SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — Beni Tonga moved to the United States when he was 15, and he was perplexed with a particular American delicacy — salad.
Tonga, now a player development specialist for the Oklahoma State football team, had just moved to Utah from Tonga, an island country in the Pacific Ocean, and it was the first time he had seen anyone eat the greeny dish.
“That was a bit of a culture shock,” Tonga told PFB. “If you can imagine that, moving when you’re in high school and everybody looks different, everybody talks different, eat weird things. Salad, that’s the first time I saw people eating salad, ‘What is this? People like to eat leaves?'”
It was in high school when Tonga started playing football, a game that would grow to become how he made a living. Tonga was good enough to play at Snow College, a junior college in Ephraim, Utah. From there he finished his academics at Arizona State before returning to Snow to coach.
In 2013, Snow had a prospect the Cowboys were interested in: Ofa Hautau. Hautau was a First Team NJCAA All-American as a defensive tackle after recording 41 total tackles, five sacks and 11 tackles for loss as the Badgers went 11-1.
Hautau signed with OSU that February over offers from Utah, Oregon State, Hawaii and Utah State.
There is the old saying if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish you feed him for a lifetime. Mike Gundy landed a 290-pound fish in Hautau, but a few months later, he hired a fisherman in Tonga.
Tonga left Snow, where he was the running backs coach, for his position in Oklahoma State. Gundy said he hired Tonga as a way to open a gateway for Polynesian players to come Stillwater. Nearing on a decade later, and that gateway is as healthy as ever.
“Beni is an illustration of hard work and loyalty to our culture,” Gundy said. “When we hired Beni, I didn’t know Beni, he came very highly regarded. We hired him for administrative work but also as a way to communicate and build relationships with his heritage, Polynesians. There are a lot of those types of players that have played at this level on the other level and do really well, and we didn’t have a good way to communicate with them. At times, there could be language barriers, so they can be first generation or second generation back and maybe their guardians, parents, aunts, uncles, very traditional families, they might live with a bunch of people, might not even be their parents, and could be a language barrier with the Tongan language.
“He was a source of communication for us with that heritage of player has been tremendous. We actually have a Polynesian wall of honor in our office, where all their pictures are up there. I think now since he’s been here, there’s 12 or 14 that have come through here, and for the majority of them he’s been the communicator with them and their family so they could understand our culture and their culture and help us during communication in recruiting.”
Poly Cowboy Culture
Stereotypically speaking, most would imagine someone from Stillwater, Oklahoma to wear cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and a big belt buckle. Most would imagine a Polynesian to wear some sort of grass skirt and a lei. But Tonga said the cultures are actually fairly similar.
Tonga said the small-town vibes of Stillwater can actually act as a positive when pitching to Polynesian families.
“When they get to Stillwater, it has just that small-town feel like in Tonga,” Tonga said. “This is more like a village to the Polynesian people rather than a big city. So, it’s very comfortable when the parents get here. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah this is small. It’s not like the big city.’ Kind of like when I moved from Tonga [to Salt Lake City], I was shocked.”
There are five players on OSU’s 2021 roster with Polynesian heritage: Jaylen Warren, Sione Asi, Nathan Latu, Samuela Tuihalamaka and Mason Cobb. They join a lineage of Polynesian players that have joined since Tonga’s arrival that also includes guys like Hautau, Vili Leveni and Sione Finefeuiaki.
“All those guys are good, good character kids,” Tonga said. “They’re disciplined, they’re tough, they have a lot of care when it comes to football. They care about football, they care about representing their families, representing the Polynesian community and also representing their team.”
Tonga said the Poly players are a tight-knit group at OSU. He said they hang out 24/7, but it isn’t an exclusive club. Tonga said when Cobb’s parents come to town, they barbecue enough to feed a whole dorm.
Tonga, the country, is more than 6,000 miles from Stillwater. Samoa is a little closer, but still about 6,000 miles away. But as Polynesian people are moving to the United States, OSU is building a reputation as a place where Polynesian players can go and have success.
After Hautau picked OSU in 2013, Sione Palelei, a running back from Louisiana, flipped his commitment from LSU to OSU in 2014 with the Polynesian connection playing a big part in his decision.
“The best way to market is by word of mouth, especially in the Polynesian community,” Tonga said. “They feel like, ‘OK, that’s another place that we can go to.’ Now it feels a lot more familiar than, like a foreign place.
“We’re still migrating I guess, migrating from the Polynesian islands to the States, and we started out west and now we’re migrating toward the Midwest. But it feels more and more like home, and the more these guys are out here, the more guys we bring in, of course their families will come watch games and now we might be going out there to play BYU, that’s gonna open up more doors for those kids who are exploring out this way.”
A Running Back from Snow
Tonga and Warren are both Polynesian and both played running back at Snow, but Tonga said that’s where the comparisons stop.
“He’s faster,” Tonga said laughing. “He’s much tougher, and he’s a better football player.”
When asked what his best Beni Tonga story was, Warren brought up something the two apparently also don’t have in common.
“He was seeing what kind of girls I liked,” Warren said. “And there was a girl who was a little taller than me. I was like, ‘Nah, I wouldn’t go for a girl taller than me.’ He was like, ‘Why not?’ I made a joke. I want to be the man in the relationship. And later, we go to his house, and his wife is taller than him. So I’m, like, ‘Oh, shoot.’ I was like, dang. It was just going through my mind, I wonder how he felt when I said that. But it’s all love.”
In his short time with the Cowboys, Warren might already be the most recognizable player with Polynesian decent to join the program since Tonga arrived — it certainly helps that he plays a skill position.
Most of the guys Tonga has helped bring in have played at or around the line of scrimmage. Asi and Tuihalamaka are defensive tackles, Latu is a defensive end and Cobb is a linebacker.
“Skill players, they’re few and far between,” Tonga said with a laugh. “Most of the time, they make they’re living up front.”
Tonga said if you tell Warren to run through a door, he’ll do it without asking any questions. He’s gone from an unknown part of the Cowboys’ 2021 recruiting class to a season saver, rushing for 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns. It’s the 25th time in program history a Cowboy rusher has surpassed 1,000 yards in a season.
Warren saved the Pokes in Boise with his 218-yard, two-touchdown performance in a game OSU won 21-20. Two games later he ran for 125 yards and another two scores in a 21-14 victory against Baylor. He ran for 193 yards in the Cowboys’ comeback win against Texas in Austin.
That all came from a kid who took the Tonga gateway to Stillwater.
“When he went on the portal, I know all his people,” Tonga said. “It’s crazy because the Polynesian community, it’s a small community. If I don’t know you, I’ll know somebody that knows your whole family. Like you tell me the last name, I can tell you if he’s Tongan, Samoan. If you tell me the last name of anybody that’s Tongan, I’ll tell you exactly where they’re from in Tonga. That’s how small it is, so when he went in the portal, we evaluated him, knew we wanted him. We wanted to just make sure that we were given an opportunity for him to come here, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m all in.’
“So I reached out to his people, and I know his uncle real well. Me and him were good friends growing up so. Then obviously from Snow College, I reached out to everybody there, and everybody said the same thing. Everywhere he’s been he’s a guy that wants to do everything right. He’ll give you everything he’s got.”
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