots—high school and youth programs—are withering. But players from the small, South Pacific, American territory of Samoa and their brothers in the diaspora to Hawai`i and the mainland are bucking that trend, quietly becoming the most disproportionately overrepresented culture in the sport.
Football has become the means by which Samoans shout their story to the world. Images of a stoic Jesse Sapolu, a raging Junior Seau, and a free-spirited Troy Polamalu broadcast a Samoan presence well beyond the islands. They exemplify a sporting culture defined by competitiveness and physicality, by allegiance to family and team, and most of all, by commitment to fa’a Samoa, the way of Samoa.
Tropic of Football unravels American Samoa’s complex ties with the United States. It explores an island, where boys train on fields blistered with volcanic pebbles, wearing helmets that should have been discarded long ago and moves from the Samoan archipelago to Samoan outposts in Hawai`i and California where holding on to fa`a Samoa is an existential challenge. That story plays out in Kahuku on O`ahu’s North Shore, at Punahou and the St. Louis School in Honolulu, and at Oceanside, El Camino, Long Beach Poly, and elsewhere in California. But life on the heartbreakingly beautiful Samoan islands and in Samoan American communities is haunted by Junior Seau, who committed suicide after a vaunted NFL career, unable to live with the demons that resulted from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
In 2011, I had just finished two projects and found myself adrift. Having a book to work on is like running for me. I don’t feel right when it’s not there as a daily companion. I also needed to get out of my comfort zone. That led me to American Samoa, the anchor of a transnational people who use sport to tell a story about who they are. They have become, along with their Polynesian brothers, the new face of football.