Boise State football practice highlights, Day 3
It’s in their blood to be on the water.
When their busy schedules allow, a group of Boise State football players — some born thousands of miles away, some here in Idaho, united by a common heritage — bond together.
The ever-growing number of Polynesian-bred Broncos gather at Quinn’s Pond when summer temperatures soar.
“We like to go and try stand-up paddleboarding,” senior defensive tackle Daniel Auelua said. “But most of us are too big, so we end up just lying down on them.”
On Auelua’s side of the ball, the Boise State defense is dotted with players whose families hail from Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii.
There’s Auelua, defensive tackle David Moa, nose tackles Emmanuel Fesili and Sonatane Lui, STUD end Aisa Kelemete, linebackers Tyson Maeva and Ezekiel Noa and safeties Kekoa Nawahine and Kekaula Kaniho.
There is no easy explanation why so many players who are Pacific Islanders are good — according to PBS, they make up 0.5 percent of the U.S. population but are 28 times more likely to play professionally than any other ethnic group.
Perhaps it’s the genetics that make them strong linemen, but poor paddleboarders. Maybe it’s the ancient warrior mentality. Or something else entirely.
“I think it’s that motor we have. We have some of the best support we could ever want in our lives back home, and that’s family,” said Moa, born in Tonga and raised in San Diego. “We aren’t just playing for ourselves, but for the future of our families, whether it’s football or through school.
“Whatever you need to do is what we have to do. Some people might take it for granted, but we can’t.”
Though a football team can act like a surrogate family, players quickly find common bonds. In March, Auelua, Maeva, Moa and Lui visited then-quarterback Rathen Ricedorff’s wife in the hospital as she battled a viral infection that attacked her central nervous system. Lui brought a guitar, and the players sang a few songs.
Said Auleua: “If you’re Polynesian, you either can play football or you can sing. Lui got lucky — he can do both.”
“They’re good football players, and we found the right ones. They’re good kids,” safeties coach Gabe Franklin said. “When they get here and around each other, they’re like, ‘This a cool place. These are cool guys.’ It’s a very strong bond. ... They click a lot easier than other guys.”
The pipeline likely will continue to flow for Boise State, which added Kelemete (Pocatello) and Kaniho (Kahuku, Hawaii) this summer. Coach Bryan Harsin has been a featured speaker at Polynesian camps during the summer since he has been at the helm. Last week, Hawaii defensive end Kukea Emmsley committed to the Broncos. Auelua said defensive graduate assistant Latu Heimuli has been key in recruiting.
In the past, the Broncos had a handful of Polynesian players like Kamalei Correa, Deuce Mataele, Jeremy Ioane and Justin Taimatuia, but not a group like this year. Even from the earliest days, dating back to when Lyle Smith coached at Boise Junior College, Polynesians have been a key part of Bronco teams. A group of Hawaiian former players attended Smith’s celebration of life Thursday — and sang — including Lenny Chow, who was on the 1958 national championship team.
Harsin said those preceding players’ success has helped the Broncos’ reputation among Polynesian players.
“I don’t know if it was anything intentional. We’ve been recruiting areas we hadn’t in the past, we’re in Utah,” Harsin said of Lui and Auelua’s home state. “... We’ve had some really good (Polynesian) players, and the connection has carried over.”
The Polynesians’ own little blue-and-orange family is one that is always welcoming to new members, including senior running back Ryan Wolpin, whose mother is Filipino.
“I’m an honorary Polynesian, I guess. ... Those guys are awesome, always open to having people hang out,” Wolpin said.
When they get together, it’s a fairly low-key affair. Almost always, there will be singing.
“Even if a Poly isn’t a good singer, they’ll still sing,” Lui said. “It’s pretty special. In some way, a lot of us are related. You can call each other cousins. We all can cook. I’ll make barbecue chicken or kalua pork, always have rice. A lot of rice.”