Ma­soli re­turns to Samoan roots with football, life skills pro­gram

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - DREW ED­WARDS

Jeremiah Ma­soli walked into a high school on the is­land of Amer­i­can Samoa last winter ex­pect­ing to ad­dress the football team. In­stead, he found the en­tire stu­dent body massed in the school’s cramped gym­na­sium, singing songs to cel­e­brate his ar­rival.

Born in San Fran­cisco to par­ents of Samoan de­scent, Ma­soli had al­ways felt con­nected to his Poly­ne­sian roots. As a boy, he would re­turn of­ten, visit­ing his grand­par­ents and large ex­tended fam­ily scat­tered across the tiny group­ing of seven is­lands sit­u­ated in the mid­dle of the South Pa­cific Ocean.

He also iden­ti­fied with its football cul­ture. Charg­ers line­backer Junior Seau and Steel­ers de­fen­sive back Troy Po­la­malu — with his long, curly hair — were Ma­soli’s idols grow­ing up. There were plenty of oth­ers: Samoans are 40 times more likely to end up play­ing in the NFL than the av­er­age Amer­i­can male.

Of­fi­cially an un­in­cor­po­rated ter­ri­tory, Amer­i­can Samoa is con­trolled by the U.S., but does not en­joy all the eco­nomic and con­sti­tu­tional ben­e­fits of the 50 states. With a pop­u­la­tion of just over 55,000, it has an un­em­ploy­ment rate of over 20 per cent — it also has the high­est per capita rate of armed ser­vice en­list­ment in the U.S. — and a much lower stan­dard of liv­ing than Ma­soli was en­joy­ing in San Fran­cisco.

“We would work hard but we com­plain about stuff: ‘My shoes aren’t the best, I don’t have the best equip­ment, Mom buy me these Nike socks,’” Ma­soli says of grow­ing up in San Fran­cisco. “I’d go from that to Samoa, where these guys are play­ing games with bor­rowed shoes or, in some cases, no shoes at all. It stuck with me.”

Stand­ing in front of the cheer­ing stu­dent body last winter, back on the is­land for the first time in more than a decade and trav­el­ling with his preg­nant wife, Ma­soli felt those mem­o­ries flood­ing back, not just the spir­i­tual con­nec­tion with the place and its peo­ple, but the urge to make a con­tri­bu­tion to the com­mu­nity. Now 28, his fam­ily life in or­der and en­ter­ing his fifth sea­son as a quar­ter­back with the Hamil­ton Tiger-Cats, Ma­soli feels he has the sta­bil­ity to be­gin giv­ing back.

And so, later this week, Ma­soli and six oth­ers will travel to Amer­i­can Samoa to launch an am­bi­tious pro­gram de­signed to com­bine lit­er­acy and life goal-set­ting with football train­ing. He and his team, split more or less equally be­tween ath­letes and ed­u­ca­tors, will hit five schools in seven days all across the coun­try.

“We want to change the mind­set of how youth think about sports, how we can get them thinking not just about a sports dream, but about set­ting life goals,” Ma­soli said. “His­tor­i­cally, there’s re­ally only been two easy ways off the is­land: ei­ther you get a schol­ar­ship, or you’re in the mil­i­tary. We want to open up the pos­si­bil­i­ties be­yond that.”

The cur­ricu­lum was de­signed specif­i­cally with the Samoan cul­ture in mind and will be de­liv­ered by both ath­letes and ed­u­ca­tors — Ma­soli in­cluded — to the en­tire stu­dent body of each school, mean­ing they’ll reach more than 1,000 stu­dents over the course of the trip. Af­ter school, Ma­soli and the other play­ers will work with play­ers and coaches on the football team on speed train­ing and skills devel­op­ment.

“We are taught to put fam­ily and com­mu­nity first, which is an­other rea­son why Samoans grav­i­tate to­ward the mil­i­tary and football, which both em­pha­size a team-first men­tal­ity,” Ma­soli said. “We’re look­ing to en­gage these stu­dents in a safe en­vi­ron­ment and try­ing to get them to open up and think about their lives in a new and ex­cit­ing way.”

To do that, Ma­soli has part­nered with CASE-Pro­ject, a U.S.-based reg­is­tered non­profit es­tab­lished by for­mer NFL quar­ter­back McLeod Bethel-Thomp­son, who is now with the Win­nipeg Blue Bombers. The or­ga­ni­za­tion, which fo­cuses on com­bin­ing sports and ed­u­ca­tion as a way to man­i­fest so­cial, eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal change, has done work in El Sal­vador and other Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries.

The Ti­cats have made a fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion and there’s talk the CFL may get be­hind the pro­ject as well. Ma­soli has been re­luc­tant to ask the Hamil­ton com­mu­nity for sup­port be­cause the money won’t be spent here (though they can do so by visit­ing www.case­pro­ject.org).

“My Samoan roots, my Samoan cul­ture, that’s where my football in­spi­ra­tion came from,” Ma­soli says. “It’s based around fam­ily and there’s a lot of give and take. It’s given so much to me and I’m ex­cited about the opportunity to give some­thing back.”

Jeremiah Ma­soli giv­ing back

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