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 identified with its football culture, too. San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu, with his long, curly hair flowing from his helmet, were Masoli’s idols growing up and there were plenty of others to choose from: 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 United States 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 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. “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 America 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 Samoan’s gravitate towards 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 it, Masoli has partnered with CASEProject, as U.S.-based registered non-profit established by former NFL quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who is now with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The organization, which focusses 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 (they can do so by visiting http://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.”