April 2022 ~
You come to the United States at age 10 not knowing English and having never seen a football game.
You try out for football in 1984 as a 135-pound Cleveland High freshman, not even knowing how to put on your uniform.
You don’t make varsity till you’re a junior.
That’s not the typical way you wind up being an honorable mention all-Pac 10 defensive tackle, spending nine years as an Arena Football defensive lineman and capping one’s pro career with a league championship.
Nor is it the usual way you become an assistant coach for one of the best high school football programs in Oregon, a career middle school P.E. teacher, and a member of the PIL Hall of Fame.
But through sports, especially football, Sai Poulivaati (Cleveland, 1988) made all of that happen, and more.
“When I was 10, I came here from Tonga with five siblings with a single mom,” says Poulivaati, a 2019 PIL Hall inductee. “I didn’t know any English, but I loved playing ball—at Powell Park, during recess at Hosford Middle School, on the basketball court, wherever. Not knowing the language, that was how I was able to make friends.
“I was way behind in school, but the one thing I had confidence in was my athleticism.”
Growing up in the South Pacific islands, the sports he remembers seeing were rugby and cricket.
“I didn’t know about football till I moved here,” he says.
His mother, Maumi, was one of 10 children, and six of her siblings had moved to the Portland area, seeking a better place to raise their families and at the urging of an uncle who had come and fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest. Mom decided to follow suit and take Sai and the clan to Oregon.
The boys that Poulivaati got to know through playground pick-up basketball in Southeast Portland convinced him to turn out for freshman football, and to this day they tease him about it.
“The first day of getting your gear, we’re in the locker room and I have no idea how to put the pads or anything on,” he says.
Poulivaati, who was 13 when he entered high school, walked to Cleveland in those days and was enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language). He spent most of the school day in a different classroom than his friends and teammates.
He got into “a little trouble” his freshman year, and turned things around only after the varsity football coach, Ron Eilers, gave him some advice and encouragement.
“I wasn’t behaving in the right way,” Poulivaati says. “There were a couple of suspensions for not being a good kid—let’s just say I didn’t want to take anything or be pushed around, and I was hanging around with the wrong group. Some of my teammates ended up being expelled, and I look back now and say, ‘That could have easily been me.’
“Eilers pulled me aside in the hallway one day and told me I could be a good football player if I wanted to be. That really made an impression on me. I knew who he was, but I didn’t think he even knew who I was.”
Poulivaati, an adopted child, also got steered the right way by his Portland-area uncles.
“I had many dads. My mom’s brothers were all dads for me, and my uncles were my support system,” Poulivaati says.
In those days, “we were the only Tongan family we knew of in Portland. It’s not huge like it is now.”
Poulivaati began as a tight end for the Cleveland frosh team. He played tight end and outside linebacker for the Warriors as they made the state playoffs his junior year. By senior year, he was up to 200 pounds on a 6-2 frame, and had taken a liking to this American sport.
“I loved the physicality of it,” he says. “You can hit people as hard as you want and not get in trouble for it.”
Basketball was still his favorite sport, and Magic Johnson was his favorite athlete. Poulivaati played varsity ball at Cleveland for coach Tom Beatty. He also did some track and field under coach Tinker Hatfield. And he began to have thoughts that he could make something of a life through sports.
“I enjoyed sports, and I’m sure I had the dream of coaching, playing, working with kids,” he says.
College was out of the question, though—unless he could make it happen through sports, meaning football.
He visited Oregon State, but the Beavers wanted him to walk on for football, and that wasn’t going to pay the bills.
“My mom, who worked in a warehouse and at a hospital as a housekeeper/cleaner, couldn’t afford that,” he says.
But after graduating from Cleveland, Eilers hired an assistant coach who had just graduated from OSU, and that coach got Poulivaati connected with a program that would admit him.
“I applied late, got in and walked on for football,” he says.
Although 215 pounds by then, he was undersized, so the big focus of his first year in Corvallis was going to the weight room and bulking up.
He redshirted, and by his sophomore year he was up to about 260.
The Beavers put him on scholarship and switched him to the defensive line. “The best move I could have made,” he says.
He began to play as a D-tackle, received a scholarship in the fall of 1998, and got some helpful guidance from teammates.
“OSU had three other Polynesian athletes—Esera Tuaolo, Joe Polamalu and Johnny Feinga. They were older and took me under their wing, taught me about time management and other things,” he says.
The Beavers weren’t particularly good—they went 1-10 his sophomore year (1990) under Dave Kragthorpe, then 1-10 in 1991 and 1-9-1 in 1992 under Jerry Pettibone.
Poulivaati became a full-time starter my junior year and a team captain my senior year.
“It was a great time,” he says.
The Beavers’ defense was pretty good, with Tuaolo on his way to a nine-year NFL run after winning the Morris Trophy as the best defensive lineman in the Pac-10.
Poulivaati was honorable mention all-Pac-10 his final two seasons. He also got a sociology degree.
After OSU, he coached some at Cleveland High and worked for Portland Parks & Recreation before trying Arena Football in 1995 in Las Vegas. The team moved to Anaheim the following year, and he stayed with it. He wound up playing also for teams in San Jose and Tampa Bay. The Tampa Bay Storm won the AFL championship in 2003, and then he retired.
He went back to school, got a masters in education and began to teach and coach, first at Benson, where Eilers and another of his former Cleveland coaches, Bruce Alton, were on the staff.
In 2005, Poulivaati went to the West Linn Lions as an assistant football coach and was chosen to fill an opening for a middle school physical education instructor.
Seventeen years later, he’s still teaching P.E. at Rosemont Ridge and coaching the D-line for the Lions, who are a perennial Class 6A power.
He lives in Tualatin and has daughters ages 16, 14 and 10 who are all into sports.
He thinks back to those early days as a bit of an awkward youngster in a new land, and to all the people and synchronicities that gave him the opportunities he needed to create success.
From his mother, who took the leap to come to the U.S., and then worked hard, to the Cleveland coaches and athletic director, Gene Flippin—”a great man” — to the football people at Oregon State.
“As a kid, you have hopes and dreams,” he says, “and as we look back, it’s funny how people come into your life at the right times and make such a big difference.”
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~ Profile written by Steve Brandon (Cleveland, 1972)