Timpview High football is loaded with Polynesian players under head coach Donny Atuaia, a native Samoan who grew up in Laie, Hawaii.

There, his older brother Mark set rushing records for the Kahuku High Red Raiders playing with his best friend, tight end Itula Mili, who played in the NFL after a career at BYU.

Smithsonian Magazine recently wrote a story on Polynesian athletes and their remarkable influence in both college football and the NFL. Wrote Rob Ruck, “Today, Samoans constitute the most disproportionately overrepresented ethnic group in the NFL.” 

It’s very interesting to see how these Samoan bloodlines find their way to the first, second and third generations.

Five starters who played on the Thunderbirds squad that played Lehi for the state championship this past fall are from the same direct bloodline, including 5A first-team all-staters Siale Esera, Micah Beckstead (tailback) and Israel Tuiletufuga (center), Isaiah Vaea (slot receiver), and Meryc Matina (offensive guard).

Esera, a four-star linebacker, signed to play at BYU this past December. 

KSL “Sports Rewind” picked Esera as the 2022 co-defensive player of the year and Beckstead as the offensive player of the year in 5A. 

Esera is the most highly recruited of the bunch. If you try and figure out why his other two first-cousin starters all have different names, yes, it is confusing, yet simple. Their mothers are sisters and used to be from the Pili family. Their youngest brother is former Cougar lineman Ifo Pili.

Dusty Litster of KSL “Sports Rewind” recently had a ceremony announcing top state honors for prep players and tried to keep it a secret until the reveal. When gathering Esera and Beckstead pictures on the sly, Pam Esera approached him, “Hey, didn’t you know Micah’s mother is my sister?”

So much for Litster’s stealth.

The T-Bird players’ grandparents on their mother’s side are Falemao Matina Pili from Mapusagafou in Samoa and Vickie Jane Lua Pili from Laie.

Falemao migrated to the United States when he was just 8 years old. He later played football at El Camino Community College near Los Angeles.

Ifo Pili, the youngest child of Falemao and Vickie, was a massive defensive lineman for BYU in the last years of LaVell Edwards’ reign. After church missionary service to Riverside, California, he played for Gary Crowton. His older brother, Falemao, played for the Cougars in the late 1980s.

“My parents would be so proud of these grandchildren and not just because of football, which was like a second religion to us in our home. They are outstanding young men on and off the field and are so much further along than I was at their age,” said Ifo Pili, who is currently the city manager in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

So, how do you get the last names Esera, Beckstead, Tuiletufuga, Vaea, Matina out of the Pili family? And what about their first cousins, Daniel Beckstead, Isaiah Vaea, Stephen Vaea and Isaac Vaea on the T-Birds roster?

BYU Cougars football: 2023 recruiting class (+live updates, video)
First line of defense is a priority for BYU football

Well, here is the relation: They are the sons of Ifo Pili’s older sisters, Pam Esera (husband Peter), Priscilla Beckstead (Brian), Pursonna Tuiletufuga (Muiao) and Penny Vaea (Sisi). Meryc is the son of Pam’s cousin Phillip Matina (Myrna).

Among Polynesians, everyone is pretty much a cousin or an uncle or aunt. In the case with these T-Birds, it is first blood, direct line genealogy stuff.

Practices are a family reunion.

Ifo Pili’s older brother had sons who played for BYU (Jo Jo), Oregon and UNLV. His uncle is the father of Keenan Pili, a BYU defensive captain who plans on playing at Tennessee his  senior season.

Ifo Pili has two daughters who are track and field athletes, excelling in the shot put. His daughter Lilia is on scholarship at BYU, but is now serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New Zealand. A younger sister, Ave, just finished taking a recruiting trip to BYU and is receiving interest from Army, Air Force and New Mexico State. During the COVID-19 year when Ifo Pili moved to Las Cruces, Ave earned Gatorade Player of the Year in track for the state of New Mexico.

Ifo’s namesake, Ifo Jr., is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound outside linebacker at Centennial High in Las Cruces and his father says he is taller and faster than he ever was.

I asked Litster to break down Ifo Pili’s nephews at Timpview.

On Siale Esera — “He was the co-defensive player of the year with Lehi’s Kadiyon Sweat. Siale is extremely versatile on the defensive side of the ball. He has terrific defensive instincts that have consistently put him around the football for three years on one of the best defensive units in the state. I know one of the biggest questions is where he will line up for at BYU, but this is a kid with a skill set that will allow him to be a chess piece that Jay Hill will love to have. His two favorite players to study are Fred Warner and Micah Parsons. I think he prefers to play MLB, but he also knows that he can impact the game from the edge as well. The sky’s the limit for Siale.”

On Micah Beckstead — “He was our KSL ‘Sports Rewind’ 5A offensive player of the year. Micah had one of the most productive seasons that we have seen in the last 15 years from the RB position in the state by rushing for 1,957 yards on only 204 carries over 13 games. He has terrific instincts and has the ability to run over, around and by defenders. Micah is the type of player that is under-recruited and because of his willingness to work becomes a diamond in the rough. Shocking that is his position after a terrific senior season, but I get the sense from him that he will put in the time to reach his goals.”

If transfer portal had existed decades ago, BYU’s ‘quarterback factory’ might never have happened

On Israel Tuiletufuga — “No matter the level of football the center is a known leader in the huddle. He is a road grader of an offense that rushed for nearly 4,000 yards. Izzy plays with the nastiness that you expect from a center, but I love the leadership it takes to be a guy that protects a high school freshman (Helaman Casuga) by keeping him clean from contact so he can have the confidence needed to lead the offense of a championship-caliber team. He did that extremely well.”

On Isaiah Vaea — “An underclassman that made the most of the chances he had with the ball, and found the end zone seven times (five receiving). He will likely be one of top targets for the T-Birds next year.”

Micah has a preferred walkon offer to attend BYU. Isreal has an PWO offer from Utah State and Blackhills State in South Dakota. Esera had an offer from BYU since he was in the eighth grade. His other offers included Stanford, Oregon, USC, Utah, Michigan, and UCLA.

Ifo said he got to see his nephews play this past season, a campaign that led to the 5A championship game. “My sisters would send me a link and I could watch all their games online,” said Pili.

Ifo Pili credits his big sisters, who were like five mothers to him growing up, for raising incredible young men. “Of course, their husbands also must receive credit for that.” 

The Pili family lost their mother first, back in 2002. Their father followed her in 2016.

Their dedicated example has filtered through to their grandchildren.

“I think my mom and dad really kept us grounded,” said Pili. “Football, of course, was almost like a second religion to us. My dad loved football so we trained really hard, my brother and I and my sisters, of course, but my dad was about work ethic and with my mom, they had us seek excellence in all things. I think my nephews are perpetuating that now.”

Ifo Pili said his parents would love that their grandchildren have grown up thinking of their cousins as their best friends. “They have done everything together growing up and are all like brothers and sisters.”

Bloodlines can be that way. Their grandparents should be proud.

Timpview High’s Micah Beckstead breaks loose for a big game during game against the Orem Tigers in the 5A semifinals.
Timpview High’s Micah Beckstead breaks loose for a big game during game against the Orem Tigers in the 5A semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. Beckstead has a rich football pedigree. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News