PULLMAN – The van cruised down Interstate 5 toward San Diego. And toward the unknown for Joe Salave’a, a ninth-grader at the time, who was still trying to grasp just exactly what was happening.
Salave’a and his youth baseball team were in town from American Samoa for a tournament. But instead of returning home with his friends, a woman flagged him down in the airport terminal.
“She told me, ‘I talked to your dad, you’re going to stay with me and you’re going to go to school here in Oceanside,’ ” Salave’a, Washington State’s new defensive line coach, said in his office on Tuesday. “I was like, ‘What the?’ ”
Never mind that Salave’a had never formally met the woman, who was a relative. Or that he didn’t know a great deal of English. It was decided that the youngster from Leone, American Samoa, would attend high school in Oceanside, Calif., a suburb of nearby San Diego.
That was a lot to take in for a kid who thought he was just going to play some baseball.
“At the time, it didn’t make sense to me,” Salave’a said.
No more translators in school. He’d have to pick up the language on his own. No more Mom and Dad to look after him, either.
Salave’a had to grow up fast.
“But I think I would never have gotten this far if I didn’t come across to go to school here on the mainland,” he said.
This far is an assistant coach position under Mike Leach. This far meant a nine-year NFL career.
But Salave’a, a hulking former defensive tackle who played his college ball at Arizona and coached there the past two seasons, really lights up when he talks about the work he’s still doing back home.
The Joe Salave’a Foundation was created in 2001. Ever since, Salave’a, who credits his wife, Josephine, for helping him get it started, has been hosting free youth football clinics in Hawaii and American Samoa.
The camps focus on football, but Salave’a goes out of his way to emphasize academics, to prove to the kids in attendance – some of whom don’t even own shoes – that there are other avenues to success besides football. Or the military, which Salave’a said many kids view as their ticket elsewhere.
One year, Salave’a brought in a Samoan native who worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency. The kids oohed and ahhed as he flashed his badge.
“Football’s not everything,” Salave’a tells them. “But with education, you can be a doctor, you can be a policeman, you can be all kinds of things.
“I’ve always said going into these things if I can get one kid or two to kind of make an imprint in their thinking process, as far as what you want to aspire to, then I think it’s all worth it.”
He’s moved by a desire to “pay it forward,” eternally grateful for the opportunity provided by Arizona when the school offered him a scholarship out of high school, wanting the same for other Samoan players who weren’t as fortunate as he was growing up.
“Hopefully that will be the start of a thinking process, getting the wheels turned as far as, ‘What do I want to do when I grow up?’ ” Salave’a said. “Because sometimes on the island, you’re subjected to not having those kinds of dreams and aspirations. It paid dividends for me and I’ll always do those kind of things for the younger kids.”
He didn’t know Leach prior to working at WSU, though the two were connected by chief of staff Dave Emerick, who worked with Salave’a at Arizona.
Salave’a’s background led to an interest in how Leach does things.
“I’m always a fan of people that do great things with their resources and what they have, and I think that’s why you tend to gravitate toward those kind of players,” said Salave’a, who will recruit San Diego and American Samoa at WSU.
“I think with Mike Leach being here at WSU, his wealth of knowledge and the body of work, I was really intrigued and happy as heck to be a part of that.”