• Life Ready Through Sport •

SL Interview: Tony Vainuku’s Film on Football in the Polynesian Community

March 7, 2016

la84_SL_030716_In_Football_we_trustThe sparsely populated islands that make up Polynesia, including American Samoa and Tonga, are small in size.  And yet, the list of professional and college football stars of Polynesian descent is outsized: Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu, Marcus Mariota, and many others.  According to one estimate, while “Polynesians (Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders) make up only 0.5 percent of the U.S. population (2010 U.S. Census), more than 200 Polynesians have played professionally in the National Football League (and in the Canadian Football League) — 28 times more likely than any other ethnic group.”

In a sense, Polynesia and football have become the gridiron equivalent of the Dominican Republic and baseball.  This connection has provided many positives within the community, including helping families escape from desperate poverty, but also concomitant downsides, including the creation of unreasonable expectations among those youth who seek to pursue a professional career.

In his debut film, director Tony Vainuku examines the so-called “Polynesian Pipeline” phenomenon from a unique perspective.  He followed four football players of Polynesian descent while they were attending high school in Utah.  The documentary, titled “In Football We Trust,” shows the young men as they navigate the travails of big-time football, both on and off the field.  Besieged by high-stakes college recruiters, they face career-threatening injury, family strife, and academic pressure — not to mention the stresses of interracial dating and gang strife.

The movie presents a cautionary tale.  On the one hand, the allure of the NFL brand remains incredibly powerful.  Not only are successful players seen as heroes and role models within the community, but their multi-million-dollar paydays offer financial windfalls for entire families.  However, as Vainuku shows, false expectations have proved damaging to many aspiring players.  And, with the recent revelations about Junior Seau’s suicide and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), it’s also clear that football stardom provides no easy path.

Vainuku is a first-generation Tongan who was born and raised in Salt Lake City.  He spent seven years making “In Football We Trust,” which was shown at Sundance last year and recently aired nationally on PBS via the Independent Lens series.  (Producer Erika Cohn is the film’s co-director.)  In addition, he runs a Salt Lake City-based lifestyle apparel company called SoulPro.

SportsLetter recently spoke to Vainuku by phone from his office in Salt Lake City.
–David Davis

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SL Interview: The State of Texas Football with Author Gray Levy

January 19, 2016

la84_sl_011916_BigandBrightWhen veteran coach Gray Levy found himself “disillusioned with the changing priorities of public education” at the local school system in Nevada, he decided to take a road trip.  In August of 2012, Levy loaded up his Ford Focus, said goodbye to his family, and drove to Texas.  He brought along a cooler, laptop, notebooks, camera, video recorder, audio recorder, and clothes.

Levy spent an entire season watching high school football in Texas, including the state championships at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where the Dallas Cowboys play their home games.  He put nearly 20,000 miles on his Ford Focus, crisscrossing the immense expanse to spend a week with 11 different teams, ranging from large high schools in big cities to tiny schools in rural communities.  He saw football played inside stadiums that could have doubled as cathedrals to the sport and at places so small they only field the six-man version of the sport.

In “Big and Bright: Deep in the Heart of Texas High School Football” (Taylor Trade Publishing), Levy recounts his five-months-long odyssey.  Like Buzz Bissinger, who wrote about the coaches and players at Permian High School in the classic book “Friday Night Lights” (1988), Levy discovered a culture very different from the one he was accustomed to.  Unlike Bissinger, Levy was enthralled by these differences.  The system in Texas “has its flaws,” he writes, but he “came away convinced that theirs is the best system of public school athletics in the country. . . In Texas, athletics are as integral to the educational experience as algebra or English.  Coaches are viewed as professionals . . . and are valued.”

SportsLetter recently spoke to Levy by phone from Houston, Texas, where he was watching this season’s slate of the state’s high school football playoff games.

–David Davis

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SL Interview: Tamara Christopherson, Director of “Personal Gold”

November 10, 2015

Tamara Christopherson and her husband, Sky, both enjoyed remarkable successes as elite athletes. A native of Seattle, Washington, Tamara competed in women’s kayak doubles (500 meters) at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Sky was named as an alternate on the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic teams in track cycling. (He proposed to her after the Closing Ceremony at Sydney.)

la84_SL_111015_PersonalGold_PosterIn 2012, as the London Olympic Games approached, the couple was dismayed to discover that USA Cycling had virtually abandoned the four women who comprised the team pursuit team – Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed, and Lauren Tamayo – amidst the doping scandals that had engulfed road cycling (including, most prominently, Lance Armstrong). Unlike the opposing teams from Great Britain and Australia, the American quartet was left to prepare without corporate sponsors or fulltime staff. The team, which had finished fifth at the world championships, was forced to enlist their husbands in the cause to bolster their training efforts.

The couple decided to fly to Europe to assist the beleaguered women just three months before the Games. Embedded with the team, and wedded to a philosophy of “Data Not Drugs,” they filmed every training session and every wrinkle of the women’s progress. After the team’s success in London (spoiler alert: they won the silver medal behind Great Britain), they turned their unprecedented access during this unlikeliest of journeys into a feature documentary titled “Personal Gold: An Underdog Story.”

They themselves were unlikely first-time filmmakers. But inspired by the uplifting documentary films directed by the late Bud Greenspan, they decided to take on the challenge. They shaped thousands of hours of training footage into an intimate movie that captures the agonizing heartbreak and triumphant perseverance of the many Olympic athletes who compete outside of the media spotlight and have to rely on friends and family for crucial support.

SportsLetter recently spoke by phone with Tamara Christopherson about her own personal journey to make “Personal Gold.”
–David Davis

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SL Interview: Jonathan Schuppe and Youth Baseball in a Troubled City

May 18, 2015

la84_SL_051815_AChanceToWinThe statistics were grim. In the early 2000s, at a time when crime rates were falling across the country, the city of Newark, NJ, was experiencing an upturn not only in homicides and gun-related homicides, but also non-fatal shootings. These crime categories were spiking almost to the level of the early 1990s, when the crack epidemic wreaked havoc throughout America.

Newark Star-Ledger crime reporter Jonathan Schuppe began to investigate this anomaly. His beat was Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, with a population of about 270,000, the majority of whom are African-American. Schuppe wanted to go beyond the usual “run-and-gun” reportage and, instead, write about the impact of violent crime on individual lives and the community at large.

One of his earliest feature stories focused on the life experiences of Rodney Mason. A former pitching ace for Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, Mason turned to dealing drugs and spent time in prison. His life was altered permanently in 1995, when he was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting in the South Ward, one of Newark’s toughest neighborhoods.

Mason and Schuppe stayed in touch after the story was published. In the spring of 2008, after the city of Newark announced plans to rehabilitate an abandoned park across the street from where Mason lived, he informed Schuppe that he was going to coach a Little League baseball team. His players were kids he corralled from the neighborhood, many of whom were growing up without father figures in their lives.

Schuppe followed Mason and the Elizabeth Avenue Eagles during the first season and wrote about this for the newspaper. He was hooked by their gritty resiliency and decided to follow them over the course of several years, as Mason strove to stop dealing drugs and the kids on the team attempted to avoid the chaotic strife of inner-city life.

The book, titled “A Chance to Win: Boyhood, Baseball, and the Struggle for Redemption in the Inner City” (Henry Holt and Company), was published in 2013. A paperback edition with a revised subtitle and lengthy afterword came out last year, and the book was tabbed as a finalist for the 2015 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction. Schuppe earned a grant from the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia University to help him with the endeavor.

The power of “A Chance to Win” comes from Schuppe’s dogged reporting and his refusal to gloss over the challenges that Rodney Mason and his youth baseball players faced daily. According to Kirkus Reviews, “The author’s experience as a journalist on the streets of Newark helps the city itself become the most powerful character in the drama, as Mason and the Eagles try to escape the cycle of poverty and violence that surrounds them. In the absence of a consistent group of players, the team didn’t ever coalesce, and what appears at first to be a story about the redemptive power of sports becomes, instead, a tale of a city and its residents fighting for survival.”

Schuppe also examines the myriad reasons why African-American athletes have abandoned baseball for other sports, most prominently football and basketball. Despite such outreach efforts as Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and the Urban Youth Academy, the number of African-Americans playing Major League Baseball has decreased precipitously over the past 30 years. According to figures published recently in USA Today, only 7.8 percent of ballplayers on the opening-day rosters in 2015 were African-American, down from 19 percent in 1986.

Schuppe lives in Maplewood, a suburb of Newark. He currently works at NBC News, writing for the network’s online bureau. SportsLetter recently spoke with him by phone from his office in New York City.

–David Davis

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SL Interview: McFarland USA’s Coach Jim White

March 26, 2015

la84_SL_032415_McFarland_USA_posterIn 1987, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) held the first high school state cross-country championship meet. The Division IV winner was an unheralded team from McFarland High, a small school (about 750 students) in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley. Coached by Jim White, the Cougars were entirely composed of Mexican-American boys, a reflection of the demographics in the town itself. Many of the students also worked in the nearby fields, picking grapes and almonds with their parents, even while they attended school and clocked training miles.

White and McFarland were just getting started. The Cougars went on to win nine state cross-country titles in 14 years, establishing a distance running dynasty in Kern County. Many of his students were able to parlay their running prowess into college scholarships. Their victories helped a town in need of some positive news: about the only story coming out of McFarland since the 1980s concerned a mysterious “cancer cluster” that plagued the area.

Soon, this remarkable story of determination, pride, and love began making headlines outside of the running community. Marc Benjamin, a reporter with the Bakersfield Californian, was the first mainstream journalist to write an in-depth story about Coach White and his hardscrabble runners (who delighted in calling him “Blanco”). That feature was published on November 29, 1996. Almost exactly a year later came a gripping, front-page story written by reporter Mark Arax of the Los Angeles Times, who trailed Coach White when he jumped on his bicycle and pedaled alongside the runners weaving through the vineyards.

In 2004, Gary Smith, the longform wordsmith at Sports Illustrated, followed with an extended feature about McFarland. “No one can figure it out, how the runners with the shortest legs and the grimmest lives began winning everything once Blanco took over the program in 1980,” wrote Smith.

This year, Disney turned the feel-good story into a heartwarming movie titled “McFarland, USA,” directed by Niki Caro and starring Kevin Costner as Jim White. The film, which is advertised as being “based on a true story,” manages to stay true to McFarland’s authentic spirit, even as it strays from the literal truth. “Predictable and predictably rousing, this inspirational sports pic earns points for its big-hearted portrait of life in an impoverished California farming town, the likes of which we too rarely see on American screens,” wrote Variety’s Justin Chang.

SportsLetter spoke by phone with coach Jim White, now 73 and retired, about coaching youth sports and about the new movie.
–David Davis

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