As American Samoa players, coaches and fans sang and danced on the sideline following their team’s 27-14 win over France on Friday night at Burger Stadium, they celebrated victory, honored their opponents and filled the Austin, Texas, night with joy and laughter.
The result secured fifth place for American Samoa in the eight-nation IFAF Under-19 World Championship, but the cheers could be heard all the way back to the tiny island of 60,000 people that put their little corner of the world on display.
“It means a lot because of what it took for us to get here, all the fundraisers that we did, the $150,000 we had raise,” American Samoa head coach Pooch Taase said. “The walking from one side of the island to the other with a wheel barrel and having people donate money – from little kids to elders to pastors, the high chiefs, the whole community – I think that’s why it means a lot more. The whole trip was funded by the community.”
Quarterback Ben Langford had a hand in three touchdowns – throwing for one, running for one and catching another to earn team MVP honors. Running back Faafouina Sitagata ran for 80 yards and the other touchdown.
An opening-round loss to the top-seeded United States relegated American Samoa to the consolation bracket, but Langford said that did not get his team down. The two weeks he spent in Austin was like a family trip. His teammates are brothers, the coaches are dads and uncles.
“We eat with each other, brush teeth with each other, sleep together, smell each other,” Langford said. “We do everything together.”
France took an early 7-0 lead when linebacker Etienne Roudel stripped stripped loose a ball that was recovered by defensive lineman Adrien Baudard at the Samoa 43. Four plays later, Mathias Soler connected with Maxime Durand Gasselin on a 13-yard touchdown pass.
Roudel was his team’s MVP with 15 tackles and the forced fumble.
We talked about ripping the ball loose whenever possible, and it worked pretty well there,” Roudel said. “We prepared very well. It was very good work by our coaches to make us a better team.”
Taase was not pleased with how his team was performing. France had the advantage along the line, and penalties once again were giving their opponent extra possessions.
“We expected a very good game coming in,” Taase said. “We knew we had to take care of things before we go off. I told the kids, ‘We’re still a .500 team. We’re only 1-1.’ ”
A bad snap on a punt attempt set American Samoa up at the French 42, and Samoa took advantage as running back Faafouina Sitagata pulled up on a toss sweep and threw back across the field for an 8-yard touchdown pass to Langford to tie the game 53 seconds into the second quarter.
More problems on a punt again set American Samoa up deep in France territory. Langford found Sione Latu alone in the end zone from nine yards out to give the Samoans a 13-7 lead following a failed two-point conversion attempt.
Samoa made it 21-7 after Langford directed an 11-play drive in which he carried the final 10 yards for his second score of the day. Shalom Luani ran for the two-point conversion.
France cut the lead to 21-14 on the opening drive of the third quarter as Soler found Anthony Mahoungou down the right sideline from 34 yards out, capping a 60-yard drive.
Both of France’s touchdowns came through the air as Soler and Remi Bertellin combined to throw for 235 yards.
It was a vastly different offense than France’s first two games, in which the European silver medalist combined to gain just 34 yards passing.
“We knew we were in for a difficult game tonight. The goal was to control the ball, keep drives alive and finish,” France head coach Olivier Moret said. “We lost the game on details. It was not that we weren’t prepared. We just aren’t at the level we need be to beat teams like this. We need to work all year long.”
American Samoa looked poised to extend its lead early in the fourth quarter following an interception by Shalom Luani that set the Samoans up at the France 19, but the French defense held a 37-yard field goal attempt fell short.
France ensuing series stalled at its own 42. The French lined up to punt, but Remi Bertellin’s attempted pass on a fake fell to the turf incomplete. Langford then drove American Samoa for the clinching score as Sitigata reached the end zone from nine yards out for a 27-14 lead following a blocked extra point.
France gathered for a final rally as Soler drove the team to the American Samoa 8-yard line before turning the ball over on downs with eight seconds left.
As the clock wound down, Taase was doused in Gatorade and the Samoan fans erupted. American Samoa Gov. Togiola T.A. Tulafono came down to address the team, sharing the pride felt by everyone back home.
“You played hard. You played fair. And it is very obvious. Congratulations,” Tulafono said. “It’s a milestone for American Samoa. You make us proud. You’ve elevated our name, our identity to a much higher place. Thank you.”
(Photo: USA Football / @CIMAGES)