New Orleans Saints players bond over Polynesian heritage, culture
New Orleans Saints tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (84) celebrates his 2-yard touchdown catch with offensive guard Larry Warford (67) during the game between the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints at the Superdome on Sunday, October 15, 2017. (Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) (Michael DeMocker)
Offensive lineman Senio Kelemete remembers soaking in the New Orleans Saints ' locker room when he arrived in 2013.
Kelemete, who joined the Saints practice squad after entering the league in 2012 as a fifth-round pick out of Washington with the Arizona Cardinals, felt a sense of belonging with his new teammates.
But there was a missing piece of home for the player of Samoan descent.
"There's nothing wrong with having everybody else there, but I grew up always having a Polynesian teammate or someone I went to school with," said Kelemete, who was born and raised in Seattle. "That's what I was used to. Even in college, I played with Polys, and then when I got drafted to my first team, there's another Poly.
"I was like, man, I can't bring out that Polynesian slang, they don't know what is a Spam mousse or a Loco Moco, all that. I didn't have any Polys to connect with like that."
The 2013 season proved an adjustment for Kelemete, who had offensive lineman Paul Fanaika of Tongan descent and defensive end Everette Thompson of Samoan descent as teammates in Arizona.
Kelemete, however, didn't have to wait long for New Orleans to quickly develop a Pacific Island feel in the locker room.
In 2015, the Saints drafted linebacker/defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, who is half Hawaiian and Samoan; traded with the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger, who is from Kamuela, Hawaii; and secured tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who is half Hawaiian, via trade with the New England Patriots.
The following year, the Saints signed defensive end Mitchell Loewen, a native of Lahaina, Maui, as an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas, and signed safety Shiloh Keo, who is half Hawaiian, during the regular season.
This past offseason, the Saints signed guard Larry Warford, who is half Samoan, and linebacker Manti Te'o, a native of Laie, Hawaii, in March. Linebacker Sae Tautu, who prepped two years in Hawaii, joined the team as an undrafted free agent out of BYU in May.
"It's big to have other Polynesians on a team because you just kind of connect more, and it's not just only Polys -- we hang out with everybody," Kelemete said. "I just feel like there's a special bond with Polynesian players because we come from such a small island and we grew up with not much."
The strong Pacific Island presence in the Saints locker room made adjusting to a new team seamless for Te'o.
"Coming here and having a lot of Polys here, it kind of made that transition a whole lot easier because you have guys who were raised like you, who understand the values you have and hold," Te'o said. "It's a lot easier to be you and to uphold those standards when you have a lot of guys around you that can support you. It's definitely a huge plus."
Keo and Tautu were let go during the offseason, leaving the Saints with five players of Polynesian heritage and seven total players with ties to the Pacific Islands.
Both figures represent the most on any NFL roster, according to the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.
Loewen believes the numbers leading to the establishment of the Saints' initial 53-man roster spoke volumes.
"I mean, if you look at the numbers, seven out of 53?" said Loewen, who landed on injured reserve in Week 3. "That's more than 10 percent of the team from one background."
Saints coach Sean Payton said the large presence of Polynesians on the roster wasn't by design.
"The greatest thing about the locker room is players come from everywhere and the backgrounds are different," Payton said. "I think generally if they make the team, they are guys that are good players, that are good teammates that we think can help us win."
Nevertheless, former NFL player Jesse Sapolu is amazed by the Pacific Island presence in New Orleans.
Sapolu, a four-time Super Bowl champion as a member of the San Francisco 49ers and co-founder of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, pointed out the Saints' roster provides an example of how far Polynesian players have come.
"When I was playing, I think at that particular time we had five or six guys in the whole league," Sapolu said in a telephone interview. "Now you got five to seven guys on the Saints.
"It just shows you how the game of football has grown in our community and we have close to 1,000 Polys in college right now. I think the envelope is only going to be pushed more."
THE POLY WAY
From possessing a lavalava, a traditional outer garment worn by Polynesian men, to colorful flowery leis, virtually all the Polynesian players on the Saints roster have something at home to remind them of their roots.
The Pacific Island culture also carries many common traits, including family, faith, respect, humility, loyalty and food, among others.
Of the attributes common among the Polynesian way of life, there is one carrying tremendous significance.
"Family is the No. 1 thing for us," Te'o said. "It's our family, it's our last names, it's who we represent and we understand when we go out in public.
"I think Polys for the most part have a huge understanding that we don't only represent us as individuals, we represent our fathers, our mothers, our sisters, our brothers, our grandfathers."
Warford agreed emphatically.
"The simplest way I can put it -- you are family," Warford said. "There's humility about it. You're not above anybody and you're not below anybody. Everyone is equal and you're just family. I can't stress that enough."
Warford and Te'o had the opportunity to bond even before officially signing their free-agent contracts with the Saints.
Both players were on the same flight to New Orleans, and Warford took notice of Te'o without realizing at first who he was.
"I looked at him and I couldn't recognize his face, but I knew he was Poly because we were sitting pretty close to each other," Warford said. "We got off the plane and we started talking about our backgrounds and stuff, the whole deal."
After signing their respective contracts, the players then boarded the same return flight and had a layover in Dallas, where they shared a meal and discussed backgrounds and mutual acquaintances on a deeper level.
Warford said he and Te'o truly bonded when the conversation turned to how they were raised.
"If you're raised by Polynesian parents, you're raised a certain way, for sure," said Warford, whose mother is Samoan. "Polynesian parents are strict. The person I feared the most growing up was my mom. She's quick to get after you, and the same thing with Manti."
Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan is very familiar with the Polynesian culture from coaching Isaac Sopoaga, Koa Misi, Paul Soliai, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, among others, during his 30-plus years of coaching.
"This is one place out here as you know that race is never an issue," Nolan said. "Guys come together, it's almost like battle -- they all come together regardless of color -- but I've been fortunate and I can't remember one that I didn't have some type of relationship with because they're so engaging.
"I know family is extremely important to them ... Even when you watch them when they're done, they go back home and it's family."
When it comes to humility, Hoomanawanui said it is common for Polynesians to not mind putting in the hard work without a second thought on receiving attention.
As an example, he points out the nature of the positions a majority of players of Pacific Island heritage play in the NFL.
"Most Polynesians in the league don't play glamorous positions," said Hoomanawanui, who has built his reputation over an eight-year career as a solid blocker. "You have your (Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus) Mariota, (former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy) Polamalu, and this and that.
"But we don't play glorious positions and we don't get the huge money, the spotlight. I'm all right with that, and I think most of these guys are all right with that. That's just the way we are."
Loewen captured the Pacific Island culture with three areas.
"I'd say faith, food and family," he said. "It's always family and food that everything goes around."
Kelemete first met Hoomanawanui during a Saints-Patriots joint training camp practice at The Greenbrier in 2015, and then two weeks later they became teammates when the Patriots traded Hoomanawanui to the Saints.
Before Loewen and Hoomanawanui met, Loewen's mother-in-law, a massage therapist in Hawaii, treated the tight end during the offseason.
"Small world," Loewen said.
"Small island," Hoomanawanui quickly chimed in.
Meanwhile, it didn't take long for the Saints' players with ties to the Pacific Islands to form a bond on and off the field.
Hoomanawanui's and Kelemete's wives are close friends, and Kelemete said the couples get together for dinner or karaoke; Loewen said Kikaha was the first player to look after him when he arrived, and the two often hung out together at Loewen's hotel; Warford and Kelemete formed a relationship within minutes of meeting each other during the offseason; and all the players check in on one another.
Linebacker Craig Robertson got a taste of the Polynesian culture from being teammates with defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who is half Samoan, with the Cleveland Browns.
Robertson, who received a lava-lava from Shelton, immediately noticed the chemistry among his current Polynesian teammates.
"You can see how much pride they take in everything and how they enjoy it, embrace it and everyone else starts to embrace it," Robertson said. "I like it."
The closeness also extends to the opposing sidelines, where it is common for Polynesians to look for each other after a game to wish each other well.
"I remember the year we played the Titans," Hoomanawanui said of the 2015 matchup. "Mariota, I wasn't even really seeking him out. I was talking to one of my old teammates in college and he came over, and I haven't heard a bad thing about this guy.
"But sure enough, he saw my name on the roster or read it in the program and he made a point to stop and say what's up. So, I thought that was real cool because of who he is and what he means to us, our culture and the person he is."
Kelemete's first interaction on the field with an opposing Polynesian player came during his rookie season with the Cardinals against the 49ers, and it provided an unforgettable play.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Kelemete entered the contest to replace an injured starter and immediately faced off with defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, a native of American Samoa who measured 6 feet 2, 330 pounds during his playing days.
"I had to block Isaac, and it was so sad, because I'm coming off the ball and I feel like I'm underneath his pads, like I'm driving my feet, and I look up and we're going nowhere," Kelemete said with a shake of his head and a chuckle. "He hadn't even moved.
"The ball is already out on the perimeter, and I'll never forget. He was like, 'Good job, Uce,' taps me off and walks back to where the next huddle is going to be. It was an awesome time, but also it was a sad time because I was like, 'I definitely need to get in the weight room.'"
Neither the NFL nor NFLPA keep complete demographics on players of Polynesian descent.
But the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame said there are more than 60 players of Pacific Island heritage currently in the NFL.
And with a growing number across the league, the opportunities to greet each other occur with more frequency.
"I went through the exact same thing, but at least they get to do it every week now," Sapolu said. "When I was playing, you're looking five or six games down the line. You see a Polynesian guy, you look forward to that game to do the exact same thing.
"I'd share with them how lonely it was to be in the league with only five or six guys, but now there's probably one or two Polynesians on every team, at least, and that's a great thing to have."
Kikaha echoed Sapolu's sentiments.
"I'm proud of the guys who made it," Kikaha said. "The chances, the odds weren't in everyone's favor at some point, but now I feel like it is. For the next generation, there's an eye out for these young guys coming out of the West Coast and the islands."
'MADE TO PLAY FOOTBALL'
The Polynesian Football Hall of Fame opened its doors at the Polynesian Culture Center on Oahu, Hawaii, in 2013 with a mission to "honor Polynesia's greatest players, coaches and contributors," according to the organization's official website .
Within the Hall of Fame are legendary inductees, including Sapolu, former Saints' first-round pick Chris Naeole, Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu, former LSU star Kevin Mawae and Al Lolotai, who in 1945 became the first Samoan to play in the NFL, among others.
"The fact that we've grown so much to the fact that we do have a Hall of Fame is mind-blowing to me," Warford said.
The Polynesian Football Hall of Fame in four years has developed to a point where it now hosts the Polynesian Bowl, a high school all-star game played in Honolulu, Hawaii, and features the country's top Polynesian players and non-Polynesian high school players.
"This is our sport," Loewen said. "It's like Poly guys were made to play football."
And what the organization has captured of the past and established for the future isn't lost on the Saints players of Pacific Island heritage.
"It's a huge responsibility for those directly connected to it and for us who are playing right now," Te'o said. "It gives us something to strive for, but it also a responsibility to make sure we uphold what those who are in the Hall of Fame right now have done and the paths that they blazed for us to walk."
Hoomanawanui echoed his teammate, adding the Hall of Fame provides the younger generation something to look up to.
"I think it just gives kids growing up in Hawaii, having Hawaii ties, the opportunities to see what they can become," Hoomanawanui said. "Not just as football players, but many of those guys have off-field contributions and what they gave back to communities, a lot of character and family of all of us as a people and culture. That can show a whole of kids the way to do it and the way to do it right."
The players with Pacific Island ties on the Saints' roster are aware of the Polynesian Hall of Fame's purpose and appreciate those who paved the way.
To a man, the Saints players would be honored if they finished a playing career worthy of consideration, but making it isn't a primary goal.
The Polynesians are a humble people, after all, and family in the form of teammates always comes first.
"I don't need too much in the way of recognition," Kikaha said. "I just want my peers to know that I left it on the field."