The Arizona Wildcats have had a long history of having several Polynesian players on their football team. As a matter of fact, if you look at the Pac-12 in general, you will see teams loaded with players of Polynesian descent.
Right now, Arizona has three Poly players on its roster in redshirt freshman offensive lineman Michael Eletise, junior nose tackle Sione Taufahema, and freshman linebacker Anthony Pandy.
In the 1990s, it was a different story.
On Dick Tomey’s Desert Swarm teams in that era, the Wildcats had a host of standout Polynesian players. George Malauulu, who played QB at UA, helped establish that Polynesian connection to Tucson. Joe Salave’a, Van Tuinei, Pulu Poumele, Manuia Savea, and Brandon Manumaleuna were other huge Desert Swarm standouts during that era, as were Edwin Mulitalo, Joe Tafoya, and Makoa Freitas. The list goes on and on.
Move to the 2000s, where the Polynesian Pipeline continued to flow for Arizona, as it landed a trio dubbed the “Tackling Tuihalamakas.” Sione Tuihalamaka was a force along the defensive line. He totaled over 120 tackles and seven sacks in 50 games for the Wildcats from 2009 to 2013. Sione’s cousin, Vuna Tuihalamaka, racked up 95 tackles in 26 games. Sione’s older brother, Apaiata, played for the Wildcats in the mid-2000’s and led to the subsequent commitments of Sione and Vuna.
Other notable players include Keola Antolin and Willie Tuitama. And we can’t forget recent players such as Sani Fuimaono, Aiulua Fanene, and Freddie Tagaloa.
Even though the ‘Cats only have three Poly players on the current team and seem to not have as strong of ties to the Poly players, major steps are being made to re-establish that pipeline. At the beginning of June, Arizona and the AIGA Foundation hosted the first annual Rich Rodriguez Polynesian Showcase in Tucson. This camp was made possible by the one of the foundation’s founders, former Wildcat George Malauulu, and defensive line graduate assistant Davy Gnodle.
“Basically Davy Gnodle, who is on staff there at the University of Arizona, is a member of my foundation (AIGA). They were talking in some of the meetings about some kind of showcase to help bring Polynesians back to Arizona,” Malauulu explained about how the camp came to fruition. “He just asked me if I wanted to do anything in Arizona. I said ‘Man, I’d love to since that’s my alma mater!’ We just kept talking about it and figuring out a way to go about doing it. One thing led to another.
“We got a lot of the different guys that are in our organization that are from Utah, Northern California, and Hawaii to commit to doing this event on June 9th and 10th,” Malauulu continued. “Before you knew it, it just kind of took off like a wildfire.”
The Wildcats hosted players from all across the country. Players came from places as close as Utah, California, Hawaii, and Arizona to as far away as New Jersey.
The showcase was a success and Malauulu came away pleased.
“It was a great first event because after your first one, that’ll dictate how the second one’s going to look like,” he said. “We poured all our efforts in. We just made sure ‘If I were to go to the camp what would I do that will be entertaining to the kids?’ At the same time you get in all the tutorials, the football stuff, and include some fun activities. Had to juggle both and sure enough came up with a good turnout and good plan of attack to get these kids over there from different states at the same time.”
As for future camps in Tucson, AIGA is committed to another camp next year.
“As of right now we’ve already talked to Rich Rodriguez and we are committed for next year,” Malauulu explained. “Rich Rod was excited and he definitely would love for the event to take place again next year. On that note we are saying ‘Let’s make it bigger and better next year.’ He (Rich Rod) has a lot of good ideas and if we come to the table with good intentions I think we’ll have a another successful year come next year.”
Social media also helped with the foundation’s attempt to attract attention and interest to the showcase. Malauulu sees the value in social media and helping the young players get further exposure. He also thinks that, because of it, the second showcase will have more interested parties.
The AIGA Foundation was established in 1997 by Malauulu and a duo of brothers from George’s hometown of Carson, California after their football careers were over. They noticed that Poly players in Carson and surrounding cities were not playing football and wanted to set up a camp to peak interest in the sport. They brought in guest speakers such as four-time Super Bowl champ Jesse Sapolu and former Wildcat Joe Salave’a to speak at the camp. The event was a huge success, drawing in over 400 players.
The foundation is a non-profit organization in which the main focus is to help players of Polynesian decent get recognized and earn scholarships. Its initial goal was to help increase interest in football for Polynesian student athletes. One would say the foundation has succeeded and will continue to succeed in that regard. Polynesian athletes draw major interest from Pac-12 and Mountain West schools. However, more Midwest and East Coast schools have been showing increased interest over the past few years.
The showcase is a major step forward for bringing the Polynesian Pipeline back to Tucson. Arizona’s coaching staff understands the importance of recruiting these athletes, and so far this cycle some signs of their efforts are showing. Arizona is currently sitting nicely in the recruitments of defensive linemen Tyler Manoa (Mountain View, Calif.) and Paul Maile (Salt Lake City, Utah). The ‘Cats were also the first Pac-12 offer for Manoa’s teammate Viliami “Junior” Fehoko, which was big for the St. Francis standout.
With these continued efforts and some aggressiveness, the UA staff could bring the Polynesian connection back to Desert Swarm-era levels.