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A first, a last: With family making first visit from American Samoa, WSU’s Frankie Luvu readies for last home game

After making the move from American Samoa to Pullman, Washington State seniors Frankie Luvu and Daniel Ekuale will play college football in front of their families for the first time Saturday against Stanford. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – The late Pac-12 kickoffs that have become a major point contention among the conference’s coaches, players and fans aren’t all that burdensome for the families of Washington State Rush linebacker Frankie Luvu and defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale.

“Pac-12 After Dark” might as well be foreign lingo for the residents of American Samoa. While the relatives and friends of WSU’s Floridian players often have to sacrifice shut-eye to stay awake for games that start at 10:30 p.m. on the East Coast, the Luvus and Ekuales have it pretty good. When the Cougars are kicking off at 7:30 p.m. in Pullman, it’s 3:30 p.m. on the South Pacific island of American Samoa.

That’s perhaps the only advantage there is, though.

When Luvu’s parents shipped him off to the Pacific Northwest in 2014, they might as well have been sending their son to another galaxy. It’s rare for a college football player from American Samoa to make it home at any point of his four- to five-year pit stop in the United States. Even more seldom is that the player’s family will have a chance to travel across the pond during that span to see a game in person.

That’s why Saturday is such a momentous occasion for Luvu.

WSU’s starting Rush linebacker has a group of relatives traveling more than 5,000 miles to see the 25th-ranked Cougars play 18th-ranked Stanford on Senior Day. It’ll be a Martin Stadium swan song for the defensive stalwart, but also the first time Luvu will be able to gaze into the crowd and see family members.

“They’ve been planning this from the start of my season, since before fall camp,” said Luvu, who hails from Tafuna’, American Samoa, a peninsula village located on the outskirts of Pago Pago, the capital city that Ekuale calls home.

From Tafuna’, it’s a short car ride to Pago Pago International Airport. Then the real voyage begins. A trip from American Samoa to Pullman takes a traveler through as many as four airports. One way, it’ll cost in the range of $1,000. Barring any setbacks, it’ll take about 15 hours.

“And that is best-case scenario. BEST-case scenario,” said Cougars coach Mike Leach, who occasionally makes the trip over to pluck athletes from the island’s robust football tree.

The Poly pipeline – more specifically, the American Samoa pipeline – has given the Cougars Luvu and Ekuale, but also their starting center, Fred Mauigoa, who comes from the village of Illili and attended the same high school as Luvu, along with defensive lineman/linebacker Logan Tago, who’s from Fagasa – another Pago Pago suburb. Over the years, the pipeline has also been responsible for former WSU safety Shalom Luani, now with the Oakland Raiders, and Destiny Vaeao, a second-year defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles.

For the families who’ve been fortunate to make this trip, the first challenge is the one that comes before even boarding a plane. In a region where the average annual income is less than $10,000, many American Samoans are hamstrung financially. So scraping together the money for a flight might take a few years – and it might account for more than a fifth of your annual earnings. A round-trip flight on Hawaiian Airlines from Pago Pago to Seattle sets you back $1,5000, and that’s before the connecting flight to Spokane or Pullman.

The Pago Pago-to-Honolulu flight can be an uncomfortable one, too. Those are normally at capacity and it’s not uncommon that your aisle partners are Ekuale-sized or bigger. The fifth-year nose tackle stands 6-3 and weighs in at 305 pounds.

“And I did, coming back, find myself sitting between, one guy would’ve been bigger than Daniel, one guy would’ve been a little smaller,” the WSU coach said. “And there’s me wedged in. So you can imagine how pleased they were that I was sitting between them instead of somebody built like them.

“No, it’s wild.”

The other obstacle? Hawaiian Airlines only offers departing flights from Pago Pago to Honolulu on Mondays and Fridays – not always conducive for Saturday football games. Luckily, the Luvu clan had a reason to stop in Honolulu, where the senior linebacker’s sister currently resides.

“My sister’s been sending me texts that they made it safely,” Luvu said. “Thank god about that.”

Luvu’s parents are making the trip – he said they had to apply for a travel visa a few months ago – along with six of his seven brothers, his sister and several extended family members.

“I’m pretty stoked … they watch me play on TV,” Luvu said, “but it’s not as close as when you’re in the stands.”

And their timing is just right.

Luvu’s finally found a home on the football field at the Rush linebacker position, which allows him to freelance as a D-lineman on some plays and drop back into coverage as a traditional linebacker on others. He’s evolved as one of the top playmakers for the country’s 17th-ranked defense and checks in second on the team, and fifth in the Pac-12, with 5.5 QB sacks. Luvu’s 34 tackles rank fourth on the team his nine tackles-for-loss are second among the Cougars and seventh in the Pac-12.

His position coach insists growth on the field is only part of it. Luvu’s parents will see the other ways in which their son has matured when they visit this weekend.

“When we get any players and they’re kind of under our care for four, five years, I can only imagine what that feels like as a parent kind of sending your kid off across the water,” outside linebackers coach Roy Manning said. “And then having this day come where you can be there for them and see how they’ve matured not only as athletes but as men. I think it’s a really cool deal.”

Paulina and Loi Ekuale hope to be in Pullman this December when Daniel crosses the stage to receive his undergraduate degree, but they’ll be streaming the FOX broadcast back home in Pago Pago this Saturday. Paulina and Loi haven’t been able to make the long voyage for a Washington State game, but they’ve never faltered in their tradition of making two phone calls to their son every Saturday during the football season.

“My mom always call (Daniel) a few hours before his game and prays for his strength and make sure he does well on the field, and then she’ll call after” said older sister Kika Ekuale, who lives in Riverside, California, with her four children and hopes to be by her brother’s side on Saturday when Daniel and the other 19 WSU seniors are feted pregame.

Ekuale’s had perfect attendance for the Cougars since his redshirt freshman season in 2014, appearing in all 46 games. He’s the centerpiece of a defensive line that was molded by former assistant Joe Salave’a – the man behind WSU’s many recruiting coups on the Polynesian islands – and one that’s taken off under first-year aid Jeff Phelps. The Cougars have 26 sacks and 34 QB hits through nine games.

“(We’re) proud of (Daniel), it’s been a long, long journey,” Kika said. Her brother had to overcome a language barrier when he arrived in the U.S. five years ago and not until he nailed that down did Daniel begin to feel comfortable in social settings. “… It was hard for him to get adjusted to it, to being there. The lifestyle.”

But Ekuale took a chance. So did Luvu. Now they’ll leave with a senior class that’s won 27 games in three seasons – and might still be far from finished.

“Coming here as 17-18 year-old guys from a long, long way away with a dream of playing college football,” WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said, “and what they’ve been able to accomplish and the success from a team standpoint that they’ve had a chance to be a part of.

“None of that was promised to them.”

Washington State defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale (90) stands on the field during the second half of a September 2016 game against Idaho in Pullman. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)
Washington State defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale (90) stands on the field during the second half of a September 2016 game against Idaho in Pullman. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)