Junior Seau, Kevin Mawae, Troy Polamalu, Marcus Mariota, Manti T’eo—these are just some of the most recognizable names in the growing pantheon of NFL players who come from Polynesian (native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders) descent. As of this previous NFL season, more than 200 Polynesian players have suited up at the highest level of American football, and countless others have played college football.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon that has been explored in short-form pieces in magazines and newspapers as well as on TV but not in a full-length book until now. In Tropic of Football, sports historian and documentary filmmaker Rob Ruck, the author of Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (2011), takes a deep dive into the topic of Samoan players and their propensity to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport. “Rejecting biological determinism,” wrote our reviewer in a starred review, “the author attributes the success of Samoans in football and other sports to ‘fa‘a Samoa,’ the way of Samoa, which stresses the importance of hard work, discipline, competition, community, respect, pain tolerance, and a warrior ethos.”
Ruck’s narrative is a pleasing combination of travelogue, memoir, history, sociology, and ethnography, and while he celebrates the many successes of Samoan players, he also gives much-needed attention to the negative aspects of the story. As our reviewer noted, the author reminds us “that football’s downsides can be all the worse in a place where concussion baseline tests are unheard of, where players wear helmets sent from the mainland that would not pass safety tests, and where…most players never get anywhere near a college or professional field.”
The perfect diversion for football-crazy sports fans waiting out the summer, Tropic of Football is “a penetrating probe into one of the most intriguing and misunderstood sporting stories of our time.” Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.