In a new PBS film “In Football We Trust,” Utah film producers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn explore the Polynesian football culture by featuring LDS football standout Star Lotulelei, who plays for the Carolina Panthers in the National Football League.
In an interview with PBS, Tony Vainuku explained the relationship between the Polynesian community and football.
“So the origin of the story. I grew up in the same community as our subjects with a lot of Polynesian cousins and uncles who played football and were advancing in football at a really young age,” Vainuku said. “A lot of us looked up to NFL players like Vai Sikahema who ends up being in the film, Junior Seau from the San Diego Chargers, and they all became role models for us at a young age. Again, all of us were excelling at football at the time or we do even now in little league football and whatnot, so it became something really easy that motivated us.”
“For most of us—all of us wanted to be in the NFL,” Vainuku continued, “but it was a younger uncle of mine that was our NFL hopeful. He ended up being recruited, but instead he got addicted to drugs and he ended up going to prison 10 years. And so that story of him really inspired me to tell the story of all Polynesians that are really raised to play football at the cost of everything else. Later when I got into filmmaking I wanted to tell this story and I knew there were other Polynesian kids that mostly related to it just because I know the community.”
As an aspiring football player, Vainuku grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, playing football and dreaming of the NFL. However, in college he turned his attention to filmmaking, and “In Football We Trust” combines his two interests in one project.
Co-director Erika Cohn, who is more a filmmaker than football star, explains the history of American football in Polynesian culture.
“American football was introduced to Pacific Islanders in the early 1900s with missionary schools and colonial sports clubs. Later the seemingly close alignment between football culture and Polynesian culture (especially respect for authority, community-mindedness, teamwork, self-pride, etc.) combined with the large and agile build of some Polynesian men, began to interest college football teams. By the 1970’s American football had become a potential pathway out of poverty, and a legitimate means to migrate to the United States. Samoan and Tongan young men are 26 times more likely to make it into the NFL than any other ethnic group. Yet, this statistic/their overrepresentation in college football and the NFL give an impression of equality. In reality only a few athletes receive college offers or professional contracts, leaving the rest to search for alternatives often too late in the game.”
Star Lotulelei was one of those standout football players to make it to the NFL. Lotulelei was born in Tonga and raised in South Jordan, Utah, after he turned nine years old. Raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Star’s father was a seminary teacher. After playing high school football for Bingham High School, he rose to the top 3 in the 2013 NFL draft playing for the University of Utah football team.
Discussing Lotulelei’s road to success, Vainuku explains, “Star was so humble. I think he had an idea that he was going to be picked in the first round. But when he wasn’t picked kicked in the first little bit he got nervous and went downstairs and you could feel the tension. It’s definitely surreal and I think a humbling moment for him because of his journey on his way. He went to a junior college before—he didn’t go the route of the D 1 schools and was picked up by Utah. So I think he had a humbling and tough road for that day. So it was definitely surreal and humbling to see his family get that gratification.”
While “In Football We Trust” highlights more than one Polynesian football player, Star Lotulelei stands out as an example of finding success while staying humble and valuing family.
“I don’t know if I can really say I love football,” Lotulelei said. “I like football. But I love my family and that’s why I do it.”
Watch the trailer for the new PBS film “In Football We Trust,” airing for PBS’s Online Film Festival starting July 11, 2016.