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Samoan talent at WSU ushered in by Thompson

Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson took the reins in 1976 and began setting NCAA passing records. (The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson took the reins in 1976 and began setting NCAA passing records. (The Spokesman-Review)

I’ve been told that blood flows crimson for a very good reason. When you grow up in Eastern Washington and spend your adolescent Saturdays listening to the raspy voice of Bob Robertson urging you to “Always be a good sport; be a good sport all ways,” you never doubt the divine reasoning.

At an early age I self-diagnosed myself as a hopeless sports fan. My favorite baseball teams? The Boston Red Sox (featuring the Curse of the Bambino) and the Chicago Cubs (the Curse of the Billy Goat). College football? The Cougs were my team.

Let’s just say I learned a lot about how to deal with losing by being a young fan.

The Cougs? For a young kid with Native American blood in his veins, it was hard not to root for Sonny Sixkiller and the Huskies, but I resisted that urge. It would be disloyal.

But it was hard to get excited for Washington State. Quarterbacks like Ty Paine made it difficult to stay positive. When a player throws 24 interceptions in 267 attempts, it’s hard to keep yourself buoyed by the fact that he completed a pass to a receiver in the right-colored jersey.

That all changed when a sophomore from Evergreen High took over at quarterback. You may have heard of him.

Jack Thompson.

All of a sudden we forgot all about Sonny Sixkiller – at least until he got that job as Burt Reynolds’ understudy in “The Longest Yard.”

Spokesman-Review columnist Harry Missildine dubbed Thompson “The Throwin’ Samoan” and the name stuck – even if it did require a little remedial pronunciation help (suh-MOA is what you say when you visit the islands and want more iced tea, please; SAM-oa is the island that gave us Thompson, Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu and Marcus Mariota).

Jack Thompson made Samoans a hot commodity in Pullman. Tali Ena stood out as a Cougar tailback. Samoa Samoa, a transfer quarterback from Long Beach City College, and Dave Pritchard, a transfer running back from Army, joined his cousin, Thompson, and became a center.

“You have to remember that, when I was there, we had four head coaches in four years,” Thompson laughed. “I have a hard time remembering who recruited who. I can’t remember if I talked to Jim Walden or Mike Price about bringing in Dave. I just don’t remember who I asked to look at him.”

Thompson, Ena, Samoa and Pritchard were the inaugural class of Polynesian football players in Pullman, and they found the small-town community much to their liking.

“It’s a small town and there are a lot of similarities,” Thompson said. “It was a good fit. Everybody knows you. In both places, family comes first.”

It’s been a good fit, especially with Joe Salave’a, the defensive line coach and a Samoan football legend, in charge of recruiting in his old backyard.

And Thompson has kept his hand in recruiting, too.

“I go home with (Heisman Trophy winner) Marcus (Mariota) and (former Hawaii coach) June Jones to do a camp there every year,” Thompson said. “The talent is amazing – you would not believe the things those kids can do.”

Island culture is unique. Family is paramount, and terms like grandmother, grandfather, auntie and uncle are honorifics that designate a great deal of respect for one’s elders.

And there’s a definite “warrior spirit” that Thompson insists is integral to how Samoans play football.

But even that spirit defies mainland stereotype. It’s not hypermasculine or overly macho. It’s more about honoring the ancestors who passed down the responsibility for protecting their island home. If you saw any of the stories from the Rio Olympics about the gold-medal rugby team from Fiji, you’ll understand the concept.

A boy born to Samoan parents is 56 times more likely to make it to the NFL than any other. The talent on display during those camps more than supports that statistic.

With so many Samoans making their name in the NFL, it’s difficult to remember that when the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Thompson with the third overall pick in 1979, he was just the fifth Samoan-born player to make into the NFL.

Thompson has a distinct place in the pantheon of Samoan football.

He was a member of the inaugural class of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame.

“I was hanging out with Jesse Sapolu and Ma’a Tanuvasa and they started telling me about the Hall of Fame that they were trying to start, and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’ ”

Sapolu was a Pro Bowl offensive lineman with the San Francisco 49ers during his long NFL career, and Tanuvasa owns a pair of Super Bowl rings. Both were stellar players at the University of Hawaii.

And Thompson still has plenty of clout with today’s Cougars.

“I went in the locker room after the game Saturday,” Thompson said. “The Samoan players were all like ‘Hey, Uncle Jack! How you doin’?’ ”

Thompson clearly loves his elder-statesman status.

“I love it,” he said. “I ask them about their grades and make sure they’re doing the work in the classroom, too. I like checking up on them.”

Steve Christilaw can be reached at steve.christilaw@ gmail.com.


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