Jesse Sapolu played 15 NFL seasons, winning four Super Bowls with the 49ers and earning two trips to the Pro Bowl. He did this despite a torn aortic heart valve, a dangerous condition that left him short of breath at times. In his new book, I Gave My Heart To San Francisco, Sapolu reveals this secret and recounts his journey to the NFL. Born in Samoa and raised in Hawaii, Sapolu has special appreciation for the success he achieved in pro football when he knows that so many others had the more typical American upbringing. In this excerpt, Sapolu writes about how his heritage helped define him as a football player and a person.
When I chose the University of Hawaii over schools from the Pac-10 and the Big Ten, one of the most important factors was the ability to play in front of my extended family.
In my mind I knew that when I chose my school, I would not only be playing for Farrington High School and my little town of Kalihi, but I would be representing the entire state every single time I strapped on my helmet. The pride of representing the people I grew up with far outweighed playing in the spotlight of the Pac-10 and Big Ten.
Being of Samoan ancestry and raised in Hawaii, I feel very blessed and honored to be part of two proud cultures. The two cultures are similar in that RESPECT and HUMILITY are of utmost importance. It is a high priority to represent yourself, your family, and your people with humility which in return earns you respect. I understood early with both cultures that it doesn't matter what your accomplishments might be, if you’re not humble, accomplishments mean absolutely nothing to them.
It is a thought that never left me. Whether it was winning a Super Bowl or simply stepping on a field for practice; everyone deserves to be treated with respect. Represent your family and your people in a way that would make them proud, win or lose.
My three sons (Luke, London and Roman) have heard me say many times during training sessions, "Be humble. You don't have to be loud to carry a big stick, just be loud when you buckle up your chinstrap." It is what Coach Tony Dungy calls "quiet strength."
In 2004, I traveled to Samoa with an ESPN film crew for a documentary called "Polynesian Power." It featured NFL players, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Isaac Sopoaga; one grew up on the island of Tutuila and the other on the streets of Southern California and both made it to the NFL.
In completing the documentary, the film crew wanted the only living royalty, King Malietoa Tanumafili III, to give the two boys his blessing on film. When they called the Prime Minister's office about the documentary, they were advised the Samoan player that is the most wellknown in Samoa is Jesse Sapolu and that he's a
four-time Super Bowl ring holder.
The film crew called up Papaliitele Tihati Thompson in Honolulu to speak with me about traveling to Samoa with them. We already had planned a mini-vacation, but they offered to take Lisa (my wife and partner) and my youngest son, Roman, on a vacation to Samoa.
Following the filming of the two boys presenting their gifts to King Malietoa, Chief Seiuli, who speaks on behalf of the King, said a long speech about how proud Samoa is of me and my representation of our country. The Highness Malietoa Tanumafili III said that he would like to bestow the High Chief title of Seiuli on me for my work on the gridiron and also because my mother was from the village of Sapapalii which gives me legal claim to the chief title. I was so honored because I understood the noble respect of such a title. I sat there stunned for about a minute. Finally the Deputy Prime Minister Misa Telefoni looked over at me and asked, "So what do you think about the honor presented?” In the history of Samoa, no one has ever turned down a request or an honor from the Head of State and I wasn’t about to become the first.
The Seuili chief title was bestowed upon me. The chief titles come with a description (fa'alagiga). It is of utmost importance in a Samoan speech to know all the descriptions of the chiefs that are in the room or venue you're speaking at; failure to acknowledge properly will label the recipient as an incompetent speaker.
The description of my Chief Title Seiuli is the son of the Malietoa (alo ole Malietoa). Malietoa was the last living King of Samoa. The chief title given by King Malietoa is cherished by the Samoan people.
People protested in disagreement of giving the chief title to a person living abroad. The assumption was the chief title was given to me strictly because I had won four Super Bowls.
There was jealousy and backlash, but when they found out my mother lived in the village of Sapapalii, the village of King Malietoa and where the title Seiuli is rooted, the negativity stopped. The experience was interesting; a few I thought were friends were some of the protestors. I stayed quiet through the whole process, but it was a very painful learning experience.
Independent Samoa gave me a passport with the name Seiuli Manase Jesse Sapolu. In 1977, at 16 years of age, I became a naturalized citizen; becoming a naturalized citizen before the age of 18 allows changes to a given name. My mom decided to name me after my grandfather Manase and made Jesse my middle name.
I am still known as Jesse Sapolu, but because of 9/11 security measures Manase Jesse Sapolu is used a lot more today. My kids make fun of me because I went from Jesse Sapolu to Manase Jesse Sapolu and when I became a chief it became Seiuli Manase Jesse Sapolu. Being made fun of at home is just part of my everyday life with my children.
American Samoa has a population of nearly 60,000 and football is very popular. In the 1970s and 80s, a family would move from Pago Pago to the states before a child was of high school age to be discovered by colleges and universities, but now it is common place for a player to be recruited straight out of high school from the islands. For example, Paul Soliai of the Miami Dolphins came straight from the islands to the University of Utah.
Over fifty years ago Western Samoa became an independent country. There are many gifted athletic people waiting for NFL glory. I tell anyone who will listen, "It’s time for us to go over there and pick them up." Independent Samoa is a top 10 rugby team in the world almost every year, which is incredible considering the size of the country.
In my culture, every family has a chief, with a separate chief's name; that family lives in a village, and every village has high chiefs. The protocol is similar to football in the respect shown to coaches. Coaches love Polynesian players because they are very respectful and usually quiet; nobody mouths off. That's just the way we grew up. Very seldom do we display anger.
Of course, that is unless we are challenged or disrespected. A lot of college coaches have a Polynesians on their staff for recruitment purposes. In the football clinics during the early 80s in Samoa only four or five kids out of 500 had shoes and that was on a good day. Now every kid wears Nike or Reebok; times have changed.
Speaking of respect, we all lost a friend and brother recently. The late Junior Seau was a great player and man. We attended his funeral and one of his college teammates, Titus Tuiasosopo, shared a story about being in the weight room at USC with a restless Junior who was pacing back and forth. Titus asked him what was wrong; Junior said, "I just found out my girlfriend is pregnant. Can you come with me so I can tell my mom?" He replied, "I'm not going with you because your mom is going to beat you and just because I'm with you she's going to beat me, too."
Junior was afraid of his mother's reaction and punishment, but family and respect in the Polynesian community is highly honored. I think his mom did beat him and I bet he stood there and took it. You don't talk back or disrespect your parents in our culture. It is hard for today's generation because of the American influence, but still, talking back to your parents in the Samoan household is not allowed. Even if you do not agree with your elders, you have no choice but to accept it.
My childhood journey created my obsession and pushed me to overcome a secret heart condition. I was very proud of the fact that I never gave up throughout my career. The peaceful feeling instilled in me through my faith made me believe all things were possible; with all the dedication and sacrifice to make it to the Super Bowl, there was indeed some luck attached, but I believe it was my parents' constant prayer that has guided me throughout my life and NFL career.
-- Excerpted by permission from I Gave My Heart To San Francisco by Jesse Sapolu. Copyright (c) 2012 by Jesse Sapolu. Published by Celebrity Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase at Celebrity Publishng and Amazon.