A Celebration Of Polynesian Athletes

Past, present and future were represented at the opening of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. Pictured (from left) are Jesse Sapolu, Russ Francis, Luther Elliss and Marcus Mariota CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / STAR-ADVERTISER PHOTO

Past, present and future were represented at the opening of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. Pictured (from left) are Jesse Sapolu, Russ Francis, Luther Elliss and Marcus Mariota CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / STAR-ADVERTISER PHOTO

Winning the Heisman Trophy was unquestionably a huge accomplishment for Marcus Mariota, his family and Saint Louis School. But it also served as a tremendous source of pride for the state of Hawaii, the Samoan community and the extended family of Polynesia.

Nowhere was this more evident than the weekend of Jan. 23-24 at the festivities surrounding the second class of inductees into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame (PFHOF). A spectacular, star-studded dinner at Sheraton Waikiki complemented by a fabulous auction emceed by the first Tongan to play in the NFL, Vai Sikahema, now a news anchor in Philadelphia (some local station ought to appeal to his Poly roots to display his talents in the 808 — he’d be great) and an exciting enshrinement ceremony held at the new home for the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) in Laie. Both events drew hundreds of guests and fans who were impressed and overwhelmed with what they witnessed.

Spearheaded by a couple of Hawaii public school and University of Hawaii products Jesse Sapolu of Farrington and Millilani’s Ma’a Tanuvasa, the PFHOF’s major objective is to perpetuate Polynesian history by honoring role models who have made a tremendous contribution to the game of football and set an example for others to follow. Tanuvasa and Sapolu certainly lead by example because the two of them collectively have captured six Super Bowl rings and have gone on to give back in numerous ways. They are assisted by a committed board of directors, selection committee and financial sponsors who all buy into the vision that Polynesians have left an indelible mark on a game that is arguably America’s most popular sport.

Last year’s inaugural class was awesome as it featured four honorees with strong ties to Hawaii — Kurt Gouveia, Olin Kreutz, Herman Wedemeyer and Ken Niumatalolo — as well as three with roots on the Mainland — Jack Thompson, Junior Seau and Kevin Mawae.

The class of 2015 is equally impressive with Pro Bowlers Luther Elliss, Jesse Sapolu and the late Mosi Tatupu and Mark Tuinei, all of Samoan ancestry and very proud of their heritage. Tuinei and Tatupu were ably represented by their spouses Pono Tuinei and Linnea Garcia-Tatupu. In the case of Mosi, his son Lofa also took center stage to represent his dad, in whose footsteps he followed as a star linebacker at USC and for the Seahawks. The other inductees were native Hawaiian Ray Schoenke, selected as one of the top 100 players in Washington Redskins history and “All-World” Russ Francis of Kailua (and the University of Oregon), who introduced the shaka sign to Howard Cosell and a national audience on Monday Night Football.

Mariota is the first recipient of the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year, an award he likened to the thrill of winning the prestigious Heisman. And, by the way, what you see and read about him is all true. Despite being besieged by “choke” fans and admirers who all wanted a part of his time, he graciously shook every hand and granted every photo request. Humility and class are indeed his middle names.

The common theme for all of the honorees — as gifted and accomplished as they are — is they were all inspired by another Polynesian athlete who blazed the trail for them. Perhaps this Polynesian Pride is what drove them to overcome adversity and the numerous obstacles that stood in their paths that would have driven men of lesser fortitude to throw in the towel and walk away. Schoenke shared his experience of growing up and competing in the South as a brown-skinned Polynesian in the 1950s and ’60s.

“It wasn’t easy, and if they were prejudiced enough to try to hurt me and take me out of a game, they better do it right the first time because I guarantee they didn’t get a second chance,” says the former Redskins great, who parlayed his exploits on the gridiron into a highly successful business and political career in D.C.

What was interesting to note for me was the important contributions that non-Polynesians are making toward the success of the PFHOF. June Jones and Dick Tomey, in particular, have devoted countless hours and multiple resources in helping to lay a solid foundation for this long overdue initiative to come to pass. It is abundantly clear that the PFHOF will get bigger and better and emerge as one of the finest honors an individual can receive in his lifetime.

A live televised production of the activities should definitely be on the drawing board with major sponsorships in tow, given the special opportunity to also highlight Polynesian culture and entertainment. Kudos to PCC president Al Grace for erecting a permanent home to showcase our Poly heroes. Not only does it give us a first-class facility for locals to enjoy, but thousands of visitors will be exposed and educated about these incredible examples of Polynesian excellence.

For those concerned that there is not an expansive enough talent pool to draw from consistently in the future, I beg to differ. Consider these Hawaii-based Poly pioneers are still waiting in the wings: Bob Apisa, Al Lolotai, Charlie Ane, Herman Clark, Rockne Freitas, Junior Ah You, Chris Naeole, Ma’a Tanuvasa, Jim Nicholson and the Noga brothers among countless others. Other members of the Polynesian family such as Tongans and Maoris have yet to have their first inductee. For the Tongans , it could be one of the Keomoeatu brothers or Vai Sikahema. Aotearoa could very well be represented by Riki Ellison. Finally there is a bevy of active players led by perennial Pro Bowl stars Troy Polamalu and Haloti Ngata who will be inducted immediately upon retirement.

The best is definitely yet to come for the PFHOF, and if you’re a big-time football fan make sure you attend the class of 2016 ceremonies next year.

• Speaking of the Pro Bowl, it just doesn’t feel or seem a right that the game is played anywhere but Hawaii especially given our history of saving it from extinction in the 1980s. Business normally brisk during this period was down.

With new players at the helm of the state and before the NFL gets lulled into thinking that we are O.K. with this change in policy, Hawaii needs to submit an updated creative proposal to the NFL.

That plan should attempt to not only ask for the specific years that Aloha Stadium will host the game but give us the option, as I’ve been saying for some time, of having a preseason contest in Honolulu in those years when the NFL plays its all-star game in another city.