Man of Sparta blazed trail for Polynesian football players
College Football Share

Man of Sparta blazed trail for Polynesian football players

My interview began with a question for Bob Apisa following news he was named a finalist for the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame’s second class. The inductees will be announced on Oct. 8 and enshrined on Jan. 24 in Hawaii during the NFL’s Pro Bowl weekend.

Apisa was the first Samoan named an All-American football player as a sophomore fullback on Michigan State’s 1965 national championship team. The 6-foot-1, 212-pound Apisa played with a rare combination of speed and strength that with time became a trademark of Samoan athletes. With their love of contact, they were seemingly born to play the sport of football.

“I’m very, very honored to be a finalist,” Apisa said. “The reason is this is the Hall of Fame from across the country. It’s not just for one school or a state. It includes Polynesian players who made the NFL.”

His recruitment out of Honolulu Farrington by Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty with an assist from his friend, Hawaiian football legend Tommy Kaulukukui Sr, began the wave of Samoan and Polynesian football stars moving to mainland colleges and onto the NFL. The list is topped by the late Junior Seau, who could become first Samoan named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he is eligible for the Class of 2015.

With Apisa’s place in Polynesian football history a cornerstone building block, an argument can be made he belonged in the inaugural class, but he says he is content to wait his turn.

“They whittled the inaugural class last year down from 300 guys,” Apisa said. “To be among those 300 was an honor. Now it’s down to 200 guys, and I’m proud of that. ”

Apisa’s place in the Hall is backed by comments from Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who was a member of the inaugural Polynesian Football Hall of Fame class. He was the first Samoan head coach at any level and has led Navy to bowl games and unprecedented success in its rivalry with Army.

“Everybody I grew up with knew about Bob Apisa,” said Niumatalolo, who played at the University of Hawaii and Honolulu Radford. “He went on to the mainland and was the first one to make a name for himself. I don’t know if the younger kids these days still know about Bob Apisa, but they should.”

Carter Kamana, the last member of Michigan State’s Hawaiian Pipeline when he played for the Spartans from 1981 to 1984, understood Apisa’s legend when he left Honolulu Kamehameha for East Lansing.

“Bob Apisa was Junior Seau before Junior Seau,” Kamana said.

The comments touched Apisa when they were relayed to him similar to the pride he felt when he was introduced to Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu, who may end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Apisa was invited to Polamalu’s NFL Draft day party in 2003 by Polamalu’s uncle, Kennedy Polamalu, a former USC fullback and USC assistant coach.

“Kennedy introduced me,” Apisa recalled. “Troy shook my hand and said it was an honor for him to meet me. That meant a lot to me. Here is a guy going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he says he’s honored to meet me.?

Apisa’s ground-breaking path may next include the landmark of a Heisman Trophy winner. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is a Samoan from Honolulu St. Louis.

“It means a lot to me that people know I set a precedent for a lot of young Polynesians and Samoans to follow me,” he said. “And now a Samoan is the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.”

Only a shredded knee prevented Apisa from adding to his legend at Michigan State or even in the NFL, although the Green Bay Packers general manager Vince Lombardi (he had recently retired as head coach) took a chance that Apisa’s knee would heal by drafting him in the ninth round in 1968.

Apisa says he’ll patiently wait to enter the Hall and embrace it if it comes, but while he was speaking he quick to change the subject to the Michigan State Hall of Fame.

“Jimmy Raye needs to be in the Hall of Fame,” Apisa said. “When you consider all he did in college and as an NFL coach, he should be in already. He is deserving of everything he’s gotten and much more.
“(Middle linebacker) Charlie “Mad Dog” Thornhill is another one they should be taking a look at. If I ever got a chance to go in, I would love it to be with Jimmy. That’s my guy. He was the guy who stirred our milkshake.”

Apisa, who frequently returns to campus for football games, is back for homecoming week for some and play. 

The work is a documentary, “Men of Sparta.” The play, of course, is Saturday’s game against Wyoming.

Apisa has had a long career in Hollywood in supporting acting roles and as a stuntman. He shows up in Hawawii Five-O and Magnum PI reruns and movies.”

His busy schedule includes an interview with President Lou Anna K. Simon and a walk-and-talk on campus with Steve Juday and Raye. Juday was the Spartans’ senior All-American quarterback on their 1965 national championship team. Raye began his pioneering role as a black quarterback as a sophomore backup.

“We changed college football with integration,” Apisa said. “It started with President (John) Hannah, Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty. Minnesota coach Murray Warmath was a leader along with Duffy. (Ohio State coach) Woody Hayes saw what we were doing at Michigan State. Eventually, even Bear Bryant had to take a look at it (as the coach at segregated Alabama).”

Apisa said he has focused his story on the entire roster from the All-American players, to the backups to the White Rocks – a term the Spartans used for the players who practiced on the scout team but didn’t play.

“I wasn’t just me, Bubba Smith, George Webster, Clinton Jones and Gene Washington,” he said, referring to an iconic group photo of the Michigan State’s five All-American picks from 1965. “We were a team effort. I want the off-spring of all the players on our roster to be able to say, ‘My grandfather played on one of the greatest teams in the history of college football.’ This story has to be told.”

But back to the subject of the Polynesian Hall of Fame, and awaiting the upcoming announcement. Another Class of 2015 finalist is the aforementioned Kaulukukui, who helped steer Apisa to Michigan State.

“If I went into the Polynesian Hall with him, that would mean a tremendous amount of emotion for me,” Apisa said. “He recruited me. It was either Michigan State or USC. I went to Michigan State to represent my family, my culture and my state.”
His representation included blazing a trail.


Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."