Tropic of Football

The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans to the NFL

How a tiny Pacific archipelago is producing more players—from Troy Polamalu to Marcus Mariota—for the NFL than anywhere else in the world, by an award-winning sports historian

“Rob Ruck is arguably the most important sport historian of our time. His books on the African American and Latino roots of baseball have revolutionized our understanding and memory of the national game. Now he turns his brilliant gifts as historian and writer to a small Pacific island and its people, forcing us to rethink what we thought we knew about America’s most popular sport, football.” —Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship

Football is at a crossroads, its future imperiled by the very physicality that drives its popularity. Its grass roots—high school and youth travel programs—are withering. But players from the small South Pacific American territory of Samoa are bucking that trend, quietly becoming the most disproportionately overrepresented culture in the sport.

Jesse Sapolu, Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu, and Marcus Mariota are among the star players to emerge from the Samoan islands, and more of their brethren suit up every season. The very thing that makes them so good at football—their extraordinary internalization of discipline and warrior self-image—makes them especially vulnerable to its pitfalls, including concussions and brain injuries.

Award-winning sports historian Rob Ruck travels to the South Seas to unravel American Samoa’s complex ties with the United States. He finds an island blighted by obesity, where boys train on fields blistered with volcanic pebbles wearing helmets that should have been discarded long ago, incurring far more neurological damage than their stateside counterparts and haunted by Junior Seau, who committed suicide after a vaunted twenty-year NFL career, unable to live with the demons that resulted from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Tropic of Football is a gripping, bittersweet history of what may be football’s last frontier.

Praise

“On the night of January 9, 2018, an Alabama freshman named Tua Tagovailoa stunned America by coolly firing perhaps the most perfect pass in college football history. While everyone wondered, ‘Where did he come from?,’ only Rob Ruck had the full answer—and here it is. In this immersive, deeply reported odyssey, Ruck unveils the dynamics powering football’s most dedicated and mysterious cadre, and in the process makes us grapple with a far deeper question. Yes, Samoan islanders have carved out an outsized place in the ultimate American game. But at what cost?”
—S.L. Price, Sports Illustrated senior writer and author of Playing Through the Whistle
“In The Tropic of Football, Rob Ruck masterfully tells the story of how so many Samoans came to play a significant role in American football. Ruck, who has previously documented the history of Latin Americans coming into professional baseball, is by far the best qualified scholar to tell the story of Samoan-American struggles and successes. Ruck is a masterful storyteller who draws us into his work. I recommend that anyone interested in the history of the NFL and in understanding the role of Samoans and our society as a whole read this book!”
—John Nauright, professor of kinesiology, health promotion, and recreation at the University of North Texas and author of Long Run to Freedom
“Rob Ruck has connected beautifully how I as a Samoan and a Polynesian football player—in college and in the NFL—represented my culture. God and family are first; respect and humility are how you represent your people and your culture. The new millennials through today’s culture of social media have lost that foundation of our identity. This is a great read for them.”
—Jesse Sapolu, San Francisco 49ers, winner of four Super Bowl rings and co-founder of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame
“A fascinating investigation into the role of football in American Samoan culture and the role of Samoans in American football. . . . A penetrating probe into one of the most intriguing and misunderstood sporting stories of our time.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This book floored me. Rob Ruck helps us understand a part of football history that has been ignored for too long. No one understands like Ruck the intersection between the history of U.S. empire and the way it has shaped the sports we consume. He did it with baseball, now he does it with what has become the true American past time.”
—Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation and author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States, Bad Sports, and Game Over
“Deftly weaving together strands of history, religion, with colonialism, Ruck shows us how Samoans used football to build a transnational brand, while fending off the discontents of twenty-first-century global currents. The NFL may be where we see Samoan excellence, but Rob Ruck shows us the DNA that makes for their dominance: family, warrior toughness, a local sporting system built on excellence, and a work ethic to beat the band. In Rob Ruck ’s examination of Samoan football, we see a master historian at work, neither romanticizing nor essentializing sporting excellence.”
—Alan Klein, professor of sociology-anthropology at Northwestern University and author of Dominican Baseball and American Sport
“Rob Ruck’s The Tropic of Football tells a fascinating, multilayered story of an extraordinary South Pacific sporting micro culture, one that has spread from Pago Pago to Pittsburgh and beyond. It is richly contextualized and well reported, with an appreciation for island culture and history, the Samoan diaspora, and fa'a Samoa. This is a book that the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead would have admired, for it is about Samoans and, as she put it, ‘their unique contribution to the human spirit.’”
—Daniel A. Nathan, professor of American studies at Skidmore College and former president of the North American Society for Sport History
“Like football, from a distance Samoa looks like paradise. But up close both country and game are racked with problems. Football, so important to many Samoans’ identity, promises riches and fame, and the islanders play it with a fierce abandon—but at great risks. Rob Ruck tells the story of the collision of football and Samoan culture beautifully and without blinking or missing the very real tragedies.”
—Randy Roberts, co-author of A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle and Distinguished Professor of History, Purdue University
Tropic of Football is a beautifully crafted and thoughtful book. Through a variety of interviews and other sources, Rob Ruck tells the fascinating and often poignant story of football’s role and impact in American Samoa. It is essential reading for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of football, collective identity, and ‘the way of Samoa.’”
—David K. Wiggins, author of Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America
“Rob Ruck is arguably the most important sport historian of our time. His books on the African American and Latino roots of baseball have revolutionized our understanding and memory of the national game. Now he turns his brilliant gifts as historian and writer to a small Pacific island and its people, forcing us to rethink what we thought we knew about America’s most popular sport, football.”
—Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship