Off da Rock.
That’s how they describe it back home, how they challenge themselves to strive beyond the small towns and tuna canneries and harbor surrounded by dramatic cliffs that plunge into the sea off the island of Tutuila in American Samoa.
Pago Pago is its capital, where Sonny Sanitoa followed one of two available paths to a better future, to an opportunity away from the community whose coastline was devastated by a tsunami in 2009, where barrels of oil were thrown into the harbor and washed ashore, where buildings and vehicles and villages were damaged, where the number of deaths increased daily after the wave’s impact.
He was standing at a bus stop across from the ocean not 10 minutes after a powerful 8.1-magnitude earthquake struck the South Pacific, standing there around 7 a.m. waiting for just another day of high school.
Then he saw the people running from the beach.
Then he saw the massive surge of water.
“It was a strong earthquake, but everything seemed to be OK and really calm right after,” Sanitoa said. “When I saw the water, I just ran. Our house was in the middle of a mountain, so everyone was packing everything up and getting ready to go to even higher ground.
“It was tough, real bad. A lot of sorrow. The struggle was hard, trying to clean everything up. It took awhile for everyone to get back to their lives. It was scary. The first thing I thought about was family.
“My parents made it the same for all of us growing up — God first, school second and then whatever interested us after that third. So to get Off da Rock, you either join the military or excel in sports.”
His chosen path today is a short one, maybe 8 to 10 yards per snap on a football field, and yet could lead to a professional destiny he dreams about and one day might own the talent to realize.
Sanitoa is a 6-foot-3-inch, 260-pound defensive end for UNLV, a redshirt sophomore who led the Rebels in sacks with five last season despite missing four games with an injured knee. He hurt himself the day before UNLV departed for camp in this town founded as a stagecoach station.
It’s no secret: The Rebels in recent seasons haven’t defended the pass much at all, allowing the sort of yardage and third-down completions most often found on your Xbox.
Much of it has to do with defensive backs not being good enough.
Some of it has to do with the push — or lack of one — up front.
College quarterbacks with ample time, even average ones, tend to make more plays than not. It’s on those players such as Sanitoa to limit that clock, to apply pressure and not leave those behind him chasing receivers over the field for 60 minutes.
“Sonny has a knack for the position,” defensive line coach Michael Gray said. “He’s getting better at learning from film. He’s a good athlete — big, strong, powerful legs. He has that quick twitch you want. The next step for him is to make his speed rush a bull rush. Defensive ends get that start of three or so steps before making contact, so we have to take his speed and make it more of a bull rush.
“He can play on Sundays if he works hard enough.”
The quick money would have come from enlisting. Sanitoa said a military salary back home eventually could earn him in the $50,000 range annually, a virtual fortune for many there. But he began playing football as a junior in high school, the same year the tsunami hit, and suddenly adopted it as his best option.
His father is a representative in the Senate and his mother an attorney who attended Fresno State, although I can’t imagine she will be too upset if her son bull rushes his way to a few sacks of Bulldogs star quarterback Derek Carr on Oct. 19.
Sanitoa’s siblings: Stefan, Shanahan, Sloane, Sheyenne, Savannah and Simone.
“My parents love to keep things simple,” said Sanitoa, 19 and majoring in criminal justice. “So when they yelled for someone in the house, it always started with an ‘S.’ They always stressed (academics). I love football, but I want that diploma.”
His house wasn’t damaged in the tsunami, but some closest to him lost loved ones, including parents. It could have been much worse for his family. But through all the wreckage and tears and more than 100 dead, one thing slowly brought those from the island together.
“It helped people a lot, lifting their spirits up from what happened with the tsunami,” Sanitoa said. “At the time, getting back to a sense of normalcy and having the high school games became very important to everyone getting back to their daily lives.”
It also has helped Sonny Sanitoa.
Helped him get Off da Rock.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.