Former gridiron star Manase Jesse Sapolu excited with Pacific interest in the NFL

Former gridiron star Manase Jesse Sapolu says he is happy to see more Pacific Island players in the NFL.

There are now around 115 players in the competition, much more than the four actively playing when Sapolu was on the field for the San Francisco 49ers as an offensive lineman back in 1983.

Sapolu said the 13 new recruits recently signed up by clubs across America was testimony that interest in island players is growing.

And as part of the drive to identify more Pacific Island talents, the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame (PFHOF) is partnering the Pasifika Rugby Hall of Fame (PRHOF) in identifying young talents who could be recruited.

Sapolu, co-founder of the America-based PFHOF, said they hope to identify talents like former NRL player Lafoga Jordan Mailata, who has just signed a new $100 million contract.

RNZ Pacific’s Iliuesa Tora spoke with Sapolu on Thursday.

Manase Jesse Sapolu

IT: Can you update us on new signings and recruitment of Pacific Island players into the NFL?

JS: Yes, we have 13 Pacific Island players that got drafted last week or this past weekend. There were three that went in the first round, which means that they’re instant millionaires.

The players are:

  • Taliese Fuaga, New Orleans Saints
  • Laiatu Latu, Indianapolis Colts
  • Troy Fautanu with the Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Kingsley Suamataia, Kansas City Chiefs
  • Jonah Ellis, Denver Broncos
  • Dominick Puni, San Fransisco 49ers
  • Marist Liufau, Dallas Cowboys
  • Giovanni Manu, Detroit Lions
  • Sione Vaki, Detroit Lions
  • Sataoa Laumea, Seattle Seahawks
  • Darius Muasau, New York Giants
  • Jonah Laulu, Indianapolis Colts
  • Devaughn Vele, Denver Broncos

So, 13 went into the NFL draft. That’s the professional level, what they call the NFL, National Football League of American football, which is the highest level.

IT: Being there, having played the game and overseeing Pacific players getting into the NFL, how does that make you feel?

JS: Well, it feels good, because when I came into the league in the early 80s, 83 was my first year, there were four of us Pacific Islanders in professional American football.

This year by itself, that’s 13 that got drafted, and there’s about 10 more that will be signed that didn’t get drafted. So, we have about 110 to 115 now that are playing professional American football. And they are playing NFL at the top level.

IT: What’s the pathway for these players, who now have been recruited and for those that could be interested in American football?

JS: The pathway is they play high school football, which is between ages 14 to 18. Then from high school football they go to the university level, which is from ages 18 to 22. And then they just got picked, so, they’re 21 to 22 year olds, that just got picked now to the NFL.

So, the pathway is to go through the school system. But there’s a few, for example, Jordan Mailata, that came from rugby league in Australia. The NFL has an international NFL program that looks for athletes from overseas that want to give it a try.

Mailata is going into his sixth year here with the Philadelphia Eagles. And, also the rugby star from Wales, Louis Rees-Zammit, just signed a contract this year with Kansas City Chiefs. So, you know, we still look at the best athletes from overseas that want to give it a try. And then they can come and try out for American football.

IT: For young budding players out here in the Pacific and wanting to get into American football, what can they do? Or how can they be noticed and be seen?

JS: Well, we come over every June to do camps and look for potential prospects. And then we pick some athletes from there. But now, we want to pick as young as 14, 15-year olds – bring them here, they can go to school here and then go through the pathway, like I described.

But if we have really good athletes that are top athletes there, we can pick them at 21 and they go straight to the NFL as well. So different ways.

However, I think the safest way for us is what we’re trying to do now. With the assistance of the NFL in bringing the kids here to go to school and get their education to an American university, then if they’re good enough to go to the NFL, they’ll get picked, like the draft that they just had to start with.

IT: The Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, the group that you are with, what is the work that the organisation does, in trying to get Pacific players into American football and working with those who are already in the NFL?

JS: The Polynesian Football Hall of Fame is now teaming up with the Pacific Rugby Hall of Fame, that launched this past couple of months. We’re gonna work together with Sir Michael Jones and some of our former top players there, who are going to give us the kids, because it’s all about opportunity.

For an example, six years ago, Jordan Mailata, who came over from Australia. He didn’t even know what American football was. But he came to give it a go and live his dream of trying to make it to the NFL.

And this past month, he signed a $100 million contract. So those are the opportunities that were offered here. It’s not everybody, I think there’s some athletes there that fit American football very well. So, we’re coming again in June, because we’re trying to keep building the pathway, allowing some of the athletes to come over and play American football.

IT: Which countries will your team be visiting on the trip?

JS: We’re going to go to Brisbane, Australia and then we’re going to come to Auckland, then we’re going to go to Apia, and Pagopago in American Samoa. And then come back to Hawaii and then return to the States.

In American Samoa, there was a Fijian player that’s in the NFL, who just signed a $46 million contract. Frankie Luvu.

He came through that pathway of going to American Samoa, and then came through from there to go to the university level. And then he got picked about three years ago, four years ago to the NFL, and he just signed a new contract two months ago. We’re excited about him too.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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