From Commodore Nation
By Zac Ellis
When Taiana Tolleson strolls across campus at Vanderbilt University, she often yearns for a warm island breeze or the feel of sand under her feet. It's easy to see why; Tolleson, a freshman goalkeeper on the Commodores' soccer team, hails from sunny Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Her tropical home sits 4,000 miles and a full continent away from Nashville. In terms of familiarity, it's even further.
Now Tolleson, who grew up in a close-knit Polynesian family, sometimes seeks pieces of Hawaii in Music City. In those moments she confides in her Vanderbilt football family: Josiah Sa'o, a freshman defensive lineman; Sean Auwae-McMoore, a freshman offensive lineman; and Nifae Lealao, a junior defensive lineman. Lealao, the group's elder statesman, is jokingly referred to as the "father" of the three freshmen, a 6-5, 315-pound Polynesian patriarch who carefully tends to his flock, which is still adjusting to life in the South.
What's the common thread between these four Commodores? A Polynesian background, West Coast pedigrees and a unique understanding of what it's like to be far from home.
"Being the only four Polynesians here, we just click," Tolleson says. "We find each other if we're having a rough day. With Nifae, I can be like, `Dad, I'm homesick right now.'"
That feeling doesn't last long anymore. Tolleson and her football family have embraced their new home in Nashville. They also represent a new era in Vanderbilt athletics. In 2014, Lealao became the first Polynesian to sign to play football at Vanderbilt; just two years later the stout lineman is one of four Polynesians donning black and gold across two sports. In a culture that covets home, these Commodores hope to shatter ceilings as Polynesians at Vanderbilt.
"Setting the foundation here and opening doors for more people of Polynesian descent to enjoy this opportunity, that can't be taken for granted," Lealao says. "Vanderbilt is a great place to be."
That Poly-pipeline might not have come to fruition had Lealao's father, Nifae Sr., not pulled a prank on his son during his recruitment. A Sacramento, Calif. native, Lealao had been a longtime Stanford commit until then-Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt in Jan. 2014. Lealao then decommited from Stanford but maintained his goal of playing on the West Coast.
Still, Mason continued to recruit Lealao, whose father liked what the coach had to offer. The week before National Signing Day in 2014, Nifae Sr. bought his son a plane ticket without disclosing the destination. When airborne, Lealao learned they were going to visit Nashville and Vanderbilt. That news didn't sit well with the recruit, who was initially lukewarm to Mason's sales pitch.
"I could tell from the get-go Nifae was standoffish," Mason says. "He didn't want to like this place. He was the first Polynesian, and the first is always the toughest."
But Mason had experience recruiting Polynesian players from his time coaching at schools like Stanford, Utah and Weber State. It didn't take long for Lealao to change his tone, recognizing what a Vanderbilt scholarship could mean for his future. "The experience of branching out from the West Coast, getting an education like this at Vanderbilt -- the caliber of a Harvard degree -- and playing in the best conference in the country?" Lealao says. "It feels like you can't go wrong with it."
Lealao's commitment would have a ripple effect years later. Mason inked Auwae-McMoore, a native of Kapolei, Hi., and San Diego-born Sa'o in the Commodores' 2016 signing class. Both players now say Lealao's influence helped sell the Vanderbilt program. Since the two freshmen arrived on campus, that Polynesian brotherhood has grown even stronger.
"Nifae is definitely our big brother out here," Auwae-McMoore says. "We're always with him 24/7."
Tolleson, whose full name is Taiana Ku'uipo Kamalalani Tolleson, had never heard of Vanderbilt before soccer coach Darren Ambrose spotted her at a tournament in Las Vegas. Ambrose lured Tolleson to Nashville for a visit, during which Auwae-McMoore, Lealao and Sa'o stopped by her hotel and took her to dinner. Tolleson and Auwae-McMoore knew each other as high-school athletes in Hawaii, and the lineman's message was clear: You can have a family at Vanderbilt, too. The duo ended up signing scholarship papers together on Signing Day back home.
Family is a prominent theme in Polynesian culture. That's why S'ao describes Polynesians as "homebodies" who often hesitate to leave the comfort of family life. Most Polynesian student-athletes opt for college careers on the West Coast; Auwae-McMoore heavily considered signing with UCLA, while Tolleson kept schools like San Diego State on her radar. But finding a sense of home at Vanderbilt was perhaps the biggest selling point for all four student-athletes.
Now, along with her football brothers, Tolleson refers to her soccer sisters as her second "ohana," or the word for family in Hawaiian culture. She even recognizes elements of the islands in Music City.
"I looked for `aloha spirit' in schools I visited," Tolleson says. "Stereotypically, Hawaiians are always friendly, and Nashville, in a way, has its own aloha spirit. People hold doors open and are so nice and kind. It's not home, but I definitely feel at home at Vanderbilt."
Nifae and his football brethren hope their story convinces future Polynesians to venture outside their comfort zones. Players of similar background have found success in football, from Manti Te'o at Notre Dame to Troy Polamalu's prolific NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Marcus Mariota's Heisman-winning career at Oregon shed renewed light on Polynesian prospects. Now more players in Hawaii and beyond have begun to dream of a football career. "It's an upward trend," says C.J. Ah You, Vanderbilt's defensive line coach and a California native who hails from a Polynesian family. "Now you see coaches going to do camps in American Samoa."
"For these guys to come from where we come from -- I say we as an ethnicity, as a race -- for them to put on for Polynesians in general, that's a really big achievement," Sa'o says. "It's a blessing. We take that very seriously in our culture."
Today Auwae-McMoore and his family jokingly refer to Nashville as "Polyville," a subtle nod to the Polynesian branch created by these four Commodores. That branch expands even further when including Mariota, who lives in Nashville as the starting quarterback for the NFL's Tennessee Titans. But for Polynesian student-athletes, Vanderbilt represents an opportunity to broaden their horizons in a unique setting -- all coupled with a world-class education. In that, the university can become home.
"Being part of a culture that likes music, food, being around a family environment, all those things are here at Vanderbilt," Mason says. "These players are opening doors. Nashville is a place were the Polynesian culture can come and enjoy things that feel like home."