BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. — Phillip Paea was in a car in a foreign country, and the sun began to set as he and his family followed a road that would lead them to their home for the next year.
Then the car in front of them struck something and traffic came to a stop on a road in Tonga.
Wild pigs, Paea saw, roamed everywhere. Except for the one next to the car, struck dead.
Another family came to the side of the road. They’ll help, Paea thought. Instead, they went straight for the wild pig — and began drawing and quartering it to take home.
“I never thought I’d see something like that,” Paea said.
He was 7 years old, on the other side of the world.
It served as Paea’s introduction to the culture of Tonga, where he lived and attended grade school for a year, at the behest of his parents. His family, Paea explained, wanted him to learn about his roots, to experience a culture other than the American one he knew.
There were things about the South Pacific islands that were fascinating, and things that were scary.
“They have corporal punishment there, still, in the schools,” Paea said. “You’re going to get hit no matter what. If you answer a problem wrong, you get hit with a ruler. Anything falls under that.”
Yet the Tongan culture valued togetherness. Families gathered together once a week for movie nights, every Thursday on one of the country’s handful of television stations. Every Saturday, doors opened on the island and neighbors invited strangers into their homes to eat, converse, play card games and, ultimately, build community.
Paea’s year in Tonga made a profound impact. He learned the value of gratitude and his time there set a foundation for how he related to others.
“It was a very unique experience,” Paea said. “A very humbling experience, not only to see where my parents came from, but where our people come from. How it is out there, how children are raised. It made me appreciate a lot of things more.
“Growing up here, I was probably a really spoiled kid. Coming back here, it was so eye-opening.”
Ten years later, Paea is part of an eclectic incoming freshman class at Michigan. It includes one of the nation’s top high school receivers, who has aspirations in medicine; a lineman of Hawaiian and African-American heritage; and another lineman who sees a future in farming. It also includes a Canadian and a lineman and a linebacker from Connecticut — a state that isn’t a recruiting hotbed.
“He always talks about that time as being a very organic experience for him,” Berrien Springs football coach Tony Scaccia said of Paea, a defensive lineman. “Everyone cares about everybody, and that was a big takeaway for him. Here, he’s someone who genuinely cares about his school, about his coaches, about his family, and while I know he hasn’t been there in so long, I know he holds on to so much of that.”
Meet Michigan commit Phillip Paea
From the Pacific Islands to southwest Michigan
Berrien Springs is a village of about 1,800, a half-hour north of South Bend, Ind. While the centerpiece of South Bend is the University of Notre Dame — one of the most iconic Catholic universities in the world — Berrien Springs is a different college town.
It is surrounded by farms and vineyards. Andrews University, the flagship university of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, is less than two miles from Paea’s high school.
Becky St. Clair, a spokeswoman for Andrews University, explained that in 1901 the university moved from Battle Creek, Mich., to Berrien Springs for a religious purpose.
“Essentially, Adventists have historically believed that the best way to learn is by being surrounded by God’s creation, such as in a rural setting, hence the move to Berrien Springs,” Andrews said.
Paea’s family is not only Tongan, it is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist family. The Paeas’ faith is rooted in a Protestant denomination that traditionally observes the Sabbath on Saturday.
Berrien Springs is a diverse community. According to the 2010 census, nearly 500 people in Berrien Springs were of Hispanic, Pacific Islander, African-American or of multi-ethnic descent; some of Paea’s teammates are Indonesian, Samoan, Hawaiian, African, Korean, Haitian and Hispanic. Many families are drawn to Berrien Springs because of Andrews, whose student population in 2016 of about 3,300 students included 885 international students from 92 countries.
When Scaccia first taught at Berrien Springs Middle School, he noticed the flags that hung in the cafeteria — 19 flags from around the world.
“I asked, ‘What do they have those for?’ ” said Scaccia, who is in his third year as Berrien Springs’ football coach. “The teachers told me those are for just the kids we have at the middle school, that there were 19 different countries represented in three grades.”
One was Tonga. The flag of the Paea family.
Where is Tonga, anyway?
Tonga is a nation in the South Pacific Ocean made up of about 170 islands, of which only about 40 are inhabited. Known formally as the Kingdom of Tonga, it became an independent nation in 1970 and has a population of about 106,000.
Paea’s father, Saia, came to the United States from Tonga first, and lived in Riverside, Calif. His mother, Mia, moved to California from Tonga and met Saia through their church. Paea’s uncle — his father’s oldest brother — went to Andrews University more than 20 years ago, and Paea’s father traveled to Michigan with his wife and two oldest children. As family, it was his obligation to accompany his brother.
“The fact that we grew up here, it’s a lot slower than California, and that was nice,” Paea said. “But I worry that if I lived in California, it would be too much.”
In his math class, Scaccia first met Paea, who was already 6-foot tall.
“He was 11, 12 years old, and he was quiet,” Scaccia said. “He was like a deer in headlights. He was scared of everything.”
And, Paea added, he wasn’t good at math. But he was good at football. Down the road, Scaccia knew he’d see Paea on a football field, but didn’t think it would be his.
“There was a fear that I’d have to coach against him one day,” Scaccia said. “I was coaching football at a neighboring high school (Dowagiac, Mich.), but teaching here and coaching track here. And I thought, ‘Oh, man what if we’ve really got to play him? We’re going to be in trouble.’ ”
That never happened. Scaccia joined the Berrien Springs staff in 2012, and he watched the Paea family progress through Berrien Springs’ football program — including Paea’s older sister.
Now 26 and living in Minnesota, Tuopu Paea was the first girl in Berrien Springs to make the varsity football team. Scaccia said she was a legitimate player.
“She wasn’t on the team just to be on the team,” Scaccia said. “She played at offensive and defensive tackle.”
Seeing his sister in a male-dominated game didn’t faze Paea. He grew up watching his sister help their father on construction projects, or going to her basketball games in neighboring towns.
“And at the time I didn’t even think of it as, ‘Oh, that’s a girl who plays football,’ ” Paea said. “I’ve always liked seeing my sister doing different things. She was naturally athletic and aggressive, so seeing her play football, it wasn’t that really a big deal to me.”
His sister also played a big role in Paea’s confidence and development as a football player. He grew up tall and gangly, and Tuopu Paea made a deal with her younger brother — gain 100 pounds and I’ll give you 100 dollars.
Paea is now 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, and 247Sports ranks him as the nation’s No. 38 defensive tackle.
“A big part of my growth,” Paea said, laughing, “is because of my sister.”
How heritage and football intertwine
Though he is nearly 10 years removed from the time he spent in Tonga, Paea’s Polynesian heritage is still evident. In January, he took his first trip to the Pacific Islands since the year he spent in Tonga, playing in the Polynesian Bowl with several of his future teammates at Michigan.
— Phill_1k™ (@Phill_paea) January 22, 2017
He even brings some of Tonga to the football field.
Prior to each football game in his senior season, Paea led his team in the haka, a traditional war dance that originated in New Zealand among the Maori, who are indigenous to the country.
Paea’s older brother, Vili, began the tradition at Berrien Springs in 2009 as a way to unite the football team. When Vili graduated in 2010, he told his younger brother that he wanted him to continue the tradition, but he wasn’t obligated.
Scaccia, knowing the significance of the haka, encouraged Paea to continue his brother’s work.
Paea graduates in June, but a Paea tradition will continue at Berrien Springs. A teammate, Pele Lei Sam, has promised Paea he would lead the team in the haka next season.
“That’s a special thing about Berrien Springs,” Paea said. “We have a lot of different cultures around here. Every one of those cultures is respected in the same amount, and all I had to say was, ‘I want to do something that’s from my tradition and from my culture,’ and all the guys were 100 percent for it.”