Fort Meade Celebrates Asian-Pacific Heritage Month
Ken Niumatalolo, head coach of the U.S. Naval Academy's football team, speaks during last week's Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance. Niumatalolo, the first Samoan collegiate head football coach, discussed his childhood in Hawai... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Growing up as a Samoan American, Ken Niumatalolo tried to break down the stereotypes around his culture, including that Samoans were strong athletes but not smart.

So instead of playing a running back or power position, he wanted to be a quarterback.

"I wanted to be the person in charge," he said. "I want to prove to people I can think and that I have a head on my shoulders."

Niumatalolo would eventually lead the University of Hawai'i to the school's first bowl game in 1989. Years later he again broke stereotypes by showing that a Samoan coach can do more than simply recruit Polynesian players -- he could be tactical and help a team win.

In 2007, Niumatalolo was named the first Samoan collegiate head coach -- head coach of the U.S. Naval Academy's football team.

As keynote speaker for the installation's Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Observance on May 9, Niumatalolo discussed his childhood as a Samoan in Hawaii and his current coaching position.

The 902nd Military Intelligence Group hosted the annual observance held at McGill Training Center. The 90-minute event also featured traditional Polynesian dances, music by DC Luau Entertainment and Indian food.

DC Luau Entertainment opened the event with a Polynesian song and invited members of the audience to learn how to hula.

Marine Pfc. Luke Field of Marine Student Detachment was among several in the audience who joined the dancers on stage.

"It was fun," he said. "I enjoyed slapping the [hula] sticks together."

In her welcome, Col. Yvette C. Hopkins, commander, 902nd MI, said the coach was a good fit for the observance because Niumatalolo is "someone who understands the military values, is in the pursuit of excellence in everything he does, understands military concepts of teamwork and [is in] a profession that requires your heart and soul. I'm very excited to have Coach Niumatalolo with us today."

Niumatalolo grew up on the island of Oahu after his parents emigrated from American Samoa to find a "better way of life," he said. "As proud as I am culturally, I'm also very, very grateful to be an American. I recognize the blessings that have come to my family because of this great country. Yes, the United States of America is not perfect, but it is the greatest country in the world. So I'm so grateful I'm part of this country"

Niumatalolo's family lived in various locations because his father was a cook in the Coast Guard for 23 years. But Niumatalolo said he learned his Samoan culture while living in Hawaii, where there was no majority in the diverse community and people learned to embrace everybody and all cultures.

"When you're in Hawaii, you grow to love your culture but you grow to love being an American," he said.

After playing football at the University of Hawai'i, Niumatalolo was hired as a full-time assistant at the university. Three years later, Niumatalolo left for the U.S. Naval Academy as a position coach.

In 2007, he was named head coach -- making him in the first Samoan collegiate head coach and second Polynesian head coach in Football Bowl Subdivision.

Since taking over as head coach, Niumatalolo has become just the second coach since World War II to lead the Navy to a winning record in each of this first three seasons, and was the first coach to lead the team to a bowl game in each of his first three season. He currently holds a 40-26 record.

Niumatalolo's office is now located in the same building where Filipino cooks from the academy used to live.

"It humbles me to realize that there are people that have come before, not only from a cultural standpoint but from a military standpoint, who allow me to do the things that I do," he said. "So I'm so very grateful for that."

After the event, Field said he was impressed with Niumatalolo's background and accomplishments.

"He was very inspiring," he said.

Following Niumatalolo's presentation, DC Luau Entertainment demonstrated more traditional dances and invited the audience to participate in a Tahitian dance.

"They were really good," Fields said of the performers. "I've never seen dances like that before."