Arriving in Los Angeles, California was a monumentous step for the four young men. Although they had all been to New Zealand and had also for two, lived in the USA, this was really the first time ever coming to California.
California has a certain appeal to the rest of the world. There is Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world and the California vibe that seems to symbolize coolness 24/7. For the boys excitement was hard to contain throughout the flight. Thoughts went back and forth between anticipation and missing those they had left behind. But one thing was sure, California was the place to be.
The jet flew into California early in the morning. Looking out the window they could see the immensity of the city of Los Angeles as it stretched out for miles from the Ocean to the mountains and beyond. This was the largest city they had ever seen. The safety belt signal went on and they sat down looking out the window as the buildings got larger and the ground seemed to rush up to meet them. There was a slight bump and screech as the planes tire's met the asphalt afterwhich they all breathed a sigh of relief knowing they had safely landed.
The mood was serious yet upbeat as they stood up grabbing whatever backpacks and clothing they had brought with them. Everyone wanted to step out of that plane and breath the warm California air. Richard Brown had made arrangements with relatives who would meet them at the airport. They disembarked and went through immigration without any problem. Two of the boys, Paulo and Perry had American passports. Zach and Lance had New Zealand passports. The visas they landed in America with were for visiting, which later on they would find out were not adequate for attending college. But for now the mood was definitely one of excitement. Emerging from the plane into the warm California sunshine made them feel like stars about to walk through Hollywood.
Liz Talili was there at the gate after they grabbed their luggage to transport them to her home in Orange County. "The OC", as it is affectionately known in LA, is south of the main city of Los Angeles. The county of Orange is mostly a white community with growing pockets of Hispanics, Asians and a few Pacific Islanders thrown in the mix. This was Richard Brown's "home". He had grown up here with his family and he had deep roots in this community.
For the boys they were just soaking up the warmth of California as they drove from LAX to the OC. The city seemed to go on forever. Driving down a freeway in Los Angeles is an experience in and of itself. The 405 South to the 22 East, these were all new experiences for them as they marveled at the unending stream of cars driving down 5 lanes of traffic. It was amazing to see how many people lived here. Samoa felt so far away and small as they looked everywhere and saw more humanity, buildings and cars. They were definitely in California.
They spent their first day in Cali enjoying the hospitality of Liz and her family. The food was delicious, the company even more interesting. The next morning they were on the road again as they headed south to San Diego which was another 2 hours driving from the OC. But before they left Richard took them to a few spots in Orange County to see.
One of these spots was a store where Richard Brown's NFL Jersey was hanging in full view. This was confirmation for them of how legitimate their time spent with him had been. All of the stories and experiences he had shared on football and life in the USA were not merely hyperbole, they were indeed fact. This made the previous 2 years that much more valuable for them as they realized that in this world Coach was no small fish. He had swum with the big fishes and he was recognized for his accomplishments in football. In Samoa he was a voice crying out in the wilderness, and they had no frame of reference as to who he was. But now they understood. Richard Brown was the real McCoy.
One of the most interesting things they saw and enjoyed were the number of fast food restaurants in Southern California. Every kind of food was available from the easily recognizable McDonalds to Popeye's Chicken. There were so many Burger places, Burger King, Jack in The Box, Carls Jr., Wendys, In and Out Burgers and more. Then the chicken places, KFC, El Pollo Loco, Churches. Then there was Mexican food. It was so amazing to see the many different kinds of restaurants available. So many Fast food joints so little time. This was fast food heaven for them.
They were excited to see the College where they would be playing football for the next year or two. The drive to San Diego was a more scenic route than their drive to the OC. They saw the beaches and lifestyle of California. Surfers dotted the waves while sun bathers lay out on the sand. Cute girls in revealing bathing suits were everywhere. This was a far cry from the conservative Samoan landscape where the people wore clothing that covered everything. If anything that awoke them to the reality that they were no longer in Apia. They were in California.
Southwestern College is located in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego. It is a beautiful campus with a beautiful football stadium and brand new training facility. Coach Pete was their contact there and he on behalf of the Football Coach was ready to accept these students into the family of Southwestern.
They drove into San Diego taking the 805 Fwy where they intersected with Mission Valley and drove east on the 8 Fwy to see Charger Stadium otherwise known as Qualcomm Stadium. From the freeway the large concrete structure dwarfed anything they had seen in Samoa.
They met with the coaching staff of Southwestern as soon as they got there and became familiar with Coach Pete who is a Samoan coach on the Southwestern staff. He was the one who recommended that the boys come to school there. Southwestern College had already been successful with Samoan players and were excited about receiving more. They began the process of enrolling in school and getting the proper papers so they could stay in California and play ball while attending Southwestern College, a beautiful school in Chula Vista, a suburb o San Diego.
The boys were excited just to be going to the campus each day, practicing with the team and trying the different foods and restaurants. Southwestern was excited at the chance to solidify their position as the destination for many Samoan Junior college recruits who were looking to play football. They had great success since the school began recruiting Samoan football players. But there was one problem, they were not familiar with handling students from independent Samoa. This turned out to be a stumbling block for the boys.
It soon became apparent after a week of meeting the Southwestern College coaching staff, that Southwestern was not going to be able to provide the support needed for the boys from New Zealand and Samoa to stay and attend school. It was a depressing moment that was clearly the turning point if they were to remain in California. The boys and Richard had to find another player who could accommodate the boys immigration requirements.
How would they overcome this barrier? Tune in for the next episode.
This is the Benefit Luau that Pastor Benson Mauga and his First Samoan Baptist Church, Dan Saleaumua, Le Malae and Papalii Thomas Alailima are organizing for the Samoan Athletes, our Fantabulous Four: Perry, Lance, Zach and Paulo. The boys are preparing to perform some dances for the Luau. The menu is going to be very Polynesian so come prepared to be full by the time the Luau ends.
Samoa is a small independent nation of less than 200,000 people situated south of the equator. It lies about 10 hours flying time from Los Angeles. It is surrounded by the South Pacific Ocean and has climate that is warm all year round. Living in Samoa is comparable to living in a paradise because the weather, the people and the culture are compatible with being happy. In some circles Samoa is called the land of the happy people. When you visit Samoa you notice that the lush green vegetation climbs up mountain ranges and the blue skies are quite a bit brighter than the skies anywhere else. The water is warm and clear. You can swim 24 hours a day in the nice clean lagoons which circle all the islands of Samoa.
This makes it hard for anyone living in foreign lands to understand why anyone would want to leave these islands at all. This is the dilemma for many of the young people in Samoa. There are only a limited amount of opportunities available for the rising population of teens and these are positions which are held jealously by the older generation. The older generation are not trying to relinquish these positions at any time soon so many of the youth seek work, education and other opportunities elsewhere. The population of Samoa consists mostly of very young children and more mature folks. The 20-35 year olds are only a small portion of the population. They leave Samoa in their early 20s to seek a life in either New Zealand or Australia. These two nations are home to more Samoans than actually live in Samoa!
Time seems to stand still in the islands and for those who live there life is deliberate and slow paced. Change does not come quickly. The town of Apia is where a majority of Samoans come to find work and to live because it is the center of activity for Samoa. The Parliament holds its sessions in Mulinuu, less than a mile from downtown. All of the best schools can be found here and business is thriving here because the Banks and other financial centers are located here.
The town has the majority of all modern phenomena such as McDonalds, an air conditioned theater where the latest movies are shown, various markets and department (like) stores. They have stop lights, a national university, major hospital, TV and radio stations and many hotels concentrated in this town of about 70,000. This is a bustling town that is unique in its own way.
The boys were about to leave this paradise and fly out to San Diego, California. They had been training under the mentorship and direction of Leapai Richard Brown who played in the NFL for more than 10 years before retiring and moving to Samoa to live so he could be with his family. He had single handedly begun to train local boys the game of American Football.
Now Samoa is well known for producing many world class Rugby players. Rugby is as Samoan as Keke Puaa, a local favorite fast food. The Samoans are a very unique race who are well known in the sports that are the most violent e.g., Boxing, Wrestling, MMA, American Football and Rugby. However, Samoans are divided into two countries, Samoa (independent) and American Samoa, a territory of the USA. They both belong to the same race of Polynesians, the Samoan race, but American Samoa was made an American territory in the early 1900s. They have been as such since then. Samoa on the other hand were under the control of first Gerrmany, then New Zealand, but sought for independence which they received in 1962.
Leapai Richard Brown and his family migrated to the USA in the 1970s and eventually settled in Huntington Beach, California. There they all attended High SCHool and eventually Richard was recruited by San Diego State University to play college ball. Now he has come full circle as he seeks to bring his four trainees to San Diego to seek an opportunity to attend on local college and eventually play football for the college.
After 2 years of very tough training, the boys were anxious to find out whether they could compete at the level of an American College Football player. They had endured everything Richard Brown had thrown their way: weight room training, running, NFL style techniques and other challenges. They had worked together as a unit and now they planned to go forth into a new world together. This was the plan, but to achieve their goal they needed money and they needed a school to invite them to try out.
There were many schools that were interested but there was one school that actually offered to play them if they could come to San Diego in June, 2015. The school was South Western College in Chula Vista, San Diego. This meant they would fly from Apia to Los Angeles and then head south on the 5 freeway to a city that Coach Brown had spent his college years playing in and establishing himself as one of the premiere Linebackers to emerge from San Diego State. This was a homecoming for him, but for the boys it was going to be a whole new world.
To pay for the expensive air fares they raised money in Apia and friends and family donated heartedly. They raised enough to make the trip and to pay for expenses when they arrived. Now they were ready and the date for leaving their families and homes was just around the corner. June 15, 2015 would be the date for them to leave and embark on the journey, a thrill of a lifetime for these four young men and their coach as they packed and drove to Faleolo Airport to catch the flight.
It was a time of great excitement but also a time of contemplation and deep thought. Each of them were locked in their thoughts as they realized the training was done, now they were about to make it happen.
Questions. These were raging through their minds, even Coach Brown had questions of how this would play out. With no firm commitment he had made this move more out of faith in the system than anything else. He had trained these boys and given them everything he had in terms of knowledge and skill. Now the experiment would enter a new phase and it would require a number of pieces to fall in place for it be successful.
The boys were all excited, for some the idea of going to America was great, others thought of leaving the island and how different life would be from here on out. Would they be returning with glory or returning with nothing to show? These were the questions running through their heads as the caravan of cars made its way along the coast of Upolu from Apia to the airport in Faleolo. The moment of truth had arrived. Now they would finally know how ready they were for this challenge. There was alot of uncertainty but they had faith in their mentor and coach that he would be able to put them in a college and they would play American College Football come the Fall of 2015.
As they said their goodbyes and each climbed the steps onto the plane, they took that last look out the plane window at the people in the airport terminal. They all thought about the journey that they had taken thus far leading them to this point in their lives and they whispered a prayer of thanks and for safety and success as they put on their safety belts and buckled down for the long trip ahead.
Next week.....They arrive in California. The journey continues. Please remember to come join the boys in San Diego at their Benefit Luau on September 5, 2015. Please see the flyer below. Thank you for your support.
This is a Blog that will be updated regularly for the benefit of the readers who follow Le Malae and our sports fans who are interested in the lives of the 4 Samoan Athletes who came to the USA on a belief that they would be accepted into a College in the USA to play football and also gain an education. The blog will describe all the activities which they are going through and those who they met along the way. Its a journey which we are documenting with this blog and will include pictures, video, interesting commentary as well as good lessons for those who want to pursue their dreams.
The 4 athletes are Paulo Stancil, Lance Leota, Zachariah Betham, and Perry Afato. These young men are all from the country of Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) an independent nation in the South Pacific where the main sport is Rugby, not American Football. But these four young men were intrigued by the sport of American Football while in Samoa and were introduced to the game by different people.
Lance Leota actually went to American Samoa, which is less than 8 hours away by boat, an hour away by plane, and played football for the Leone High School Lions. He played for a year and was highly recruited by colleges but due to his status as a non American he was unable to pursue the dream further.
Perry Afato was actually living in Seattle, Washington for a while, his parents were pastors for the Voice of Christ church in Seattle. However, they were called to serve in New Zealand and so he moved back to Samoa and lived there without really playing the game.
Zachariah Betham was introduced to the game through an organization that was created by certain individuals who wanted to promote American Football in Samoa. They started with a fundraising effort that raised quite a bit of money and then the primary individual took off with the money. So that dampened the enthusiasm of the parents and the youths who were a part of this program. Zach had been a part of the top Rugby squads for under 18 and under 20 year olds coming out of Samoa and New Zealand.
Paul Stancil was a Rugby player in Samoa. He also spent time in Seattle, WA but never remained there long enough to get any football experience. He moved back to Samoa and was a rugby player and helped with his family business which was running a hotel.
They all met Richard Brown, an ex NFL player who lived with his family in Samoa, around the same time and began training with him. This training was designed to give them some knowledge and skill in the game of football. Richard Brown is a chief from the village of Vaimoso. His title is Leapai. But although he has immersed himself in the Samoan culture Richard grew up mostly in Huntington Beach, Orange County, CA. He attended High School in Westminster and then was recruited by San Diego State to play linebacker. He was drafted by the Rams in 1986 and played over 12 years in "the league". After he retired he moved back to Samoa and started his life there with a new wife and new goal of bringing the sport of American football to the youngsters of Samoa.
Samoa and American Samoa are basically the same country in terms of the people who live there. They are the same race, speak the same language and practice the same culture. The only difference is Samoa was administered by Germany then New Zealand before becoming independent in 1962. American Samoa became a US territory in the early 1900s and has remained so til today. American Samoa has all the benefits of American life including American Football and alot of interest from College Scouts who come to this small island of less than 80,000 people every year to select the best High School players to play for their schools. This is a blessing for the people of American Samoa and many of these athletes go on to play professionally and benefit their families. It is believed that a Samoan has 50% more chance of making it into the NFL than any other race. That is why American Samoa has become known as the place to go for top football players.
Samoa on the other hand is independent and were affiliated more with New Zealand than the USA so they play rugby which is also a very physical sport but the opportunities to play professionally are not as substantial as the opportunities for those who make it to the NFL. Samoa as small as it is is ranked in the top 10 world wide in Rugby. Its team has competed successfully with nations of 10 million people or more and regularly beat them. The number of Samoans living in independent Samoa is around 190,000. So there are more people living in Samoa but they are not being recruited by American Colleges because they do not play American Football. This is a travesty because they are as big, as fast and as physical as their counterparts in American Samoa. All that is missing is the basic knowledge of American football.
This is where Richard Leapai came into the picture with his program of training athletes in Samoa how to play the game and he has already sent a number of players to various schools throughout the USA where they are learning and playing the game of American Football. But this time Richard took a risk and sent 4 players all together to play College Football. Not knowing what to expect, they all took a leap of faith and flew to California and began the search for a school and a football program that would take them and play them in their football program. This is the story of the 4 Samoan Athletes from Samoa who came to America to find their dream.