Nov. 11, 2009
This story first appeared in the football gameday magazine Kickoff, Nov. 7, 2009
Playing as a team and sticking together when faced with adversity remains a driving force in achieving success and overcoming obstacles in the game of football. Members of the team weekly go up against tough offenses and defenses, but for student-athletes Solomona Aigamaua, Tyson Alualu, Savai'i Eselu, Chet Teofilo and Aaron Tipoti, that has been nothing compared to what they have had to deal with in the last month.
On a seemingly normal Tuesday, Sept. 29, a catastrophic 8.0 earthquake rocked the South Pacific including the Samoan Islands and American Samoa triggering a devastating tsunami. In less than ten minutes, a series of waves 15-20 feet high enveloped the island's shores. Many headed to higher ground, just in time to witness their homes being swallowed and littered across a plain of muddy desolation. Survivors were numbed by the chaotic devastation.
"We found out the day of [the tsunami], while we were in classes, getting text messages and a lot of phone calls saying, `Pray for the people in Samoa' and that's what we've been doing," recalled Alualu, one of the nation's top defensive linemen.
Added to the damages were broken phone lines and communication outages. What ensued was a grueling five-day wait before the players could get in contact with their families back home.
"When I first heard about the tsunami hitting Samoa, just the thought of my family and their well-being, and the fact that I couldn't get a hold of them, trying to call them, and just trying to see what's happening down there, it really affected me," said Aigamaua. "I couldn't really concentrate. I was really worried about my family. My dad and my sister were at the house when the tsunami hit and the house is right in front of the ocean. My brother was talking to my sister before the waves hit the house and before you knew it she said the waves are coming and the phone lines cut out."
"It's rough when you're left out in the cold, nobody answering your calls, none of your calls going through, it's just a lot of panic," offered Tipoti. "You're trying to tell yourself that everybody is fine, but at the same time you have second thoughts like I might have lost my entire family, your extended family, aunties and people you have grown up with. To have the thought that you could have lost everyone -- it takes a toll on you."
"When you're put in that situation where you have to wait, you just feel helpless," added a melancholy Teofilo.
For nearly a week, the only information the players could gather was from the news on their computers.
"There was a marketplace and then it was all under water. Seeing the death toll increasing, knowing your fellow people, the people back home, are going through, that was heartbreaking," Teofilo described.
The more information you get off of the news and the longer you wait and don't hear from your family, in the back of your head, you're preparing for the worst," said Eselu.
Through this ordeal, however, they were able to remain strong with help and support from the entire football team and the Polynesian bond that holds them together.
"It was nice to hear a lot of the boys on the team asking about it," noted Alualu. "Just having them ask shows that they care for our people, too, and the people back home, and it was nice of them asking if our family was alright."
"For us, we're always together," added Aigamaua. "We're pretty much brothers and every time something goes down with any one of us, we're always there to help out each other, be there [and provide] words of encouragement."
Finally, their phone calls got through and a sense of relief came thereafter. Luckily, many of the players' families survived and were able to move to villages on higher ground.
"My aunts and uncles were fine, except they lost cars and their houses were totaled -- but those are material things," stated Tipoti. "The majority of my family is fine."
"It was good to know they are okay," added an extremely grateful Eselu.
To salute and remember those who lost their lives in the tsunami, the players in turn dedicated the game against USC in their honor.
"During the USC game, we wanted to pay tribute to the people in Samoa in some way. Before the game, we wrote on our tape jobs `Samoa 684' or `Samoa 685'," said Aigamaua, numbers that represent their home area codes.
Although the football game resulted in a loss, the Bears scored many points in togetherness and teamwork.