Aleading defensive player for BYU, linebacker Alema Fitisemanu is a descendent of the royal Fitisemanu family that lives in the tropical rain forest-covered islands of Western Samoa.
The 6-foot, 1-inch, 240-pound Fitisemanu was born in Salt Lake City and grew up in Hawaii before returning to Samoa, where he finished his junior and senior years in high school. It was there his gridiron play was noticed by former BYU player Mekeli Ieremia, who recommended him to coach LaVell Edwards.Alema entered BYU in 1984, playing on special teams and as a backup linebacker for the national championship Cougars that year and in 1985.
After serving a mission to Western Samoa, Fitisemanu returned to BYU in January 1988. He worked his way into shape, but broke a bone in his foot a week before fall practices and had to sit out the year as a redshirt.
He came back in 1989 and earned the right to play regularly this season. He was rewarded by receiving first team All-WAC honors and an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game.
A senior, Fitisemanu is majoring in political science and plans to attend law school upon graduation. The rugged but soft-spoken linebacker comes from a rich culture and a fascinating heritage with strong Church roots.
His uncle was recently released as a mission president in Samoa. His father, Alema S. Fitisemanu, is a stake president in the islands and helped organize relief efforts last February when Hurricane Ofa pounded Samoa with 200 mph winds and 100-foot waves.
His father also is high chief of his village. In Samoa, families and the patriarchal system of chiefs that govern them are very important, according to Brent Taylor, who served a full-time mission in Samoa in the late 1950s. Taylor, now of the Bountiful 32nd Ward, Bountiful Utah Mueller Park Stake, lived with Alema's grandfather, Malietoa Fitisemanu, for 10 months.
The grandfather was a high chief in the islands and was in line to be the next royal king of Samoa, remembers Taylor. He was a giant man - 6-foot-4 and about 500 pounds, and very athletic - who commanded great respect among the people. Malietoa was a convert to the Church, but it was the custom in those days that the king be a member of the dominant religion of the islands that had been established in colonial times.
Taylor recalled that Malietoa was informed he could be king if he would renounce Mormonism and practice the other faith.
Taylor said that Malietoa, upon hearing the demand, told the island leaders, "I would rather be a deacon in the Mormon Church than king of all Samoa."
Another missionary to Samoa in the late '50s, Dan Wakefield of the Fairview 3rd Ward, Mount Pleasant Utah Stake, recalled another story concerning Malietoa.
Before Alema's grandfather was baptized, the Church was struggling in the islands, and a number of members were suffering persecution by non-members. One day Malietoa - police chief of the island of Savaii at the time and also a high chief who wielded much political power - was walking along the beach when he encountered a family crying at the edge of the sea. They had been banished from their village, Nofua Leei, and their "fali" or house had been destroyed because they had recently joined the Church.
Wakefield said Malietoa was deeply moved and decided to make things right. He went into the village and told the residents that this was not the Samoan way, that Samoans should believe in freedom of religion, and that he would not tolerate this type of behavior.
He then sat down in one of the homes in the village and told the people he was not leaving until the destitute family's house was rebuilt and their privileges restored. He told them to work around the clock until the task was completed, and the villagers did.
Very quickly the home was rebuilt, and Malietoa had taken a big step toward ending the persecution of the Mormons in the islands, said Wakefield.
Later, after joining the Church himself, he dedicated his life to the kingdom, serving as a local Church leader and helping the missionaries translate the Book of Mormon into Samoan.
Alema served his mission on the island of Savaii. "Grandfather's name and reputation opened a lot of doors for me," Alema recalled. "He was well-loved and respected. Grandfather set a standard of dedication to the Church. I can see it in my dad and other members of my family. If I can do a fraction of what he did for the Church, I will be very happy."