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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, December 17, 2002

American Samoa becomes focus for recruiting

By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

The football practice area is a mixture of long grass, dirt and gravel, and many of the players list rugby as their sport of choice.

But Moamoa Vaeao, Samoana High's vice principal and head football coach, believes the practice area, like others peppered across American Samoa, is a field of dreams for football players.

"It was for me," said Vaeao, who played football at the University of Hawai'i in the mid-1980s.

While compiling a recruiting list in 1983, Adam Rita, a UH assistant at the time, remembered the athletic grace and strength Vaeao displayed during a goodwill football game between Hawai'i and American Samoa high school players in 1979.

Rita eventually located Vaeao, who was working in the immigration office in American Samoa. Vaeao took a recruiting visit to UH and, soon after, was offered a football scholarship.

"It was like a dream come true when I went to Hawai'i," Vaeao said. "The main thing was I had a chance to earn a degree. That's what I tell the kids these days: 'Football is not your whole life, but it's a vehicle to pursue your education.' "

These days, the traffic is heavy in American Samoa, a hot spot for recruiting, attracting two dozen college programs. Hawai'i, Southern California, Oregon State and Fresno State have assigned assistants to recruit exclusively in Samoa.

Samoana High and Leoni High have five Division I-A prospects apiece. UH has arranged recruiting visits for six players, and is looking to schedule more.

Vaeao said the Warriors have the inside track because of Hawai'i's proximity and large Samoan population. Also, he said, many Samoan youngsters are enchanted by the play of UH defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, a 1999 graduate of Samoana in Pago Pago.

"Everything is 'Isaac, Isaac, Isaac,' " said Vaeao, noting UH's home football games are shown tape-delayed in American Samoa. "They all love Isaac. He's big time in Samoa."

Vaeao said football still is in its infancy in American Samoa. The coaches are volunteers, the fields are like Samoana High's and the offenses are basic.

But Vaeao said, "We have a lot of raw talent."

That was apparent with Sopoaga, a rare interior defensive lineman with quickness. Scouts believe players such as Sopoaga are more well-rounded because they grew up playing other sports.

UH hopes to continue its success. Mel Purcell, who is sitting out this season as a partial academic qualifier, is projected to compete at defensive end in the fall. UH also is in the running for two defensive ends with linebacker speed and the strength to bench press 400 pounds.

• Cram session: The Western Athletic Conference has yet to receive a waiver request from UH involving the certification process for the ConAgra Foods Hawai'i Bowl on Christmas Day.

According to WAC rules, a player must meet the academic requirements for a full-time student during the fall semester in order to play in a postseason bowl. UH's fall semester ends Friday, and school officials have complained there might not be enough time to receive and certify final grades before the Hawai'i Bowl.

Two players — both non-starters — are in jeopardy of not being eligible.

• Leaders of the WAC: According to figures released by the NCAA, UH led the WAC in average attendance with 38,759 per game this season.

Attendance was based on tickets issued. The NCAA did not require schools to report the number of tickets sold nor turnstile counts. UH finished 54th among 117 Division I-A schools.

Fresno State was second among WAC schools (37,800 per game, 55th overall), followed by Texas-El Paso (28,310) and Boise State (27,533).

• Pen pal: "A gonzo football coach?" said writer Hunter S. Thompson, who popularized gonzo journalism three decades ago. "That's an interesting concept."

Thompson was speaking of his new friend, UH coach June Jones, and new passion, Warrior football. "Nice chap," Thompson said of Jones. "I like the guy."

UH football has attracted an eclectic following since Jones became head coach in 1999. The actor, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, is friends with many of the players, and former boxing champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler has attended practices.

Thompson had been a casual Warrior fan, mostly through his friendship with UH president Evan Dobelle, whom he met during Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1976. During a recent Island visit, Thompson attended a UH football game, then was a dinner guest at Dobelle's house, where he met Jones.

Thompson was scheduled to promote his new book, but instead wanted to discuss the Warriors. "I'm a great fan now," Thompson said. "I think Hawai'i has a real potential to quickly end up on the football map."

Thompson said he admires Jones' over-the-top, let-it-ride attitude, what some might refer to as "gonzo."

"He's very impressive," Thompson said, "but to call him a gonzo coach ... hmm, I wonder sometimes whether it would help him or make life more difficult if he were labeled a gonzo coach."