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'Tropic of Football' review: Rob Ruck on the role of Samoans in the NFL

"Tropic of Football" by Rob Ruck (New Press, July 2018) Photo Credit: The New Press

TROPIC OF FOOTBALL: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans to the NFL, by Rob Ruck. The New Press, 305 pp., $26.99.

Everything that’s rousing and distressing about block-and-tackle football is encompassed in “Tropic of Football,” Rob Ruck’s illuminating chronicle of the Samoan presence in the American mainland’s most dominant sport. It’s inspiring, on the one hand, how passion for the game among young men growing up in the South Pacific territory of American Samoa is distilled into individual discipline and collective triumph. But it’s also disquieting to come across stories of persistent economic and personal hardships in the region as well as concerns about players’ health and safety that threaten the game’s long-term future.

Those whose knowledge of football is less than rudimentary may be surprised that the Samoan experience in the game is worthy of a book-length study. But Sunday-afternoon devotees (or addicts) will easily recognize such boldface names as Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu, San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Jesse Sapulo, ill-starred San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and up-and-coming Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. They’re part of the rich history recorded in “Tropic of Football,” as are such lesser-known heroes as Charlie Ahe, a lineman for the swashbuckling 1950s Detroit Lions offense; and running back Bob Apisa, who starred in the backfield of the mid-1960s Michigan State Spartans, whose roster also included the legendary Bubba Smith.

The stories of these pioneers and those who followed them might by themselves fascinate serious fans. But it’s the context framing these lives that makes “Tropic of Football” more significant than most sports books. Ruck is a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh whose 1999 study, “The Republic of Baseball,” brought similar scholarship to the Dominican influence upon what used to be considered America’s Pastime. Here he is intent on submitting deep, broad background on Samoa’s history, beginning at the close of the 19th century, when Robert Louis Stevenson bonded with the natives and their way of life — referred to throughout the book as “fa’a Samoa,” which Ruck characterizes as favoring “reciprocity, leisure, and respect for elders.”

Over time, Ruck writes, Samoans found in sport an outlet for what he and others characterize as their “warrior” tradition. “Because for Samoans,” Ruck writes, “sport was often as rough as war. Both were conducted with violence and ritual,” an ideal combination for American football, which was first embraced among Samoan families who immigrated to Hawaii, California and other states because of job opportunities or military service. It was on Oahu’s north shore, for example, where young Samoans gravitated to high school football, a sport that “gave generations of Polynesian boys a way to come to terms with their place in the world.” Eventually, the sport migrated back to Samoa, creating spirited and intense rivalries between local high schools whose players dream of achieving success comparable to Polamalu, Mariota and others. In many ways, the story told by “Tropic of Football” involves the decades-long process of adapting the culture of the sport to “fa’a Samoa.”

And yet Ruck’s book is just as attentive to the shadows growing around this transaction — for instance, the increase of obesity, diabetes and other maladies emerging from the increase in processed foods in the island’s diet. More ominously, he notes the “substantial neurological trauma” incurred by Samoan high school players wearing “helmets that would be discarded in the States because they no longer adequately protect the brain.”

In short, what’s happening to football in Samoa mirrors what’s happening to football in America. “Tropic of Football” reminds us that the best sports books take up far bigger subjects than final scores.

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