Miami coach Cam Cameron said he likes the attitude of the Samoan players on the team now, three from Hawaii. CLICK FOR LARGE
Former Warriors now part of Dolphins' 'Samoan Block'
DAVIE, Fla. » Several rookies who share one corner of the Miami Dolphins' locker room quickly formed a bond by eating together, studying playbooks together and telling jokes they say only a Samoan would find funny.
They've helped formed the "Samoan Block" -- a group of six players of Polynesian descent. Five are from Samoa and one from Tonga, a neighboring island.
Three of them played for the University of Hawaii last season.
"It's just a little dot on the map," rookie defensive tackle Paul Soliai said.
But the South Pacific islands have long been fertile territory for the NFL, especially this year for the Dolphins.
There's Soliai, center Samson Satele, fullback Reagan Mauia, guard Tala Esera and defensive tackle Brian Soi, each a rookie. Defensive tackle Steve Fifita is Tongan and a second-year pro.
Their home is a series of Polynesian islands that are divided between the independent nation of Samoa and American Samoa, a territory of the United States, that have a combined population of about 250,000. Despite the small size, the Samoas have produced an abundance of outstanding football players -- an ESPN study in 2002 estimated that a Samoan is 40 times more likely to reach the NFL than a boy growing up in the 50 states.
The Samoan Dolphins say they're not trying to segregate from the team by hanging out together; they just "understand each other," Soi said. He and Soliai are even related -- they're second cousins.
"Samoans are all about respect," said Soliai, born and raised in Pago Pago, American Samoa. "You have to give it, and you have to earn it. We know that. It makes it easy to live when you have so many people on the same team that understand you."
The Samoan Dolphins communicate in their native language, but also speak fluent English. Rookie quarterback John Beck, who learned some Samoan at Brigham Young, is an honorary member of the group. They call him "the half Samoan," and his locker is also stationed on the Samoan Block.
"They called me palagi, or white boy," at BYU, Beck said. "Really, though, they are the coolest people you will ever meet."
Some 6,000 miles from Samoa, South Florida offers few comparisons -- other than the steamy weather -- but the six players say they haven't had a problem adjusting. Even though Samoan towns often have "one street, maybe," crowded Miami hasn't worn them down, Soliai said.
"We're always hanging around each other," Soliai said. "We're always helping each other out."
The five Samoan rookies were acquired by new coach Cam Cameron. He said the team didn't gear its draft strategy toward the island, but he likes the attitude of the Samoans and appreciates their bond.
"They're all different, their families are different," Cameron said after April's draft. "But what we have seen in these guys is that spirit of enthusiasm, that pride. When they step on the football field, they know they represent someone bigger than themselves, and that's important. We believe in that."
The first Samoan to play in the NFL was Al Lolotai in 1945 with the Washington Redskins. Later came such stars as former Dolphin Junior Seau and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, who have helped inspire the recent surge.
There were about 30 Polynesians on NFL rosters last season, according to the league's Web site. There were four teams in 2006 with more than three Polynesians on their roster -- the Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers.
"Kids are all about football over there," Soliai said. "They see us make it, and they look up to us. All they want to do is play in the NFL."
When the United States poured money into American Samoa in the 1960s -- developing homes, schools and roads -- football came, too, Soliai said. Young Samoans began taking up the sport instead of rugby, the territory's pastime.
Still, most natives don't play organized football until high school, and there are few football facilities in Samoa to equal those in the United States, Soliai said.
But the sport is becoming more widespread, partly because Samoans in the NFL sponsor camps and donate money for improved facilities.
The lure of a college scholarship and an NFL paycheck help fuel the rising popularity, too. Without other means to leave the islands, football can be a ticket to a better life.
"In America, they pay for your education if you play football," Soi said. "So a lot of kids there try and play football so they can get off the island, so they can move on instead of seeing the same old stuff every day."
Back home in the South Pacific, the Dolphins' air-conditioned practice bubble and the lush, green outdoor practice fields are but a dream. In Samoa the grass is often baked white, and children -- who commute miles to school by foot -- can't imagine such luxuries as a smooth playing surface.
"You don't play on grass. The grass over there is dead," said Satele, a Samoan raised in Kailua. "You play on rocks, gravel if you're lucky. It makes you tough, man."
Samoan children sometimes sacrifice their sandals for knee pads, share mouthpieces and swap helmets that don't fit. Most don't see a grass field until high school, Satele said.
Think the NFL's physical?
"You're out there getting scraped every day and getting sprayed with the other guys' blood," Satele said. "It makes the NFL sound easy."
The Samoan Dolphins are aggressive on the field but friendly off it. Between thundering hits they keep things relaxed, joking with each other in Samoan to annoy other players and coaches.
"The coaches give us a hard time about that," Soi said. "They just make fun of us. They kind of think we're talking (trash) about them or players but we're not, usually."
The Samoan Dolphins have made strong contributions in the first two weeks of training camp. Soi said he won't be surprised if all six make the roster, because Samoans are built to last.
"We are raised tough," Soi said. "We love to hit. There is pretty much raw talent over there. Samoans want to get here so bad they are playing on rocks. So when we get here, that energy ain't changing."