The Polynesian All-American Bowl is Saturday in Oceanside, Calif., featuring many of the nation’s top high school football seniors of Polynesian descent.
The site is no accident: Oceanside is the home of former linebacker Junior Seau, the first Pro Football Hall of Famer of Polynesian descent. There are more than 70 Polynesian players currently in the NFL.
“Junior did it for all of Oceanside, all the Samoans, all the Prop 48 kids. It means more when you play for something bigger than yourself,” said Pisa Tinoisamoa, a former NFL linebacker who was born in Oceanside who is coaching Team Black. Former NFL running back Reno Mahe is coaching Team White.
Tinoisamoa played college football at Hawaii and was a second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2003. He led the Rams in tackles in his first three seasons and spent six years with the Rams before finishing his career with the Chicago Bears.
Tinoisamoa spoke with USA TODAY High School Sports about the Polynesian All-American Bowl, the bond among players of Polynesian descent and the influence that Seau had on him.
Q: You were an assistant coach last year to Kevin Mawae, who is giving the keynote speed Thursday. What made you decide to come back?
A: Last year was my first year and I got a little taste of it. I was feeling it out and trying to see how I could fit into something like this. Being that the game is home – I was born and raised in Oceanside – the way the game of football has influenced me and being Polynesian, it seemed like an easy call. I’ve been around little kids and been around professional players, but coaching high school is a whole other thing. I’ve been coaching now as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for two years officially at Tri-City Christian in Vista and then coming to an all-star game, that level has been my calling. I feel like that’s where I was most influenced. All of that combined made for a perfect storm.
Q: Why did you decide to get into coaching after your NFL career?
A: It’s not something that I thought I would do when I was younger. When I was done playing, I thought what do I do with all this knowledge that I gathered. It was a natural move to go into coaching.
Q: This event is more than just football and cultural development for the players is a big part of the experience. Why is that so important?
A: I think culturally Polynesian means many races and many islands. For me, I try to distinguish myself as Samoan. I’m Samoan. Troy Polamalu is Samoan. Haloti Ngata is Tongan, Kevin Mawae is Hawaiian. There are little nuances in each background. At the end of the day, we all have a common respect, not only for our elders and people who came before us, but family. I think all of that blends together when we get together. We’re all Polynesian.
We’re all trying to get better not only one the field, but off the field. Off the field what we’re trying to do with Polynesian bowl, we want to show them some of the pitfalls and things to be aware of going on to college. That’s not only in the classroom, but in the public as well. I think people of the same descent, it’s easier to talk to these kids to try to relate to them. We want them to understand about keeping the tradition and culture alive with everybody, not just each other. I want people to say, ‘I know a Polynesian and they’re super cool.’ We want to try to keep that reputation going.
Q: With this game being in Oceanside where Junior Seau grew up and you being from the area and also playing inside linebacker in the NFL, what was his influence on you?
A: Junior was about 12 years older than I me. I felt like it was the right place at the right time for me. I was too young to go to his games in high school, but with him going out to USC and then staying in San Diego and playing for the Chargers, watching him made it seem more realistic. A lot of guys have aspirations of making it to the highest level. Seeing Junior really solidified it for me that it could be done. It became more tangible.
It almost made me feel like I had to carry the torch because Junior couldn’t do it forever. That helped propel me to keep going even when things looked like it wasn’t going to work out for me. You think no one from Oceanside can make it to the NFL. And then Junior does it. It was like, ‘Oh man, this can be done.’ I’m not the biggest guy but have huge heart and that’s something that you can’t measure.
Q: Last year Manti Te’o from the Chargers just stopped by and was on the sideline. A number of other NFL players are coming in from the game. What brings them to be there?
A: That was always one of the cool things. Even when I played in St Louis and I’d see another Polynesian, it was like, ‘Hey what’s up?’ We’re a small number of people. When we see each other there is an automatic (bond). I’d always gotten props from other guys in the league who would say, ‘One thing I like about you guys is when you see each other, you always give each other love.’ That togetherness — it’s something that happened before me, but it’s good to see it still exists. For Manti, he didn’t have to. But coming down here, the kids were running up and talking selfies and putting them up on The Gram. These kids will remember that for a long time. It’s pretty cool to see, brothers and cousins and friends and family come and support it. It’s awesome.
Q: Coaching in an all-star game situation is a different kind of thing. What’s your approach going to be with only a few days of practice?
A: From a coaching standpoint, I was fortunate to work with some guys this year that I’m close with and that I respected and I started with them. They came on board. I feel like if we as coaches get along, everything else will fall in place: discipline, execution, practice and organization. I know it’s hard at an all-star game because you have to learn a new system and a new lingo. If we can get the coaches on the same page and they are talking to the kids and everyone is speaking the same language, I hope that will translate into a W.
Q: Sounds as if you and former NFL running back Reno Mahe, who is coaching the other team, spent some time in determining the right way to set up the rosters too. How did you do it?
A: We did a draft of sorts. We got the kids’ Hudl accounts and saw some kids we liked and targeted them according to what we ideally we wanted to run in terms of a system. That was one of the big things and was a big plus. It can get sloppy with so little practice time I don’t want that experience for those kids. I feel bad if they go to practice and it’s not structured right. We wanted everything on point.
If we want to get the name out there that the Polynesian bowl is a legit bowl, then you have to run it like a legit bowl. We’re not saying we’re Army or Under Armour or Semper Fi. We want to show that we can that we can perform and put on a great bowl for the right reasons.