My 2016 story for the National Football Foundation’s Football Matters section. Joe Salavea was named to the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019. He is now coaching at Oregon as an associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator/run game.
By Tom Shanahan
Football lore is filled with Horatio Alger-like stories of athletes from humble beginnings. Joe Salave’a’s special journey lifted him from American Samoa to a White House ceremony and into college coaching.
White House invitations for athletes are commonly part of a team championship celebration, but Salave’a was uncommonly recognized for the Joe Salave’a Foundation he established during his NFL career. He played eight years as a defensive lineman, including Super Bowl XXXIV with the Tennessee Titans in the 1999 season.
Salave’a was with the Washington Redskins in 2005 when President George W. Bush invited him to the White House as part of Asian-Pacific American Heritage month.
“I’ve been humbled by the recognition from President Bush, but I never did it for that reason,” Salave’a said. “I was raised that you lend a hand and help others that don’t have the opportunities you’ve had.”
His foundation work led him into coaching, and he is now in his fifth year as Washington State’s defensive line coach. Cougars head coach Mike Leach added assistant head coach to his roles in 2015.
Salave’a left American Samoa for Oceanside, Calif., in 1992 as a high school junior; he spoke limited English. His aunt opened her home to him for a chance to attend Oceanside High, a school near San Diego with a long history of Samoan and Polynesian athletes. The is topped — and likely never to be surpassed — by the late Junior Seau, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, who also was born in American Samoa.
Salave’a’s older brother Okland Salave’a was Seau’s high school teammate and went on to play at Colorado. He returned American Samoa upon graduation and has been a teacher and coach, supporting Joe’s foundation that features clinics in American Samoa and Hawaii.
“It has been exciting to see the joy in kids at our clinics,” Salavea said. “I got a lot more out of it than the kids. It reiterated to me the process of giving back to the community.”
Samoans are viewed as naturals for football as big men with nimble feet. Salavea and Seau were among Samoan-born athletes playing in the NFL in 2000 when a GQ Magazine story calculated a boy growing up in American Samoa was 40 times more likely to reach the NFL than an a boy growing up in an area of similar population on the U.S. mainland.
But Salave’a said despite the label of born to play football, he didn’t know how to put on shoulder pads or get into a three-point stance until his Oceanside arrival. He was a quick-study, though, and earned a scholarship to Arizona. His All-Pac-10 defensive lineman honors launched his NFL career.
Realizing such dreams was the seed for his foundation and clinics for Polynesian youths.
“I wanted every Polynesian kid to have the chance to pursue football that I had,” Salave’a said. “That should be their dream. They have a plenty of Polynesian athletes to follow as examples.”
The wave of Polynesians that have influenced college and pro football began with Bob Apisa, the first Samoan All-American football player as a fullback on Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 national championship teams. The American Samoa-born Apisa was recruited out of Honolulu Farrington by Duffy Daugherty as part of the College Football Hall of Fame coach’s Hawaiian Pipeline.
By the fall of 2014, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota of Honolulu St. Louis was the first Samoan or Polynesian Heisman Trophy winner. By the summer of 2015, Seau was enshrined posthumously as the first Samoan or Polynesian Pro Football Hall of Famer.
As Salavea’s playing career ended, Dick Tomey, his head coach at Arizona, recognized his passion for working with kids through clinics and convinced him to join his staff at San Jose State in 2008.
Salave’a returned to his alma mater in 2011 to coach under Mike Stoops. When Stoops was fired that year, he recommended Salave’a to Leach, who in 2012 was then Washington State’s newly named head coach.
“At the time I knew more about (WSU) athletic director Bill Moos than Mike,” Salave’a said. “But I saw what they wanted to do and I liked the direction they wanted to take the program. I wanted to be part of a building process. That was intriguing for me.”
Last season Washington State was 9-4 with a win over Miami in the Sun Bowl. Leach was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
But it turns out relocating to Pullman, Wa., was more than a move to take a job for an out-of-work coach. Pullman may be small-town America, but Salave’a says he and his wife and two children enjoy the Pacific Northwest. He has turned down job offers to remain with Leach and the Cougars.
“Mike is not a micro manager,” Salave’a said. “He allows us to do our jobs, and we’re making progress at Wazzu. My family likes it. The quality of life in Pullman is unbelievable. I think we’re in the place we want to be.”
Another attraction to the job is Leach wants him to heavily recruit American Samoa and Hawaii. There are six Cougars from American Samoa and four more from Hawaii on Washington State’s 2016 spring roster. There also are two players from Oceanside High and overall seven from the San Diego area.
Salave’a’s entrée to coaching also represents a new phase of football influence from Polynesian players.
Ken Niumatalolo, the second Polynesian and first Samoan head coach at any college level, is entering his 10th season as Navy’s head coach. He has made life miserable for his service academy rivals, winning six Commander-in-Chief Trophies that come with a White House visit. He has a 9-0 record against Army and 6-3 against Air Force.
BYU’s new head coach is Kalani Sitake, a Tongan that played at BYU and was Oregon State’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
“I have nothing but admiration for those guys,” Salave’a said. “I’m not sure how long I’ll coach, but like anything else in life someday I’d like to run my own program. We need more Polynesians in coaching. I enjoy coaching, counseling and mentoring young men. But right now I’m happy here. My job is doing the best job I can at Wazzu.”
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