Polynesian field of dreams

It’s understandable when high school football players confidently envision a future of NFL stardom with no apparent concern for what happens if things don’t work out. That’s what 17- and 18-year-olds do. But when parents, coaches and college recruiters buy into the fantasy, or at least enable it, we get the scenario explored in the new indie doc “In Football We Trust.”

Centered on a small but rabidly football-oriented Polynesian-American community in Salt Lake City, the film tries to establish a connection between this particular variation of the immigration story and how these new Americans quickly came to embrace the game that dominates our nation’s sports landscape. But along the way it exposes a phenomenon commonly found in American society — often (but not necessarily) among groups of lower socioeconomic means — in which in all hopes of success in life are pinned on athletic prowess.

The underlying premise of “In Football We Trust” rests upon how Pacific Islanders’ warrior culture suits them for the game of football. Indeed, the notion of a “Polynesian pipeline to the NFL” is not an exaggeration — according to the filmmakers, Samoans and Tongans living in the U.S. are 28 times more likely to play in the NFL than any other ethnic group. The film presents interviews with several current and former pro players, including Troy Polamalu, Vai Sikahema, Haloti Ngata and Star Lotulelei, as evidence.

But the high rate of success glosses over the reality of the NFL. It’s a hyper-competitive environment sifting through thousands of athletes, and only a relative few will make the cut. And Sikahema notes that as hard as it is to break into the league, it’s even harder to stay. The youngsters profiled in the documentary, all accustomed to churning out Friday night highlights with ease, discover the challenges of reaching the next level, namely a collegiate program prestigious enough to showcase their abilities and launch an NFL career. At no point do any of the adults in their lives temper the enthusiasm, and while no one wants to discourage a young person’s dreams, there are times when a dose of straight talk would seem to be appropriate.

Instead, the young men encounter varying degrees of setbacks, ranging from issues with academics/attendance and petty gangster crime, commitments required by their Mormon faith, and in one player’s case, a simple inability to pick up the speed and complexity of Division I collegiate football. Such mishaps are unfortunate but not heartbreakingly unexpected — all of us at some point in our lives realize certain dreams are not going to happen. The boys draw on family and other resources to cobble together backup plans, and life goes on, but needless to say, none of them finds their way into the promised land of the NFL.

You can catch “In Football We Trust” on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, January 25, or, for those of you in town, at this year’s Green Bay Film Festival in March.


 

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