The island effect
- Jason Vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Sports
South Pacific players at home at Autzen Stadium
EUGENE - He has been there about 35 times over the past five years, but this year Steve Greatwood finally visited Hawaii with his family just to enjoy the paradise of it.
'It was nice to get up and just go to the beach,' the Oregon assistant football coach says. 'I don't do that very often.'
Usually, it's all about business - recruiting, which Greatwood has done in Hawaii and American Samoa for the past five years. He could leave on a Sunday, make a home visit with a recruit in Hawaii and return on a red-eye flight Monday. That doesn't give him much time to don a bathing suit and lounge on Waikiki Beach with a piña colada.
It's about 10 hours, round trip, in the case of Hawaii, and about 20 hours, round trip, with American Samoa, which he visits once each year.
'I get a lot of flak from people who think I'm over there sipping on drinks,' he says. 'But it's usually Honolulu, a big city, and I'm hitting high schools and home visits at night.'
Greatwood's efforts in the South Pacific have greatly bolstered the Ducks. Oregon has re-established a Polynesian influence, starting with the 2002 recruiting class and continuing with the addition of offensive linemen Fenuki Tupou and Patrick So'oalo to this year's team.
The Polynesians usually live together in Eugene. This year, six big linemen are sharing a house -center Enoka Lucas; guards Palauni Ma Sun and So'oalo from Hawaii; defensive linemen Matt Toeaina and brother Simi Toeaina from American Samoa; and tackle Tupou from California. That represents about 2,000 pounds of young man.
Linebacker A.J. Tuitele and defensive end Victor Filipe add to the UO mix of 'Polys,' as the players affectionately call themselves.
With the graduation of Saul Patu and Jason Nikolao after the 2000 season, the Ducks were left without any Polynesian players to speak of. There wasn't 'a concerted effort,' Greatwood says, but the Ducks successfully lured Lucas and Matt Toeaina and Junior Siavii and Chris Solomona from the California junior college ranks in the next recruiting period, which helped land the biggest Polynesian of them all, Haloti Ngata from Salt Lake City.
'We didn't know each other,' Toeaina says, 'but we clicked like 'that.' We didn't need a big introduction; that's the Polynesian nature, we get along automatically.'
Greatwood has helped recruit every Polynesian on the team, even the ones who lived on the mainland, such as Ngata, Solomona and Tupou. But he has excelled in Hawaii, where he also recruited current offensive lineman and haole tackle Max Unger, and American Samoa, where Siavii grew up.
The Polynesians tend to be soft-spoken and family-oriented but big and tough on the football field, Greatwood says.
'I hate to categorize, because they come in all shapes and sizes,' Greatwood says. 'What they do bring - and there's no concrete data to back it up - is they love the game of football. It's something (Polynesians) have stood out doing, and it's important to them. I don't want to say their identity revolves around the game of football, but it's culturally important to them.
'When they take the field, they enjoy the game. Some have been tremendous competitors, others have not been. In general, they're very competitive, they love the contact and everything about the game.'
Recruiter knows his turf
Senior leaders Lucas and Matt Toeaina say that Greatwood has a great reputation in the islands.
'A lot of (prep) coaches respect him,' says Lucas, who attended Kamehameha High in Honolulu. 'It's how he carries himself: well-mannered, but a tough football coach.'
Toeaina, from Pago Pago, American Samoa, says, 'We can relate to him like Polynesian parents. He has a good heart, and he's very tough. That's what we admire about him the most, his attitude and expectations of us.'
College recruiters from all over the country work Oahu, but not as many cover the outlying islands, Greatwood says. Tennessee, Penn State and Brigham Young work the state hard. Hawaii produces about 12 high-caliber Division I players each year, Greatwood says, not counting the players being recruited by the University of Hawaii.
It isn't hard convincing kids to leave the islands to play. 'Some kids are ready to get out and experience what's on the mainland,' Greatwood says.
Not as many recruiters make the long trip to American Samoa. It's small, with six high schools and about 60,000 residents. 'You have 10 times the Samoans living on the mainland,' Greatwood says, adding that 'it's not a tourist place. It's beautiful and slow-paced, and it's not nearly as developed.'
Toeaina was little more than 200 pounds and was playing fullback as a Duck freshman, but Greatwood says he was 'tough,' and Oregon needed him to move to the defensive line. Now he weighs more than 300. His brother, Simi Toeaina, has yet to see the field, but more schools recruited him from American Samoa - Michigan State, Penn State, Colorado.
Greatwood, 47, played at Oregon in the late 1970s and has coached most of his career at Oregon. When he visits homes of recruits in the South Pacific,'I'm not going to make the mistake of going in there and being somebody I'm not. … I'm not Polynesian and I never will be, but I've come to understand their custom and culture. A lot of teams will send Polynesian coaches to recruit the islands. I've had several families thank me for being honest. I don't do a sell job; I sell the university, and I think that's helped me.'
He does use the Ducks' Polynesians to lure others, though. They do everything together.
The Polynesians, although distant at first, have not excluded themselves from the rest of the team, either.
'There's no group tighter than us. But our circle is not closed,' Matt Toeaina says. 'We're open to anybody. We don't discriminate, even though it may seem like that.'