Standing 6-foot-6 six and weighing nearly 300 pounds, Mao Tosi is hard to miss, even in a crowd. The former NFL defensive end is perhaps one of the city's most active and vocal advocates for kids whose plights would otherwise go largely unheralded. And soon, Tosi may be testing his popularity and prominence among older residents in Anchorage's sometimes-turbulent political waters.
Tosi is considering a run for municipal office, and has his sights set on the top job -- though it's too early to file yet.
In 2005, he started a non-profit, AK Pride, dedicated to helping local children find productive ways to spend their time and avoid the pitfalls of gangs, drugs, and persistent poverty. He formed Big Tosi Management, a company charged with running the Northway Mall, in Northeast Anchorage. Tosi is a man who likes to get things done, and sometimes, he says, being an activist isn't enough.
"I am frustrated by the process. I ask for $2 million for a community center in Mountain View, and was turned down, then I watch as more than $7 million is spent on new indoor tennis courts. So I began thinking, why don't I run for office?" Tosi said as he watched a dance workshop for kids at the Sullivan Arena on Saturday.
Tosi has an uncanny ability to connect with kids, local elders, and people from differing cultures. Tosi is Samoan. He moved to San Diego with his family when he was just 3 years old.
"We had so many people in the house -- brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles -- that all the boys slept in the garage," he said, recalling that the family used to walk the streets looking to pick fruit off tress to quench a constant hunger.
"We were very poor, but I didn't seem to notice," he said.
In 1989, after his brother was thrown out of school for bringing a .357 magnum revolver to class, the Tosi family set its sights on Alaska.
In Anchorage, Tosi excelled as an athlete. He was a two-sport star for Bartlett and East high schools, winning championships in basketball and football. After graduating in 1995, he went to Butler Junior College to play basketball. Two years later, he got a scholarship to the University of Idaho. While there, Tosi started playing football again, and he was eventually drafted in 2000 by the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League.
He started 10 of 16 games and led his team in tackles as a rookie, but a neck injury ended his football career after just three years, and ultimately, set Tosi down a different path.
"I got hit hard, and after an MRI, the doctors told me I had a genetic defect in my neck -- spinal stenosis -- and that I needed to stop playing," Tosi said.
"You know, I was young and had been partying a lot while playing in the NFL. There were always people around me. But after the injury, I realized I was all alone. The phone wasn't ringing, no one was coming by to see me. I knew then that I needed family," Tosi recalled.
In 2003, he moved back to Anchorage, completely broke.
"I played three years in the NFL (earning about $300,000), and I didn't have a dime. I got a job at a warehouse in Ship Creek making $10 bucks an hour," Tosi said.
'Dance, art, discipline'
The birth of his son would change the direction of his life, and with it, help shape the lives of countless children in some of Anchorage's poorest and most diverse neighborhoods.
"I was looking down at my son and I thought to myself that I didn't want him making the same mistakes as I did. That's when I realized that I could, and should, do the same for other kids too," Tosi said.
So Tosi began looking for ways to connect with local kids, forming AK Pride to mentor children who otherwise might end up in one of the many ethnic gangs in Anchorage. But the former star athlete, a member of the Alaska High School Sports Hall of Fame, looks to the arts to make a lasting impression.
"Dance, art, and discipline," Tosi said. "Those are the best ways to get the attention of the kids."
This summer, it's dance. Tosi brought up a group of BBoys – generally small, athletic break dancers who twist, spin and jump to hip hop music – for a workshop and dance competition at the Sullivan Arena. Among the dozens gathered there over the weekend were kids from one of Anchorage's fastest growing ethnic groups, Hmong, originally from the mountains of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. That was Tosi's goal.
"We were not allowed to do a December event at East High School because of potential problems between the local Samoan and Hmong communities," Tosi said.
In October of 2011, tension between the two groups boiled over and may have contributed to a shooting that left two men dead outside JJ's Lounge, in Muldoon.
On Saturday, though, there was no trace of lingering tension. Samoan, Hmong, Caucasian, Native, African-American, Sudanese pre-teens and young adults watched and danced together. Tosi doubts there was much tension, at least among the kids.
"Usually, it's the adults that have the problems," said Tosi.
'Why not go big?'
Over the next six months, however, Tosi said he'll try to step away from the groups he created to ensure they can survive without his monitoring and inexhaustible energy. After that, he needs to decide where his political aspirations lie.
"I have been hearing from a lot of people, asking me to run for office," said Tosi.
Usually, neophyte politicians start by running for Anchorage School Board, or the Anchorage Assembly -- before attempting bigger offices.
Current Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan thinks that's exactly what Tosi should do.
"Mr. Tosi understands public service and is a respected leader. He's not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get to work," the Mayor wrote.
Assemblyman, and former mayoral candidate, Paul Honeman, who represents Tosi's district, said he would support Tosi if he runs, characterizing Tosi as a, "solid guy who is firmly committed to the community."
Like Sullivan, however, Honeman said Tosi faces an experience problem.
"He needs to understand how the bureaucracy works," said Honeman.
But Tosi may not be willing to start small.
"I am thinking, 'Why not go big?'" Tosi said. "If it doesn't work, then I can always run for Assembly or School Board, but I think I really may want to run for mayor," Tosi said.
Inexperience will be an issue, but Tosi said he believes he can convince Anchorage he is ready for the big chair on the eighth floor of city hall.
The election will take place in April of 2015. Candidates for municipal office can begin filing for office this fall.
For Anchorage, Tosi represents a new breed of politician. Thirty-eight Anchorage mayors have been elected since 1928 – every one of them a white male. But the town is becoming increasingly diverse. At just 2 percent of Anchorage's total population, the Pacific Islander community is among the city's fastest growing. Hmong (2 percent) make up the fastest growing part of the Asian community (8 percent) in Alaska's largest city.
Mountain View, the neighborhood often the target of Tosi's efforts, was recently named one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the United States.
Tosi says he is ready for Anchorage politics. Is Anchorage ready for Mao Tosi?
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com