He has an “unusual background,” head coach Jim Hanifan said after the Cardinals drafted a little-known linebacker in the eighth round of the 1984 NFL draft.
That man was University of Hawaii star Falaniko “Niko” Noga who was born in American Samoa in 1962, and born with him, he said, was something that is given to all Samoans at birth.
“It’s an instinct that comes from way back,” he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in a 1985 interview. “I think our people have big monsters in them. We believe that we can do anything to anybody. When you realize you have that monster in you, you have to find something to use it for. I found football.”
The 6-foot-1, 235-pound rookie quickly caught the eye of head coach Jim Hanifan. He excelled on special teams and introduced himself to the home fans in an October 1984 game against the Chicago Bears.
Noga broke open a close game when he barrelled through the Bears’ line and blocked Dave Finzer’s punt with just over 6 minutes remaining in the contest.
“As soon as I saw him drop the snap, I put on my engine and was gone,” Noga said after the game. “The play wasn’t designed to block a punt. But when I saw what had happened, I knew what I had to do. I just wanted to get there.
“That’s the best hit I’ve had in the National Football League,” the rookie added.
Noga took over the starting strong-side linebacker position a few weeks into the 1985 season after tallying 9 tackles and a fumble recovery in a backup role against Washington.
In his first NFL start against the Eagles he recorded 13 tackles.
“What we need are more Samoans,” Hanifan quipped after the game.
“I don’t go out there to play tag, I go out there to kill somebody,” Noga said. “That’s my style. That’s me.”
“I get it from home (Samoa). When I get ready to hit somebody, I want his body to collapse. It’s just our personality, my neighbors and my brothers. We take things beyond. We don’t just touch or tag somebody, we hit him until he feels it all through. We want him to pay for every step he takes.”
“He runs like a deer and hits like a soda machine,” fellow linebacker E.J. Junior said of Noga.
Noga is one of eight brothers (Al and Pete also played in the NFL), and once said that he is “trying to uphold the family honor” each game he played.
Some have said that Noga is the greatest player to come out of the University of Hawaii. He was an All-Western Athletic Conference nose tackle his first three seasons before switching to linebacker to utilize his speed (4.6 seconds in the 40 yard dash).
In 1986, he arrived at Big Red training camp in Charleston, IL as the starting inside linebacker in new head coach Gene Stallings’ 3-4 defense.
“I couldn’t wait for the hitting to start,” Noga told Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post Dispatch early in training camp. “All I want to do now is hit anybody who shows up. It’s nothing personal, but I just get so intense. I have that feeling inside all the time. When I walk in that locker room door, it’s already there. I can’t control it. I don’t want to control it.”
“He’s tough,” Stallings said. “He’s an aggressive, tough, physical player and I like the way he plays.”
Noga finished second on the team with 90 tackles in 1986 and followed that up with 78 in the strike-marred 1987 season.
Perhaps Noga’s most memorable play came at Busch Stadium in 1987 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he returned a James Wilder fumble 24 yards to help lead the Big Red to an improbable 31-28 come from behind victory. Noga also had 10 tackles in the game.
“He had three or four big hits and he didn’t make any mental errors,” Big Red linebackers coach Joe Pascale said after the game. “Now the fumble obviously helped us win the game. But that’s not the main reason why Niko had a good game. He played the run well, and he didn’t miss any assignments. His whole game was solid, not just one play.”
Noga played one more season for the Cardinals, but it wouldn’t be in St. Louis. He spent the 1988 season in Arizona after the Big Red moved to Phoenix. He was released just before the start of the 1989 season and was signed by Detroit where he played three more years as a reserve linebacker and special teams player. He signed with the Oakland Raiders in 1992 as a Plan B free agent but was released prior to the season.
After leaving the NFL, Niko returned to Samoa where he coached football and worked in education. He and his brother Al were inducted into the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame in 2021.
Niko Noga was never a star in the National Football League, but it can’t be denied that he was one tough Samoan.
Coach Jim Hanifan was right when he said that the team needed more Samoans. If you look at the draft the Big Red had in 1984 the only individual to stay with us for any significant amount of time and make any real positive contributions was Niko Noga.
You are correct. That ‘84 draft helped set the team back many years!
Thanks for a thoroughly entertaining and informative read, Bob. Just delightful. The quotes you gathered and used are terrific. Noga’s quote _ “Our people have big monsters in them. ” _ is as intimidating as anything Dick Butkus or Chuck Bednarik might have said. The E.J. Junior quote _ “He runs like a deer and hits like a soda machine.” _ is a classic, and describes well what made Noga so effective.
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Thanks, Mark. I had always wondered about what happened to Niko and was glad to discover that he’s doing well!