American Samoan a starting linesman for Bronco football
Hefting coconut trees for weight training and running on the beaches of American Samoa are standard practice for high school football players on that South Pacific island, according to Kasimili “Mili” Uitalia, a senior starting offensive linesman for Western Michigan University’s Bronco football team. Unlikely as it might seem that an American fall sport would be popular in a country so close to the equator, Uitalia said he grew up with lots of exposure to American football.
“Back home on the islands every high school has a football program,” said Uitalia, who grew up in the village of Vavaiai. “We didn’t have much equipment, not even much of a weight room, only a bench and couple of dumbbells. For lifting, we have to pick up coconut trees and do lots of running. Once a season, we’d play against a team from Hawaii in the Samoan Bowl. They knew more about football, but when we beat them they’d go home with their heads down—that was really awesome!”
Uitalia started playing in his junior year of high school as a defensive end and nose guard. Some of his coaches had played football in the United States. After experiencing a shoulder injury, he was moved to the offensive line. In his senior year, he was named captain of his squad and earned All-American honors.
After graduating from high school in 2007, Uitalia moved to Hawaii for a few months, and then accepted a job in Texas that would enable him to help support his family. A coach from Los Angeles Valley Junior College heard about Uitalia in 2008 and asked him to move to California and put pads on again. “He also asked me to help him recruit other talented young players from back home on the islands,” Uitalia said.
He transferred to WMU in fall 2011 and kicked off the football season as a left guard on the offensive line, responsible for protecting the blind side of the quarterback. He was a starter for all 13 games and led the team in snaps played (1,021) for the 2011 season. “Mili has evolved into a complete student and player,” praised A.J. Ricker, offensive line coach for the WMU football team. “He is now the explosive guy we need; a young man who plays with physicality and dominance."
“I love everything about WMU’s football program—the coach, the training facilities and the team,” Uitalia said. “Some of the coaches help me, push me, and have taught me how the system works—that helps me a lot. The players are very humble, which makes it comfortable for me to be part of the squad.”
Uitalia is majoring in family studies and minoring in criminal justice. Balancing his academic work with the football team’s vigorous training and practice schedules is an exhausting process, which he says requires him to follow a very strict schedule that he writes out each Sunday.
During spring training, the team practiced from 7 to 10 a.m., followed by classes from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. After dinner, many of the players gather at a study table to help each other out with their academic work until 9 p.m. “After that I start homework and get rest,” he said. Being a student athlete is tough because you have to focus on football and school all the time during the week.”
On the weekends, Uitalia has more free time, much of which he uses to stay in touch with his family, which he has not seen since he left home in 2007. “My family motivates me and I always think about them—they are my support group,” he said. “If I ever make a mistake I always make it right because I am thinking of them. My dad is especially supportive and often tells me what I need to do.”
Adjusting to the fast-paced life common in much of the United States was a bit challenging for Uitalia because he said people in his country generally have a more laid back approach to life. “At home, I can walk from one side of the island to the other in the same day and I knew everybody’s name,” he said. “I miss the weather and the food, but I like Kalamazoo and it was fun to see snow, though it’s cold in winter here!”
If he can make a name for himself on the field, Uitalia said he will pursue playing football beyond college. “I hope to someday play professional football,” he said. “However, I believe it is a smart move to earn a college degree to fall back on when my playing days are over.”