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Samoan lineman Fred Mauigoa finds community at WSU

UPDATED: Sat., May 6, 2017

WSU's Frederick Mauigoa (69) runs through drills during spring football practice on Thursday, April 6, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU's Frederick Mauigoa (69) runs through drills during spring football practice on Thursday, April 6, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Here is an interesting fact about American Samoan college football players: They have more reason to care about making bowl games each year than their teammates do.

The NCAA knows that many players leave for winter break right after the game, so one of the benefits players receive is a ticket home from the bowl site, and then a return ticket to campus.

The per capita income in American Samoa is about $8,000 per year. And since a round-trip flight costs roughly $2,000, for most players who make the journey from the island the only way to get home in a given year is if the team plays in a bowl.

For Frederick Mauigoa, getting back home to ‘Ili’ili, a village of about 2,500 on the island of Tutuila, would be a joy and relief. The shy teenager is a little homesick, even as he slowly builds a community and home in Pullman.

“I’ve always been a shy kid”

Liam Ryan, another freshman offensive lineman for the Cougars, met Mauigoa and decided the two would be friends. It’s a good thing he took the initiative, because the stoic, introverted Mauigoa admits he could easily have gone the whole year without reaching out.

“I’ve always been a shy kid. I don’t really know how to make friends unless somebody talks to me,” Mauigoa said. “Then I’ll talk back, and, we’ll see how that goes.

“But Liam, I don’t know what he saw in me. But one time I was at the other Samoan guys’ house and Liam showed up. He tried to be friends with me and I don’t know, I guess he saw I don’t have many friends here on the football team. Everywhere he went he tried to make me go with him, and now we’re living together.”

Now Ryan is the only non-Polynesian living in that house. The living arrangements introduce a fun cultural clash for his teammates, who try their best not to only speak Samoan in the house, and for Ryan, who digs the food.

Finding a church

Stop and picture this for a moment: 663 pounds of offensive linemen squeezed next to the driver in the front bench of a U-Haul.

That’s what happened last summer when Mauigoa and fellow freshman Christian Haangana agreed to help Pastor Matt McNelly move a bunch of furniture from the Costco in Clarkston so that Pullman Presbyterian Church could have a youth room.

“I don’t know if a U-Haul truck has ever had that much humanity in it at one time,” McNelly mused. “ It was so fun to watch the reaction of the people watching these two mammoth guys pushing this cart around, with furniture eight-feet high.”

Mauigoa got an eyeful himself, and the shock of having his ears pop while driving for the first time. He comes from a flat, green part of American Samoa and had never seen anything like the view that greets visitors at the top of Lewiston Hill from US-95 before they descend the 2,000-foot grade.

He asked McNelly to stop the truck at the overlook, so he could take pictures with his iPad of Lewiston and Clarkston, the two cities at the bottom of the hill that straddle the Snake River.

Mauigoa found Pullman Presbyterian because it is situated directly between the Northside Residence Hall and student recreation center. Mauigoa says that going to church is “a cultural thing,” as well as spiritual, and he felt listless in Pullman without a faith-based community around him.

He overheard services at the church while en route to the rec center, and decided to drop by the following Sunday. The Sunday after, the shy introvert brought Ryan and Haangana with him.

“He has this way of bringing people together,” says McNelly, who also volunteers as the Pullman Police Department chaplain and was personally saddened last summer when four Polynesian members of the WSU football team were arrested because of three separate incidents. Those arrests led to public friction between the football team and PPD.

“It’s just such a joy to watch him grow since he’s been here,” McNelly continued. “They’re such great kids. That’s something I’ve taken away from (knowing them). Of course in the news when a student gets in trouble or gets arrested it gets a lot of attention, which is understandable, but not very often do people get to learn about the great character of these guys.”

Finding himself

Like many other college freshmen, Mauigoa is still learning who he is and what he can do.

Earlier this year he was working out with some teammates in WSU’s newish weight room. The group was told to do one-armed dumbbell presses, and since the older linemen were using the 100-pound dumbbells, Mauigoa grabbed an 85-pounder.

“Fred,” exclaimed right guard B.J. Salmonson. “What are you doing? You bench press more than I do, you should be doing more weight.”

Mauigoa, not wanting to displease his older teammate, promptly grabbed a 120-pound dumbbell and started doing effortless presses as if he was simply raising a telephone.

“He’s kind of a freak,” said offensive line coach Clay McGuire. “Fred doesn’t really realize what he is. He hits sometimes and you can tell, he’ll hit a guy and they’ll go flying.”

WSU’s defensive linemen describe Mauigoa as one of the most immovable offensive linemen on the team, a player who effectively ends a pass rush once he’s able to get his mitts (seriously, his hands are catcher’s mitts) on a defender.

His strength, like that of many American Samoan born football players, comes from a lifelong regimen of daily chores. For Mauigoa that meant cutting trees at home and at church and dragging the branches away.

His strong lower body comes from trying to keep up with the best lifters on his Tafuna High football team, where the strongest upperclassmen could squat 500 pounds.

“I would just try to compete with them. I guess that’s where I got my lower body from,” Mauigoa said. “I didn’t really have much (upper body) strength until I got (to WSU), and it just feels like everybody in my high school was pretty big and good at bench press. When I got here I thought I was going to be at the low level of all the guys here.”

He was not.

Losing a mentor

Mauigoa instantly found success when he arrived at WSU, playing as a true freshman at center despite Riley Sorenson’s presence as an entrenched starter. With Sorenson graduating, Mauigoa became the immediate frontrunner to start at the position as a sophomore this coming season, and did nothing to dispel that notion with a very good spring camp.

Like every one of the nine American Samoans to play football at WSU since Mike Leach became head coach in 2012, Mauigoa was recruited by Joe Salave’a. The bonds between Mauigoa and Salave’a were particularly strong, since Salave’a’s brother was his football coach at Tafuna.

“It was all Joe,” McGuire said. “Joe had the relationship, Joe did a wonderful job recruiting him. I’m very appreciative he got him.”

Halfway through Mauigoa’s first year in Pullman, however, Salave’a took a new job coaching defensive linemen at Oregon. Though Maiugoa’s friends say his demeanor did not change when Salave’a left, the young transplant suddenly had one fewer companion in his new setting.

“It was a sad part,” Mauigoa said. “It was a sad day. But when he left, I didn’t really think much about it. I just though he left and there’s nothing we can do about it. I just accepted that he wasn’t coming back and didn’t take it as a big problem.”

Making it work

Mauigoa had worked too hard to get to Pullman to let one setback slow his progress. Besides football, Mauigoa excelled in the classroom at Tafuna and was named class valedictorian.

His mother was a school counselor and the two would often stay long hours after school was over so Mauigoa could use the computer in her office to write class papers.

Of course, those papers weren’t quite college essays.

“If they give us papers to write, it will be five paragraphs,” Mauigoa said.

His first day in Pullman, his summer school instructor assigned him a three-page essay. By the end of the summer he was helping out around town, excelling on the football field, bringing new friends to his church, and his papers were pushing eight pages.

“He’s as good a kid as you’ll ever meet in your life,” McGuire said. “He’s just a good kid. He’s not just a football player; he’s a well-rounded kid that can also be involved in the community. Whatever he does in life, he’s going to be a successful person.”

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