Wroclaw Panthers’ RB Ryan Tuiasoa is proving himself to be among Europe’s best

Ryan Tuiasoa is a long way from home.

Playing in Wroclaw, Poland, his hometown of Kailua on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu is 7,412 miles away as the crow flies, but the import back believes the differences aren’t as stark as most people would expect.

“The biggest difference is that I have to wear pants and a hoodie,” laughs Tuiasoa. “I never get to wear that back home.”

While it’s hard to imagine places more disparate in their food, language and architecture than Hawaii and Poland, Tuiasoa sees a much deeper similarity between cultures.

“On the surface level, they’re complete opposites. One is this tropical island and the other is freezing cold Poland. I do see some things that are similar though,” he says.  “For one thing, Hawaii is a real community-based, family oriented place. That’s kind of the culture and I’ve seen something similar in Europe. I’ve noticed that people have always been really friendly and welcoming to me.”

Like most imports, just a few years ago Tuiasoa would have never imagined he’d be plying his trade in the heart of Eastern Europe. After a career best senior season that saw him score five touchdown, the University of Hawaii running back hoped he could impress with a CFL tryout and finally achieve a career breakthrough. That opportunity never materialized and he skeptically followed the advice of a few ex-teammates by investigating European options. All year they had been posting highlights from teams and cities he’d never even heard of, initially confusing and then intriguing him.

“I didn’t even know that this was a thing, that people were playing ball over here,” admits Tuiasoa. “Honestly, it blew my mind.”

Wroclaw Panthers RB Ryan Tuiasoa rushed for 168 yards and 4 TDs in win over Dresden Monarchs Photo: BK-Foto Sportbilder

That was three years ago. Since then, the native Hawaiian has starred for the UNC Crusaders of Finland’s 1st Division, Hungary’s Ferhervar Enthroners and now the Wroclaw Panthers of Poland’s Liga Futbolu Amerykańskiego. What once felt like a throw away attempt to keep a career going has now become a long-term option.

“I was so positive that I was just going to do one season out here, that first one in Finland, just to try it out and be done,” says Tuiasoa. “Now I don’t know when I’m going to be finished honestly.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown much of the football world into chaos, Tuiasoa counts himself among the fortunate ones. Already in country ahead of the canceled Hungarian season, he went through the European country’s quarantine measures alone. Afterwards, he found himself in the right place at the right time to join one of the continent’s premier football teams.

“Even before I came to the Panthers and really began to follow Polish football, I knew about them,” Tuiasoa marvels. “They are a real powerhouse organization and seeing it from the inside, I can see why. They really are as professional as it gets out here.

“The whole community here is pretty close. Everybody is looking out for each other, wants the best for each other and supports the team. I think that started from the ground up. When they had the vision of the Panthers, they built it the right way.”

With the cancellation of major leagues like the GFL, more eyes than usual are fixated on Poland and the Panthers have put together a roster that looks as good as any other in Europe. Though the first two years of his career came in smaller leagues or lower divisions, Tuiasoa has taken full advantage of his larger platform in 2020. Through three games, he’s been an explosive rushing threat as the Panthers have outscored their opponents a combined 152-21.

“This is the perfect situation for an import who wants to work hard and be working with a group of guys who all really want to win. I’ve really just been able to capitalize off that,” Tuiasoa deflects. “Our O-line is really making sure every week that they’re getting their assignments right and improving. Our OC is real dedicated to studying the opponents and figuring out what plays will work. This is the first situation I’ve been in in Europe where I don’t have to carry the whole offence. We have a solid quarterback, some good receivers and great playmakers across the board so the defense can’t just focus on me. That’s been really nice.”

In 2019, Tuiasoa helped the Ferhervar Enthroners win their first ever Hungarian Bowl Photo: DigitalSport.hu/Tenk Laszlo

Still, the ball carrier’s humility doesn’t diminish the fact that Tuiasoa has put up some gaudy numbers this season. Just last week, in an international matchup between the Panthers and last year’s third ranked team in Germany, the Dresden Monarchs, he slashed through a top GFL defense to the tune of 160 yards and four touchdown. The resounding Panthers victory was an important statement that the Polish powerhouse could compete with Europe’s best, though the fierce competitor in Tuiasoa was disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to challenge Dresden star AJ Wentland, who was injured for the game.

“For me personally, I was hoping they would have their import linebacker but unfortunately that wasn’t possible,” he says frankly. “When you are playing against a big name team like Dresden, I’m always extra fired up to showcase what I can do. I know a lot of guys were watching the game and you want to prove you can hang with the bigger teams.”

The Panthers did more than just hang with the bigger team and Tuiasoa’s performance should make him a coveted import next season, with top league’s like Germany taking notice. The next step in a promising European career is one that has already caused plenty of internal debate for the young back, pitting his desire as a competitor to play versus the toughest opponents against his human desire to go to smaller clubs where he can make a lasting impact. Whether he continues to be a European journeyman or puts down roots is a question for another time however, as Tuiasoa remains focused on winning a Polish title.

Tuiasoa spent the 2018 season with the UNC Crusaders in Finland Photo: FSC Media/RFL

Though the Panthers must be considered Polish Bowl favourites, bringing home a championship will mean going through the Bialystok Lowlanders and their own star running back, powerful Brit Glen Toonga. The two have dazzled so far, both physical runners who have slightly different styles to their games.  Having already proved himself in the GFL, the race against Toonga for Poland’s rushing title can be considered a measuring stick for Tuiasoa’s European ceiling.

“I don’t like doing the whole ‘who’s better’ thing, I’ll leave that to the evaluators,” laughed Tuiasoa. “I think very highly of him . He’s done a great job of exploiting everything his O-line has given him. He’s pretty fast and does a great job of breaking tackles. I’m waiting for our game where we are both going to see really good defences before I really make a comparison in my head. I’m always going to bet on myself though.”

That matchup will be the highly anticipated Polish season finale in just under three weeks time, though it likely won’t be the last time the two runners come face to face. Thousands of miles from home, Tuiasoa’s impressive start to 2020 is showing that what started as a one-off European vacation could last as long as he wants at whatever level he chooses.

He’ll just have to adjust to wearing pants.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.