Filmmakers track Polynesian football dreams

Sports • Independent documentary focuses on Pacific Islander prep players in Utah.
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Filmmaker Tony Vainuku grew up on football dreams.

The 34-year-old Salt Lake City native began playing at age 6 and took to the field for Highland High School in the mid-1990s. His aspirations for athletic glory got derailed for family reasons, but the Westminster College marketing major has devoted the past five years to documenting experiences of young Polynesians in Utah pursuing football careers.

His independent film, "In Football We Trust,'' tracks the lives of four Utah high school players of Pacific Island descent, two at Hunter High and one each at Bingham and Highland.

The movie, slated for release as early as 2014, takes a deep look at unique aspects of Polynesian culture, family pressures, poverty and gang violence affecting the athletes' lives, Vainuku said. It also includes interviews with professional players with Utah roots, Baltimore Ravens defensive end Haloti Ngata and retired NFL star Vai Sikahema, the first Tongan ever to play in the league.

"I want to show more of the reality and of how hard it is to be successful in the NFL,'' said Vainuku, who is also of Tongan descent. He said his cousin and childhood football idol, Joe Katoa, inspired the film. A one-time 5A first-team all-state linebacker at Highland High, Katoa's life later veered into crime and prison.

Film co-director and producer Erika Cohn described ``In Football We Trust'' as an immigrant story focused on youths who are taught almost from infancy that they are going to be NFL players.

"Their lives totally revolve around football from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed,'' Cohn said. "But throughout their journey, there are injuries, competitive pressures and physical demands that are just incredible. At many points, it becomes too much.''

Cohn said the film is now in post production, thanks to financial backing from a major broadcaster as well as Chevron, Zions Bank, the Utah Humanities Council and Pacific Islanders in Communication, a consortium of financiers.