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Education first, football later: Vaka creates NFL pathway for Pacific Island players

Monday 20 May 2024 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Sports

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Education first, football later: Vaka creates NFL pathway for Pacific Island players
Jason Vaka, a scout consultant for USA College Scholarships and NFL, and his wife Toi Whiunui-Vaka visit Rarotonga. MELINA ETCHES/24050701

Standing at 6’4, Cook Islander Jason Vaka is doing what he loves best, scouting for the untapped talent of young lads in the Pacific to sign up for the unique path of the USA College Scholarships and National Football League (NFL).

Vaka is Aotearoa New Zealand’s Elite American Football Academy international recruiter actively recruiting and searching for talent in different age groups from high school to college into the professional area of the NFL.

He searches for young potential athletes and places them on a scholarship.

“Education is key,” he says.

He has placed Clinton Mahone, a Cook Islands/Tongan kid from Aotearoa, into the programme receiving a full-ride scholarship to the New Mexico Military Institute.

From there, Mahone earned his degree and is now on a full-ride scholarship to Florida International University in Miami.

“For the kids that do the college route, it’s about getting an education. After that, if he is successful, he will go into the NFL,” says Vaka.

“This is not just sport; it is about academics first – for all the athletes who go through this programme.

“All things are possible and we are not excluded from anything, there are opportunities for our kids.”

Vaka, born in Auckland and raised in Papakura, is the son of Kimiora Vaka, who hails from Aitutaki and Mangaia, and Himere Vaka (née Manuel-Fortes).

Although he didn’t complete college, he excelled and committed to American football in Aotearoa.

His dedication paid off and he was spotted and landed a contract with an arena football league in the US for three years.

“I chased it, I went to the workouts and it was noted. So, if you really want something you’ve got to do the work.”

Vaka scored a contract in 2005 playing Arena Indoor NFL (similar to 7s in rugby union) in his first year for the Central Valley Coyotes.

With a keen eye for potential and a passion for the game along with the opportunity to recruit kids, he was signed as Aotearoa’s first scout to the NFL.

For two years he was the NFL’s International Pathway Programme scouting consultant for the Asia Pacific Region – across New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, and the Pacific.

Vaka says Pacific and Māori athletes are built for the sport – “they want the big kids”.

Vaka, a scout with 10 years of experience, creates pathway programmes to prepare athletes for playing in America.

In the Careers Expo to be held next month, there will be a booth promoting the NFL pathway programme.

Vaka says he is happy to provide opportunities for Pacific athletes, adding the focus firstly will be on education.

Vaka and his wife Toi Whiunui-Vaka recently visited Rarotonga. They have eight children and three grandchildren.