Football molds lives of Utah’s Polynesian youth, Sundance documentary shows

Posted at 10:05 PM, Feb 02, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY -- Whether it's high school, college or the pros, Polynesian athletes are excelling at every level of the game -- distinguishing themselves as football superstars.

The documentary “In Football We Trust,” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to sold-out crowds.

It follows four rising local high school stars and their families.

They all have one goal -- to make it to the NFL.

But gangs, poverty, culture and faith collide with their dreams.

In the 1950s and 60s, Polynesians migrated from the south pacific to the U.S. in search of a better life.

Some discovered their natural ability to play football, and used that outlet to get ahead.

It’s a beautiful story. We’re here in America trying to survive, said Tony Vainuku, the director of “In Football We Trust.”

Vainuku, a Tongan American, and Erika Cohn, provided a rare look inside the lives of four Tongan high school athletes and their families.

Cameras captured four years of their journey.

"They’re all striving to make a better life for themselves and football has become something that they use differently in all of their lives," Vainuku said.

Fihi Kaufusi

Fihi Kaufusi was a star lineman at Highland High School and is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Kaufusi’s parents in Tonga sent him to Salt Lake City to live with relatives in a small apartment.

"My family don't got money. Being able to support myself will do a lot," Kaufusi said.

He learned to lean on his faith, and realized there's more to life than football.

After graduation, Kaufusi puts football on hold and serves an LDS mission.

Today, he's playing rugby and football at Weber State University.

"God defines me so my faith is what defines me. Football is just the way that I'm able to, it's like a sort of like the car that will take me to my destination and I'm grateful, I love football," Kaufusi said.

Vita and Leva Bloomfield

Brothers Vita and Leva Bloomfield were standouts at Hunter High School and struggled to break away from gangs.

“I knew football was going to be a way out for me," Vita Bloomfield said.

Leva Bloomfield said, "Football means a lot to me. That's the only time I can hit someone and not get arrested."

The boys were raised in the gang lifestyle.

Father, Tefua, once a standout at Brigham Young University, was a well-known gang leader.

"My dad and his cousins started Regulators," Vita Bloomfield said.

Tefua Bloomfield said he wants his boys to escape that fate through football.

But the film reveals how football isn't always enough to distract them from their former life and how missteps have led them down a different path.

Both are not playing football right now.

"I'm currently working with my dad, trying to work for school, so trying to pay for myself'" Leva Bloomfield said.

Vita Bloomfield said, "It just kind of put me in a place where I had to choose right or wrong or am I going to do this the rest of my life? Which is I'm still battling choices right now. I'm just trying to go back to school and working."

Although football is on hold their mother, Kauata Bloomfield is grateful where the road has taken her sons.

"The great thing about these boys is we feel they're still here,” Kauta Bloomfield said. “They were able to overcome a lot of that. Football helped do that for them.”

Harvey Langi

Football still plays a big role in Harvey Langi`s life.  He was a heavily recruited Bingham High star running back.

Langi clashed with cultural expectations from his Tongan parents and ran into trouble with the law before graduating.

He played for the University of Utah and then served an LDS mission.

He is now playing football for BYU.

“A lot happened during that time and right now I can just walk away with a cool movie or journal for my life,” Langi said.

“Right now, I'm attending BYU -- Brigham Young University. You know the student athlete grind. Wake up, work out, run, learn the plays and then I'm in the books."

Vainuku wanted to show the challenges young Polynesians face and to let the world know that there's more to them than just being a football player.

“When people leave that theater, if there’s something I would like them to walk away with is, I hope that they’re inspired and that they understand that they walk away with a little bit understanding of our youth of what we go through as a culture,” Vainuku said.

Polynesian pipeline in Utah

For decades, recruiters in Utah have tapped into the Polynesian pipeline.

One man who made a successful career turning out Polynesian talent is former University of Utah and Weber State University coach, Ron McBride.

Before Ron McBride became head coach of the Utah football team in 1990, he had already created a Polynesian pipeline at schools in California and Texas.

"I was one of the first coaches to recruit from the islands in the 1960s --1967, 68, maybe earlier than that it was at Gavilan College in Gilroy. We recruited four kids from Hawaii," McBride said.

He soon found out that Utah would be the perfect place to build a dynasty of Polynesian athletes.

"I could see when I came here, because of the church and because of the number of Polynesian people that would come to Utah because of family, that Utah was a sleeping giant," McBride said.

He also targeted Hawaii, American Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji.

The coach recalled one of his memorable trips to visit a mother and her sons in New Zealand.

"I went from New Zealand, to Hawaii to Seattle back to Utah on that trip and at that time I ended up with all of the Moleni kids playing at either Utah or at Weber. She had 11 kids -- five were boys," McBride said.

How did McBride convince Polynesian parents to send their children half way around the world to play football?

One of his U recruits, now ex-NFL player, Sione Po`uha shared his theory.

"It's an art. His ability to make you feel like a human is second to none and that's why people gravitate towards him, especially Polynesians," Po`uha said.

Mcbride added, "Parents want to send their kids where they feel safe and they know the kids are going to be taken care of and that was always my number one goal was to take care of the kids. If you tell the parents something you better follow through.

“When you go into their home, you gotta make sure you take your shoes off, make sure you sit on the floor, do not sit on a chair, sit on the floor and do it naturally.

Whatever food they have, you make sure you eat, and make sure you eat all of it and so right away it sets you apart from everybody else."

The Sundance documentary “In Football We Trust,” shows a glimpse of the high stakes world of collegiate recruiting.

"You've got coaches calling -- these aren’t regular coaches, these are coaches you've seen on TV, movies," Po`uha said.

Osa Masina, Utah's top prospect, and All-American linebacker from Brighton High wasn't featured in the Sundance hit, but the half Samoan was heavily recruited by some of these coaches.

"It was tough especially when it came down to the three: USC, UCLA, and Arizona State," Masina said.

In the end, he chose USC.

"I’ve been there like five or six times now, and I love the area and the coaches are way cool and I don’t know, I feel like I fit really well there defensively where they want me to play," Masina said.

With stars like Masina heading out of state to play ball, McBride worries that the Polynesian pipeline in Utah is losing steam.

"Osa is really talented and obviously I would have like to see him stay in Utah and play at the University of Utah. If I was still coaching, I could still get the players," McBride said.

Mcbride said coaching staffs need to reflect the players they’re pursuing.

Polynesians feel comfortable playing for and with people they can relate to. A game plan the coach perfected for decades.

“That culture has paid a living for me for over 50 years in football so a lot of success that I’ve had at every place that I’ve been has been because of the culture, because they added to what we were doing,” he said. “Hopefully we were good for them, but they were good for my career too.”

Coach McBride's influence on Polynesian athletes is still being felt today.

He sits on the selection committee for the Polynesian football hall of fame.

In January, he inducted the class of 2015, which included one of his star recruits, and former NFL player Luther Ellis.