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Quizzes on a treadmill: The long journey to US citizenship for former Washington State standout Frankie Luvu

Carolina Panthers linebacker Frankie Luvu takes the field during a 2022 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Charlotte Observer)
By Scott Fowler Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Most photos you have seen of Frankie Luvu, the Carolina Panthers linebacker, show him bearing down on a quarterback, tackling somebody with the ball or celebrating a sack.

But not this one.

In this photo, Luvu is smiling broadly, holding a tiny American flag in his right hand and a white manila envelope in his left. He stands in front of a sign that reads:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Charlotte Field Office

The photo, Luvu said, commemorated one of the most important days in his life. In August , the native of American Samoa became a full-fledged American citizen.

Luvu, 26, went through the citizenship ceremony in Charlotte along with about 50 other people granted citizenship that day – singing along with the national anthem and celebrating with family and friends afterward.

“I really wanted this, for several reasons,” Luvu said in an interview. “The process took close to a year. And now, I’ve got it. I’m an American citizen and proud of it.”

Luvu is one of the Panthers’ best players and starts at inside linebacker. After posting career highs in nearly every defensive category in 2022, he had a sack, seven tackles and three quarterback hits in Carolina’s 24-10 season-opening loss to Atlanta. He’s a player that predates head coach Frank Reich, who was happy to find him on the roster when he arrived in January.

As Reich said about Luvu in an August news conference: “That guy – he has so much energy, such a good player, so versatile. I was talking to (Panthers GM Scott Fitterer) the other day and I said, ‘How did we end up with this guy?’ Man, this was like the steal of the century, getting Frankie on this team.”

100 questions to study

Luvu’s path to American citizenship and to Charlotte was winding – starting in American Samoa, through college at Washington State and then through three years with the New York Jets (where the late Kevin Greene was a mentor for him as a Jets assistant) before he came to Carolina in 2021.

American Samoa is an American territory in the South Pacific, located about 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. It has been held by the United States for more than 120 years. But unlike people born in any of the 50 states or in other major U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, people born in American Samoa aren’t automatically American citizens.

Instead, American Samoans like Luvu are classified as “nationals” at birth. It’s a complicated distinction, one that comes with some U.S. citizenship benefits, but not all of them.

American Samoans can hold a U.S. passport and can live wherever in the U.S. that they like. They can – and do, in significant numbers – serve in the U.S. military. But as nationals, in the U.S. they can’t vote, run for office or serve in certain jobs, like law enforcement, without first gaining citizenship status.

Luvu wanted to become a U.S. citizen in large part to help his parents, who still live in American Samoa.

“I want to help sponsor them, to allow them to also get citizenship,” Luvu said. “It will be easier for them to do that with me already as a citizen.”

To be invited to that Charlotte citizenship ceremony in August, however, wasn’t easy. After Luvu filled out the paperwork, he had to study a list of 100 questions about American civics and history in preparation for an oral exam. And they’re not simply asking you, “Who’s the president?”

Here are three sample questions from the 100 that Luvu had to study (the actual test contains 10 of the 100 questions in the study guide):

•The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

•If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?

•What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?

If you had those answers on the tip of your tongue – and I’ll give them to you in a moment – congratulations.

Quizzes on the treadmill

But many people don’t know the answers or can’t remember them from their high school history class, and Luvu didn’t the first time he took the test, either. That made his life a bit messier, given that he had to go back to Seattle – where his official residence is – to take the oral exam.

“Flew out to Seattle, took the test the first time and didn’t pass,” Luvu said.

This didn’t mean Luvu would never become an American citizen. But it did mean that he had to study harder (you must get at least six of the 10 questions right to pass) for another try about a month later.

So Luvu bore down, in much the same way that he bore down on trying to become a good NFL player when he went undrafted out of Washington State in 2018. He worked at it, multitasking during training sessions at Bank of America Stadium.

As Luvu tells it, whichever athletic trainer was working with him that day also had the job of quizzing him on the 100-question list. It went something like this:

Do 10 reps, then come up with the name of the current U.S. senator of your home state (answers vary, depending on where you live, but North Carolina’s are Ted Budd and Thom Tillis).

Do 10 more, then name one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (speech, religion, assembly, press, petition the government).

“Rapid-fire questions,” Luvu said. “It was good practice.”

“I would see Frankie in the weight room or on a treadmill,” said Jaiquawn Jarrett, the Panthers’ player engagement manager. “And he’s getting tested. Getting quizzed. You could just see all the work, all the hours he was spending, getting ready for that exam.”

As for the answers to those first three questions, in order, they are: 435 representatives, the Speaker of the House and Louisiana.

An NFL game day and graduation

Luvu remains proud of his American Samoan heritage. After starring for a high school team in Samoa, he left the island for the first time at age 17, to take a scholarship offer at Washington State.

He describes American Samoa – made up of five islands and two coastal atolls – like this: “The population is about 55,000, so it’s small. It’s a very slow pace compared to the U.S. Even on highways, we’re going like 25 miles per hour. You’d probably get a ticket for going 30. And to get off the island, either your family is wealthy enough to do that, or you join the Army or you get a scholarship.”

Veresa and Faaloiloia Luvu, who are Frankie’s parents, weren’t rich. They sent their children to a private school, but it was a struggle every year to make the payments. But Frankie Luvu’s football talent became his ticket to America, where he has lived for about a decade. Many of Luvu’s seven siblings have also settled in the U.S.

For Luvu’s second attempt at the test, he had to fly to Seattle once more.

This time, though, he passed. The studying between training sessions at Bank of America Stadium and at home paid off. That was earlier this summer.

After that, Luvu said, it took about another month for processing, and then he was invited to the citizenship ceremony in August. Luvu said men and women from about 45 countries were represented. Accompanying Luvu were a few family members, as well as Jarrett (a former NFL player himself) and Kevin Winston, the Panthers’ vice president of player affairs.

“It was important to Frankie,” Jarrett said, “so it was important to us. We were honored that he let us come. It was beautiful. And there was a lot of energy in that room. It felt kind of like a combination of an NFL game day and a graduation ceremony.”

Luvu will see most of his family again for the Panthers’ game at Seattle on Sunday, since many of them now live in the area. His parents plan to fly to that one, too.

As for Luvu, he’s happy about his citizenship, but he is mostly concerned at the moment about the Panthers winning Monday night in their home opener against New Orleans.

To that end, immediately after a brief celebration at his citizenship ceremony, he jumped in his car.

It was time to go to practice.