Otara's Sam chases his NFL dream
Sam Alefaio was making sacks in a Mangere factory six months ago. Now his job on the Matadors' offensive line is to prevent his quarterback getting sacked. Chris Barclay meets the aspiring NFL star on a potentially life-changing journey from south Auckland to the southwest corner of Arizona.
At the entrance to one of the world's largest military installations, the United States Army makes no attempt to camouflage the purpose of the Yuma Proving Ground.
"Cornerstone of Test and Evaluation" proclaims the sign posted where the 3387 square kilometre site fans out to occupy a minuscule portion of the Sonoran Desert.
Established by General George S Patton to train more than a million GIs for combat in World War II, since 1951 the facility has been critical in the development of numerous combat vehicles, aircraft and weapons including the Apache helicopter, M-1 Abrams tank and Stryker armoured vehicle.
The M109 Paladin howitzer road- tested a new integrated management system six weeks ago and, during an average year, more than 500,000 artillery, mortar and missile rounds pockmark a scrubby expanse that extends through the Mexican border.
Yuma's pristine atmospheric conditions - the city and surrounding area is the sunniest place on earth according to the Guinness Book of Records - also allows the Military Freefall School to conduct more than 36,000 parachute drops every 12 months.
Sam Alefaio landed in Yuma by conventional means via Los Angeles in early January but his mettle is still being tested. The 20-year-old from Otara is, if you like, under the gun.
Alefaio's proving ground is the Veterans Memorial Stadium on 24th St - not that he will see active duty there until August, when Arizona Western College strive to retain the El Toro Bowl against rivals from Utah, New Mexico and closer to home.
For now Alefaio is doing a grunt's work - getting up at 6.15am to start a gym-based weight loss regime, have breakfast, and then fulfil the academic requirements of his American Football scholarship to AWC.
Home taught by his mother, Sally, after being bullied on account of his size at high school, the 1.98-metre, 145kg former league player is studying reading, composition and mathematics.
But the Matadors' dictionary- dimensioned playbook is his favourite subject as he gets to grips with his transition from the Papatoetoe Wildcats to a community college with a reputation for nurturing future NFL stars - thanks to Queenslander Jesse Williams.
Nowadays known as "Tha Monstar", the 22-year-old is the poster boy for AWC's football programme - a laminated cover of a Sports Illustrated edition featuring the scowling and extravagantly tattooed nose tackle is prominent in the foyer of head coach Tom Minnick's campus office. Williams spent two years at AWC before Division 1 colleges clamoured for his services in 2011.
The University of Alabama won out and, after two defensively imposing seasons with the current national champions, Williams will be set for life once he is drafted by an NFL franchise in April.
Williams' remarkable development since he was scouted by AWC's defensive co-ordinator, Jerry Dominguez, while terrorising a New Zealand selection five years ago played a significant role in Alefaio's potential career change.
The Kiwi with Samoan heritage is a centimetre taller than Williams, a similar weight - for now at least - and Minnick hopes the comparisons are not purely physical.
"Jesse came here with no expectations and he gets recruited by the No 1 team in the nation [Alabama]," Minnick said. "Is Sam that kind of guy? We're going to have to wait and find out.
"It's hard to tell until we get him on the pads. We hope he is because you can't find big kids like him easily."
Ironically, in a nation where you would not expect a shortage of grain- fed country boys or broad- shouldered African-Americans, Minnick said the vast number of US colleges means the player pool in key positions is actually shallow.
So Dominguez scours the South Pacific in association with American Samoa- based talent scout Brandon Smart.
Brandon and his brother, Brian, established Field House 100 - a non- profit organisation which aims to get student athletes college scholarships - in 2006 and extended the initiative to New Zealand for the first time last March.
Alefaio was an early beneficiary of the FH100's expansion when Smart told Dominguez about the raw recruit's prowess.
"You can find skinny kids anywhere you want - it's the big kids who can move you have problems finding," Minnick said.
"The kids who play rugby have good feet. That's what American football is all about, footwork and speed.
"If they can catch on technique- wise they could be a pretty good football player."
Minnick felt the Pacific Islands and New Zealand would become increasingly important to fill out college rosters.
"If you look at the NFL now, if you look at the white, the black, the Polynesians . . . More and more Polynesian kids are making it to the NFL.
"It's going to be a really big recruiting bed."
The Matadors' provisional 85-man roster is not due to start fieldwork until this week so it was clearly premature to place Alefaio in the same bracket as Williams.
Minnick, though, is optimistic.
"You can see some signs already with him. He can run. He's just got to lose some weight.
"Hopefully, he's another diamond in the rough like Jesse. That's why you take a shot on a kid like that."
Minnick said Alefaio's toughest challenges would be game-related once he dropped to the requisite 136kg (300lb) weight limit.
"Stepping with the right foot, knowing the plays . . . There's a lot of stuff he'll have to pick up.
"He's also played against people [in Auckland] that have never really played the sport like Americans have.
"He has to get used to the speed and the size of our players.
"That's why we've brought him here so early. We're taking our time."
Minnick will cut players before the season gets under way but doubted Alefaio would be among the casualties - for an obvious reason.
"Big kids are hard to cut because you can't find them. If he shows any promise we'll keep him around."
Offensive line coach Tony Mitchell is primarily responsible for prepping Alefaio but even if he is a successful teacher the odds are against the genial giant becoming the fourth New Zealand NFL player.
"Out of this group we might have one who might make the NFL," Minnick said.
"They all see themselves making all that money but your dreams are shot because there's only so many who can make it.
"Deep down they all think they're great. I did too when I was playing.
"It's tough. It's tough to make it. You have to put in a lot of hard work.
"We tell them it's like winning the Lotto."
Still, at least Alefaio holds a ticket - one that ideally gets punched by a D1 college in two years' time.
"So far the experience is awesome," he said after a weights session.
"These guys are trying to get me to my peak."
Alefaio started playing American Football after an anticipated contract with the Penrith Panthers never materialised.
His father, Malo Maoluma Alefaio, who died of cancer in late 2011, had urged him to try what is a niche sport in New Zealand; he had a season with Mangere's South Auckland Raiders before switching to the Wildcats.
"That's where this all started," said Alefaio, who until recently was stitching cement sacks on the production line at Bostik near Auckland Airport.
"The first season I never really thought about playing in the States but after playing four years I wondered what it would be like, and here I am," he smiled, before stating the obvious.
"It's a lot different to back home."
Alefaio knew nothing of Yuma before he arrived: the legendary train of western movie fame, 3:10 To Yuma, passed him by.
He also had no idea the city of 93,000 is the self-proclaimed "winter lettuce capital of the world" and averages a mere 76mm of rain a year.
"The whole time I was in New Zealand I was just trying to get my visa done. By the time that came through it was time to jump on a plane," he explained.
Alefaio also confessed to know- ing little about Williams - the athlete who inadvertently helped provide Alefaio with his golden opportunity.
"I knew he was from Australia and that's about it," he said.
Alefaio nominated Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu - an American of Samoan descent - and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis as his role models.
A Ravens fan, Alefaio's arrival at the climax of the post-season was perfectly scheduled to watch the franchise win the Super Bowl.
Alefaio showed appropriate timing when asked if he had thought playing American Football in the US was possible.
"It was just a dream for me," he said, on Martin Luther King Day.