Polynesian pipeline a pillar of Utah's Pac-12 surge

SALT LAKE CITY -- They gather two days before kickoff to chill out and bond, led by these large young men, the Polynesian linemen who are the muscular beating heart of Utah's football team. They call it "The 48-Hour Rule," and every member of this diverse college football roster is invited for an evening of stress reduction and storytelling and grief giving around a batch of kava, a Polynesian root used to produce a drink with mellowing properties.

It's a coffee shop in reverse, and the conviviality is followed by a pleasant fade and peaceful night of sleep.

Which is then followed on game day by brutal, frenzied mayhem from players who believe they own a warrior mentality, one that is rooted in a cultural fact, not a self-important boast.

"We switch like that," said Utah defensive tackle Viliseni Fauonuku, snapping his fingers to provide a visual and auditory emphasis. "I think -- I know for sure -- we are a warrior race. Our generation is a warrior generation. We're fun loving, but as soon as you step at my brother in any type of way, it's a whole different person."

Fauonuku's assertion is supported by four other nodding heads of fellow Tongan defensive linemen, who are relaxing on a pleasant Sunday evening after a feast of roast whole pig, grilled chicken, macaroni salad, marinated tapioca root and oka, a Samoan fish salad. In six days, the No. 5 Utes will play host to No. 23 California with ESPN's College GameDay on hand, providing validation to Utah's steady climb from Pac-12 newbie to College Football Playoff contender.

"We switch like that. I think -- I know for sure -- we are a warrior race. Our generation is a warrior generation. We're fun loving, but as soon as you step at my brother in any type of way, it's a whole different person."

Viliseni Fauonuku

Utah, unlike much of the spread-you-out Pac-12, is a smashmouth, line-of-scrimmage team, and the general consensus in the conference is no team is more physical at the point of attack on both sides of the ball. Utah battles Stanford for that "most physical" title in the Pac-12, and the Utes prevailed head-to-head during the previous two seasons against the Cardinal, whom they don't play in 2015.

"Two years in a row, just about the most physical game that we played," Stanford coach David Shaw said during Pac-12 media day. "Two teams that are very similar, two teams that recruit similar types of guys, similar kinds of personalities. They want big, physical, mature men, and that's what we want, too. Both teams walked out of those games knowing that they were in a pretty tough battle."

It's impossible to separate the Utes' reputation for being stout on the line of scrimmage from the program's high population of Polynesian players. There are 33 on the roster, with six of eight on the defensive line two-deep and six of 10 on the offensive line depth chart being Polynesian. The Salt Lake City area is home to one of the largest Polynesian communities per capita in the continental U.S. Former Utah coach Ron McBride made recruiting Polynesians, many of whom are members of the LDS church, a priority in the 1990s, and no FBS program has more Polynesian players (eight) on current NFL rosters.

Five of the first 66 selections in this past spring's NFL draft were Pacific Islanders, including Utah defensive end Nate Orchard, who changed his name from Fakahafua to Orchard to honor of his adopted family. There are around 60 players of Polynesian descent in the NFL this year, and a recent documentary about Polynesians in football, "In Football We Trust," loosely calculated that Polynesians are 28 times more likely than any ethnic group to play in the NFL.

A deep connection has developed between Utah and a community that has significantly migrated off the islands -- primarily Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga and Hawaii -- and onto the mainland, with concentrations near many West Coast cities and a growing population in Texas. More than half of Utah's Polynesian players are from Utah, many of whom choose to live with their families while playing for the Utes.

"Family" is word used by a lot of college football programs. It can be a marketing scheme for recruiting or an apt description, but that's a difficult distinction to make from the outside. That said, a scattering of days spent around the football building makes it feel like an unofficial team motto for the Utes. All 11 persons interviewed for this article used the word at least once. The Polynesian players almost unanimously said it was a determining factor for their signing with the Utah.

That isn't a new thing, either. Sione Po'uha played at Utah from 2001-04 before embarking on an eight-year NFL career. He played under McBride and then Urban Meyer, with current head coach Kyle Whittingham serving as Meyer's defensive coordinator during Utah's unbeaten 2004 season. He played high school football just down the road from Rice-Eccles Stadium at East High School, and there was really no question where he would play college football.

"For me, it was the culture that was here. There were guys who had the same background as I did. Liked the same foods I liked," Po'uha said. "You had coaches who understood the culture and were able to cultivate an environment where that culture could grow. Parents didn't feel like they were handing off their kids to something foreign. They knew Coach McBride, Coach Whittingham, knew how kids are raised in the Polynesian culture, our structure of growing up. It's something for parents to be able to trust that transition."

Whittingham agreed.

"Trust is the key word. And it perpetuates itself," he said. "We've had so much success with Polynesian athletes, not only on the field: I'm also talking academically, graduating them. The Polynesian community is very close-knit. When they know their boy is going to get taken care of and be pushed to be their best in all areas, that goes a long ways."

But enough of the cuddly stuff.

The Polynesian presence in major college football and the NFL has made it the equivalent of the Dominican Republic's production of Major League Baseball players. As for why that it is, there is the physical: It seems as though there are plenty of big Polynesian men who are surprisingly agile for their size. And the cultural: Polynesian culture teaches a respect for authority, which makes these athletes coachable.

There also seems to be an undercurrent of humility with even the most accomplished players. The Polynesian Utes mostly shrug when it is suggested that their often multisyllabic, vowel-heavy names might cause radio and TV personalities to use their names less often when talking about Utah, for fear of a tongue-tied mispronunciation.

"We think of ourselves as a unit," said defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei, younger brother of Star Lotulelei, whose name was correctly pronounced when he was called as the No. 14 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

"It's the whole D-line that gets recognized, not just one person. It feels better to hear, 'The D-line at Utah -- everybody is scared of them!' It makes you feel good. It's more rewarding."

Doug Elisaia, Utah's longtime strength coach who was raised in American Samoa, also points to a willingness to work. He singled out Jason Fanaika, who has transformed from an undersized linebacker to a 270-pound defensive end who squats 800 pounds.

"Here at Utah, we've made a living out of our two- and three-star athletes," he said. "Part of that is being mentally tough. We play guys who might have more talent. So we have to develop guys here, and the mental aspect is a huge part of what we do."

That warrior mentality isn't just about games, either. While the overriding concept of team and family prevail in the big picture, the offense still battles the defense on a day-to-day basis, and that creates temporary tribal warfare.

"It's always giants versus giants," offensive guard Isaac Asiata said. "The tenacity. We get after each other. It builds up and builds up. Then we get sick of each other, especially towards the end of fall camp. Then we're like, 'I just want to hit someone else.' But it carries over into the season. It's a blessing to have the defensive line we do have. Practicing against them makes me a better offensive lineman. But it's a pretty heated battle."

Asiata is Samoan, and Samoans and Tongans are traditional rivals, both in terms of Pacific island mythology and history. Heck, Google a Samoa-Tonga rugby match, where the pregame smack talk through competing war dances is epic. (The "haka," by the way, is a Māori tradition notably performed by the New Zealand "All Blacks" rugby team). Suffice it to say, the peaceful, jovial interaction over shared Polynesian ancestry is a relatively new thing, and the rivalry does come up at times on a team that is majority Tongan.

"There is a little joke-around when we do competitive stuff," Asiata said, "like blitz pickup or one-on-ones or scoop-and-reach drill. The Tongans get after the Samoans, the Samoans get after the Tongans. But like I said, the Samoans are outnumbered. It's pretty funny."

Yet when you ask the Polynesian players about how their culture has spread throughout the Utes, it's almost entirely about tightening team chemistry, about the white and black players picking up bits and pieces of the culture, both in terms of language and interaction. They speak of "'ofa" (love) and "faka'apa'apa" (respect).

They laugh over bridging cultural differences over expressing 'bro love.

Ultimately, though, that camaraderie and shared love of contact is most publicly expressed along the line of scrimmage, where Utah believes no team can prevent it from imposing its will.

"We take pride in being a Polynesian pipeline, that Polynesian mentality," Asiata said. "Samoan or Tongan, there's no 'fefe.' That's no fear."