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From The Rock to Pullman: Joe Salave'a leads WSU's American Samoa recruiting pipeline

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Joe Salave'a, a teacher on the field and a father figure off of it, is the key ingredient to Washington State's recruiting pipeline to American Samoa.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Five thousand miles away in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean sits American Samoa, home to nearly 56,000, a large majority of whom reside in Tutuila, the largest island in the territory. It's a place so small, so remote that you can only come and go on Friday and Monday, the only two days a flight from Honolulu lands at Pago Pago International Airport.

"The Rock," as it's collectively known, was rooted in rugby dating back to the early 1920s, shortly after the territory was annexed at the turn of the 20th century, and it wasn't until 1976 that American football was introduced. Forty years later, American Samoa, previously known for its tuna and high military presence, is a football factory pushing out major college talent on a yearly basis.

As of the beginning of the 2015 football season, there were more than 200 American Samoans on rosters of Division I college football teams, according to Mike Sager, the bestselling author of Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, whose must-read piece titled The Samoan Pipeline appears in the December 5 edition of the California Sunday Magazine. "If you begin to count other Polynesians — Pacific Islanders from Hawaii, Tonga, Easter Island, and New Zealand," Sager notes, "the impact is even greater."

Washington State, under Mike Leach and defensive line coach Joe Salave'a, has quickly established itself as a major player when it comes to recruiting American Samoa, but the Cougars' success in recruiting players of Samoan decent goes back much further.

Washington State great Jack Thompson, simply known as "The Throwin' Samoan," was the first Pacific Islander to play for the Cougars. A record-breaking career during the mid-1970s led to Thompson's induction into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame in 2013, the inaugural class, and his impact as an ambassador for Polynesian athletes is still felt at Washington State today.

The Cougars boast 13 players of Samoan descent, the vast majority of whom were recruited straight from American Samoa by Salave'a, and a handful of other Polynesians that fill the Cougars' two-deeps, mostly on the defensive side. Salave'a, having been raised in Tutuila prior to finishing high school in Southern California, knows all about the hard work and determination that accompanies the gifted physical attributes.

"Over the years, football coaches have found the island a ready inventory of large, big-boned, and nimble Samoans, with the kind of solid base that football coaches love: massive from the waist down but still able to move their feet," Sager writes. "Samoans' facility with footwork is often attributed to tribal dances and the common practice of going barefoot. Their love of combat is derived from a fierce warrior culture that goes back hundreds of years.

"It comes from an upbringing that stresses hard work, discipline, and a devotion to authority, both heavenly and earthbound."

It's that kind of upbringing — coming home each and every day after football practice to do endless chores; using a machete to cut back the overgrowing jungle, cleaning the pigpen or simply serving the adults, whose word is paramount — that echoes the foundational philosophies of this Washington State football program, which has turned the corner as these core beliefs have been deeply woven within the locker room.

Now, that's only one part of the equation and, of course, the physical side of recruiting Samoa has as big of an impact as any. The Cougars, on almost every snap, have at least four players of Polynesian descent on the field at a time, as Shalom Luani and Taylor Taliulu anchor the back end and Destiny Vaeao, Daniel Ekuale, Robert Barber, Darryl Paulo and others get after the quarterback along the defensive line. True freshman Logan Tago and second-year freshman Frankie Luvu, two young guns at linebacker, have also created noise on defense and special teams this year.

Salave'a, one of the top defensive line coaches in the country, spends countless hours with his players on the field, however, more importantly, he's a pivotal figure in each of their lives off the field.

"More than just a coach, Coach Joe plays the role of village chief," Sager says. "He regularly talks to the boys' counselors and hangs out with the group. He is mindful of the promises he made in all of those large and crowded living rooms across Tutuila. A few other college coaches might come and go to the island — it takes two different planes and nearly 24 hours to reach Samoa from the West Coast — but Coach Joe is the one the islanders trust. He is one of them. "If something would happen to one of these kids, I gotta answer to their families," he says. Last year, after the Cougars' first postseason bowl appearance in ten years, Pac-12 rival USC offered Coach Joe a job at a substantial raise. After some thought, and a counteroffer from Washington State, he turned them down."

Salave'a, a man as loyal as they come, will proudly see the first Samoan he recruited to Pullman, defensive lineman Destiny Vaeao, graduate in December with a degree in criminal justice. Vaeao, who picked the Cougars over several big-time offers including Alabama, whom he visited, is sure to get a look at the NFL, but like so many others who leave the islands, his college diploma was the ultimate goal, and Salave'a helped lead the way, as promised.

That's why Leach, Salave'a and Washington State continue to go back to the The Rock: Salave'a is trusted by the parents of these kids, not because of his celebrity status, but because of his proven record of being a positive and father-like influence to these 17- to 22-year-olds. That's the student side, which always comes first, as it should.

But then there's the athlete side. It surely doesn't hurt that Salave'a's brother, Okland, is the head coach at Samoa's top high school football program, Tafuna, which has produced offensive lineman Amosa Sakaria, Luvu and Vaeao, among many other Division I and junior college players.

The older Salave'a — or Coach Oak, as his players call him — is coaching up another highly-sought player this year, Frederick Mauigoa, an offensive lineman rated the top 2016 prospect in American Samoa. Mauigoa, one of the first high school seniors to have participated in Samoa's youth football program, which opened in 2009, holds a Washington State offer and is expected to visit prior to signing day.

Vaeao and the rest of the Poly crew, riding a 100 percent commitment rate when hosting Samoan official visitors, will then put their perfect record on the line while showing Mauigoa around Pullman when he visits, hoping to continue building a pipeline from The Rock to Pullman that has flourished in recent years thanks to Salave'a, the coach that shows up rocking crimson and gray, making dreams come true.

"The biggest dream of everyone in Samoa is to leave the island and look for a better future," said Peter Gurr, the deputy director of the American Samoa Department of Agriculture, in Sager's piece. "Right now, if you don't get a college scholarship, the only thing to do is join the military.

"And then there's football."