It's an Island Ting: Kahuku High in Oahu Churns Out NFL Studs Like Schools in Florida and Texas
Kahuku High only graduates about 100 male students a year. But since 1970, the Red Raiders have fed 17 players into the NFL and many more into the collegiate ranks.
The harsh lights in the wrestling room came on at 5 a.m., and it wasn’t pretty. Members of the Kahuku High football team groaned and rubbed their eyes and made their way toward the men’s room muttering f-bombs, their devout faith notwithstanding. The Red Raiders moved like zombies, the difference being that unlike the undead, these teens were here of their own volition. It was their call to show up for Hell Week: meetings and practice by day, then bed down beside one another; rise and repeat the spartan cycle.
When the heavens opened just before dawn, drenching the team 15 minutes into its hour-long workout, the players embraced it, whooping, smiling and sticking tongues out, grateful for any break in the grim routine. Hell Week wasn’t quite half over on this Wednesday in late July, and everyone was on edge. Hard feelings had spilled into the weight room the previous morning when a handful of receivers and defensive backs came to blows. They were tired. They were sore. Nobody was getting enough sleep. And that was the point. “Hell Week isn’t about recovery,” explained Samson Reed, a senior D-end committed to play at Virginia. (He’s one of eight Kahuku players with FBS offers.) “It’s more of a weeding out—finding out who really wants to be here, who wants to sacrifice.”
Like many of his teammates, Reed is the descendent of Pacific Islanders, members of the Mormon church who came to Oahu as labor missionaries. His father, Tanoai, was an all-state tackle for the Red Raiders in 1990 and played two years at Hawaii. Alas, Tanoai never showed up for his senior season. One night in Honolulu he stepped in when a handful of out-of-towners were about to get their asses kicked by some locals. Those clueless haoles, it turned out, were on the film crew of the epic bust-to-be Waterworld. Fast forward a decade, to 2002, when Tanoai was serving as Dwayne Johnson’s body double in The Scorpion King and the two men discovered they shared an uncle. (They were, in fact, cousins.) Reed has been the Rock’s double ever since. Samson’s mother, Suzanne, is also a stunt-woman, and I recently posed to her a question that one seldom gets to ask: “Was that you I saw recently in a YouTube video, falling from a great height while engulfed in flames?” She smiled. It had indeed been her.
Sorry, Texas and Ohio. Apologies, Florida and Pennsylvania. The most interesting, exotic, surprising football program in the U.S. is not on the mainland, it turns out. Kahuku is located near Laie (pronounced lah-EE-ay), a town of 6,000 not far from some of the world’s best-known surf breaks. Before it became a gathering place for Mormons, it was a pu’uhonua, or sanctuary city. Ancient Hawaiians who were judged to have violated the sacred laws of kapu—mortal transgressions ranging from eating turtle to crossing the king’s shadow—found safe haven here. No such luck for visiting opponents these days.
Despite its small size—roughly 100 male graduates each year—Kahuku has fed 17 players into the NFL since 1970, and many multiples of that into the collegiate ranks. In 2006 and ’07 there were six former Red Raiders on NFL rosters, tying Kahuku with a handful of (much, much) larger schools for the most active alumni in the league.
Those success stories don’t include the local boys rustled from the district by the private academies an hour’s drive south in Honolulu: Punahou, alma mater of one Barack Obama; Kamehameha, with its $11 billion endowment; and the Saint Louis School, a QB factory that produced the Titans’ Marcus Mariota. Football isn’t combat, but Kahuku’s gridiron battles with those preppies look like a kind of class warfare. Unseen in postcards of Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline, unmentioned in tours at the popular Polynesian Cultural Center, are the people in this district who are justgetting by.
Kahuku draws from a handful of small communities across Oahu’s North Shore. Sure, there are horse farms, golf courses and seven-figure oceanside mansions. But tucked away on side streets, seldom witnessed by tourists, you’ll find plenty of structures that could stand some serious renovation. The pinch of privation is reflected more by the buildings that aren’t there. Hawaii’s chronic shortage of affordable housing is keenly felt in this district, where many parents work multiple jobs and where families often pack up and move to the mainland to stay with relatives in Utah or SoCal. Any place the rent’s not so steep.
That’s “the biggest struggle in this community,” says one Kahuku parent, who shares that many of his students live in homes crowded with “10, 15, 20 people under one roof, sometimes more.” Hell Week isn’t as hellish as it might seem for guys already accustomed to sleeping on the floor.
There was defensive coordinator Sola Soliai (so-lee-EYE) in the rain during Hell Week, pushing players through a series of footwork drills involving pizza-sized hoops that, ideally, remained still. A bouncing hoop betrayed sloppy footwork, earning a rebuke from Soliai. “Let’s go, guys! Slow feet don’t eat!”
One of the reasons this team has won eight Division-I state championships since 2000: When a Kahuku coach references hunger, many of his players can relate. Football isn’t just a fall sport to these guys, not just an avocation to put on college applications. It is nothing less than a passage to a better life.
That’s not an uncommon story. Making this one unique beyond its South Pacificsetting is the magnitude of success. For its size (this district counts 8,000-odd people), Kahuku cranks out an implausible number of good and great players. Those state championships and Super Bowl rings—the brothers Kemoeatu, Chris and Ma’ake, have three between them—are the dividends of a closeness, of strong bonds between members of this tightly knit community. In her family, says Kaui Fonoimoana (fono-EE-mo-wan-na), mother of a pair of Kahuku players, “cousins are like siblings; nieces and nephews are like sons and daughters. We watch out for each other the same way.”
“They are so freakin’ good over there,” sighs Darren Johnson, an ex–Kahuku QB who now coaches Campbell High, on the west side of the island. In his next breath Johnson makes the point that Kahuku’s many talented players are supported, fed, sheltered—borne along—by the figurative village in which they’ve been raised. “Morals, standards, expectations—the bar in that community is very high.”
As are the stakes. “For a lot of us, this is our only way to get to college,” says Samson Kapule-Si’ilata, whom I’ve come to call “the other Samson.” Unlike Samson Reed, Si’iLata (also a senior) is scrapping for attention from college coaches. He’s a tad undersized for a D-lineman (6' 3", 255 pounds on the roster; shorter and lighter in real life), but he’s clever and tenacious, with a lot of upside. He struggled to get on the field last year, but this season he’s starting and will have, in the end, a dozen or so games to earn a scholarship, his ticket off da rock. “This is a way we can support our families,” says the son of a longshoreman. “Football is everything to us.”
I met the other Samson in May, after one of Kahuku’s spring practices. The state athletic board had recently outlawed pads and helmets during spring football. The Red Raiders responded, as far as I could tell, by pretending they were wearing pads and helmets. Collisions were frequent and serious, and it so happened that on this Monday the Samsons and their defensive linemates were getting the better of the big boys across from them, to the deep exasperation of offensive coordinator Faaesea Mailo (FAH-ah-eh-say-ah mah-EE-low), an ex–Kahuku star who made it all the way to the Jets’ practice squad in 2002. Gathering the O-line at the end of practice, Mailo offered this counsel: “Go home, say a prayer, eat your favorite meal—whatever gets your spirits up. Come back tomorrow and kick somebody’s ass!”
Behind them, evening breezes stirred a line of palm trees, the sky above streaked orange and pink—a languorous tableau at stark odds with the scene below. “I don’t need it to be perfect,” Mailo went on. “But I need it to be absolutely ape s--- violent!” Then, much calmer: “Let’s see if we can do that tomorrow.”
Around the turn of this century, Kahuku became the first high school team to make the haka part of its pregame ritual. Since 2011, they’ve performed a version called the Kaipahua Kura—Maori for “We are the Red Raiders”—that was composed by Seamus Fitzgerald, a New Zealand native who also happens to be Kahuku’s rugby coach. And while many opponents admired the Red Raiders’ haka, others took umbrage. Why should we be forced to stand around for two minutes watching our foes shout at us in a foreign language? Then, shortly before the 2015 state championship, officials rendered this buzzkill verdict: Any team that did a haka while facing its opponent would be flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Having reflected deeply on the matter for about 20 seconds, Red Raiders coaches concluded, Screw it. We’ll take the penalty. The field position seemed a small price to pay for electrifying their fans and spelunking in the heads of the Saint Louis Crusaders, who got rolled that night, 39–14.
Implicit in the Maori words they declaim midway through that haka, says Fitzgerald, is a vow to compete “for our families and community, who have been through much.” Asked to elaborate, he shares a sad story. He wrote this haka after the school’s tumultuous 2010 season. Undefeated Kahuku had been steamrolling toward another state championship game, only to be disqualified because of a clerical error made several years earlier. Kahuku appealed the decision but lost. Several weeks later, one of the team’s co-captains, Keoni Tafuna, a linebacker with a 3.8 GPA and NCAA dreams, hanged himself. Distraught by the death of his friend, a second Kahuku student took his own life. And that is why, when they get to the part about families and community, they make a hoop with their arms, as if embracing a loved one. Then they point to the sky.
As H.G. Bissinger wrote about Odessa, Texas, nearly three decades ago, “Football stood at the very core of what the town was about. . . . It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves.” ThatFriday Night Lights fervor runs just as hot on the North Shore, and it comes with a Polynesian flavor. Well over half the players on Kahuku’s roster trace their ancestry to Samoa, whose culture still hews to an old-school system of behavior and responsibilities called Fa’a Samoa (“the Samoan Way”). That, fused with the tenets of the Mormon church, exerts a powerful influence on this community.
Among the duties of a Samoan chief, or matai, is dealing with fa’alavelave (fa-AH-lovie-lovie), which translates to “much trouble,” an apt description of the intrigue and grievances awaiting any coach at Kahuku, whose many blessings—unrivaled tradition; an abundance of talent—do not include job security. The 2017 Red Raiders are playing for their fourth coach in five years. Word on the North Shore is that the new guy could stick.
Makoa Freitas slides his right foot out of a flip-flop—islanders refer to them as slippers—and points to a four-inch scar. The pink tissue covers the Lisfranc joint complex, where he ruptured a ligament during his third NFL season, thus ending a promising career on the Colts’ O-line that might have lasted as long as his father’s. (Before Rockne Freitas served as chancellor at the University of Hawaii–West Oahu, he played 11 NFL seasons at tackle.)
“I don’t know about that,” says Makoa. Like most O-linemen I’ve known, he is wise, without ego and stingy with the spoken word. But beneath his kind eyes and gentle demeanor are steel and fire. “Do you think anyone feels sorry for you?!” he can be heard bellowing during conditioning drills as his players approach the apex of their misery. “Stop feeling sorry for yourselves!”
After playing his high school ball at Kamehameha, Freitas starred on the same Arizona O-line as his older brother, Makai. The younger Freitas was known for his strength—he maxed out at 515 pounds on the bench press—and high football IQ. “Plays smart. Understands angles and positioning,” one NFL scout wrote of him before the 2003 draft. “Uses hands well, has a strong upper body and is tough and intense. Will play hurt.”
Rather than feel sorry for himself when his playing career abruptly ended, Freitas earned a double master’s in business and accounting at Indiana. By day, he’s the assistant controller at BYU-Hawaii, a few miles south of Kahuku. (“That’s right,” he told me with a smile at the end of a recent Monday practice. “After this, I’m going back to the office.”)
Befitting a CPA and former pupil of the principled, cerebral Tony Dungy, Freitas is fair, thoughtful and reserved—right up to the moment his displeasure with the O-line reaches critical mass, after which his raised voice can be heard from the Superette across the Kamehameha Highway.
On Nov. 4, Freitas’s Red Raiders will take on undefeated Mililani for the state’s OIA (or public school) championship. The winner of that game will be favored to advance to Hawaii’s “open” title game a fortnight later, where, if you had to bet, they’ll run into Saint Louis, whose best-known alumnus (aside from former governor John Burns and Saint Damien, renowned for his work with lepers on the island of Molokai) is the aforementioned Mariota, one link in a chain of excellent Crusaders QBs that includes Timmy Chang, Jason Gesser and, most recently, Tua Tagovailoa (TONGUE-oh-vae-LO-ah), now a freshman at Alabama.
But the next great passer off this island will not come from Saint Louis—not if a certain Mohawk-rocking 16-year-old has anything to say about it.
Dual-threat, quicksilver Sol-Jay Maiava made national headlines in June 2016. It was an exciting day at Laie Park, in the shadow of the gleaming Mormon Temple. Members of Michigan’s coaching staff, including khaki-clad head man Jim Harbaugh, were in town for a satellite camp. Maiava, still an eighth-grader, wanted to participate. But he had a conflict. With an eye toward his freshman season at Kahuku, he was taking part in the Red Raiders’ spring drills. To attend the Michigan camp he would have to miss a Kahuku practice. “If you’re not coming to practice,” then-coach Vavae Tata told him, half-seriously, “you better get an offer.” Maiava suspected Tata was joking, since Top 10 college programs don’t usually hand out scholarships to eighth-graders.
Usually. The Michigan camp included a QB skills competition in which Maiava, quite simply, laid waste to the field, a man among boys. Harbaugh, renowned for his ability to identify and develop passers, noticed. Throughout the day he gravitated toward Maiava, tweaking the boy’s mechanics, getting to know him. Afterward, Harbaugh offered the kid a scholarship.
Strong-armed, accurate and blessed with an afterburner-like burst, Maiava is a transcendent talent working at a distinct disadvantage at Kahuku, which has no history of grooming great passers. The school is known for mass-producing trench warriors—titanic linemen with surprisingly sweet feet—and ball-hawking, headhunting D-backs. Down through the decades, the Red Raiders’ QB has usually been a caretaker, called upon to pass five to 10 times per game. Even as run-and-shoot offenses sprung up around the island, Kahuku stuck with its Elephant package: two tight ends, full-house backfield, not even the slightest pretense that a pass might be coming.
Those offensive shortcomings were exposed last season in losses to the defending national champion, Bishop Gorman (from Las Vegas), and then to Saint Louis in the state title game, which Maiava started as a ninth-grader. “We played four other [nationally] ranked teams,” recalls Gorman tackle Jacob Isaia, “and Kahuku was as good as any of them. But those guys gotta change their game up. Everybody knows all they do is run.”
To ease Maiava’s transition, Freitas brought in a quarterbacks coach, ex–Winnipeg Blue Bomber Brian Ah Yet. When Freitas met with Sol-Jay and his father, Luaao Peters, it didn’t take long for the latter to bring up the Elephant package in the room. Casual mention was made of feelers Sol-Jay was receiving from various coaches, on and off the island.
After much discussion and prayer, a decision was made: Maiava would stay put. “We have a saying down here,” Peters told me. “Red Raider for life.” (And in a flash, all the RR4L bumper stickers on the North Shore made sense.) The upshot? Kahuku’s running game is flat-out firing this season. Enoch Nawahine (NOW-uh-HEEN-ay), whose modesty is belied by his leopard-print cleats, is a hard-nosed inside runner who can be balletic when needed. And while erratic earlier in the season—Kahuku likely led the nation in NPBORH (Number of Passes Bounced Off Receivers’ Helmets)—the team’s fledgling aerial attack was vastly improved by the end of September.
There is one aspect of Maiava’s game that could use some fine-tuning. Dude needs to learn how to slide. At the end of a weaving 30-yard run against Aiea High on Sept. 1, he was piledriven into the turf, separating his left shoulder and sealing Kahuku’s fate the following Saturday. With their QB out, the Red Raiders bowed 17–0 to the 16th-ranked team in the country, Utah’s Bingham High, in Las Vegas.
Even without its starting QB, Kahuku stood a fair chance in that game, fielding a superb defense coordinated by one of the program’s more intriguing characters.
The defensive meeting started at 4 p.m. in a cruelly un-air-conditioned classroom. The first guys to get there congregated near a large fan in a front corner. This was back in August, and the Red Raiders were two days away from their opener against Leilehua, whose offense they’d gathered to dissect. “What are your pre-snap reads on the offensive line?” asked Sola Soliai, all business.
Twenty voices answered: “The left tackle.”
“If he’s leaning forward?”
“It’s a run.”
“How can you tell if it’s a pass?”
“He’s leaning back.”
“Like he’s taking a dump.” The coach went on, toggling between Leilehua-specific instructions and more general counsel. Like: “If you’re struggling, that’s part of the path. Embrace it! Go through the bumps, the cuts, the pain. That’s gonna make you a man.” Then he copped to a struggle of his own.
Soliai returned to the sideline this season after two years away. “And to be honest,” he confided in his players, “I’m still trying to find my groove. It’s pissing me off, but I gotta keep going.” He was an all-state cornerback on Kahuku’s 2001 state championship team, and he used that success as a springboard to . . . where, exactly? “Nowhere, man,” he says with a rueful smile. “I’m not gonna lie—school wasn’t myting. By the time I graduated from Kahuku, I had two kids already. So I went to junior college, came back here and just started working, taking care of my kids. And that was it, man. I didn’t go anywhere.”
Today Soliai is a gifted coordinator with a knack for making life miserable for opposing QBs by summoning stunts and blitzes—“darkening the gloomy and aggravating the dreadful,” to recycle a compliment paid by Samuel Johnson to John Milton.
As coaches often put it, the guys they’re talking to and shouting at “don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And this guy cares a lot. When his playing days came to an end, Soliai couldn’t bear to tear himself from the game. So, with a boom box, a rope ladder, plastic hoops and coconut husks painted orange like cones, all pulled in a gardening wagon to a distressed patch of grass outside Laie Elementary, he started organizing a regular workout—agility drills and wind sprints interspersed with kernels of wisdom. Turnout for the first session was nine youngsters. Now he’ll typically get around 100, including athletes from rival high schools and college stars home during their offseasons. Afterward, members of the Rebel Squad, as he calls it, are welcome to join the Soliai family for dinner, usually a big pot of spaghetti.
Watching Sola pour his time and energy into this, I suspected I was witnessing a man making amends for mistakes in his prodigal youth. “What’s in it for you?” I asked.
“I do it for our people,” he said, talking about the North Shore youth. “For as many guys as we have who make it big, there are still too many who fall through the cracks. I wanna catch those guys before it’s too late. I want them to go further than me.”
Kickoff against Leilehua was two hours away, but a couple thousand Red Raiders fans had already staked out their seats, happy to talk story and take in the JV game. For families with young children, the most coveted real estate is the set of bleachers curved around the makai (“ocean-facing”) end zone, where on a half moon of trampled grass a score of laughing kids played overlapping games of pickup football, all of them tackle. The games were briefly interrupted on this evening when half the children peeled off to greet and hug a shambling 68-year-old who’d arrived with his wife. Junior Ah You (whose serene, smiling spouse is Almira—friends call them Beauty and the Beast) set up his folding chair behind the makai end zone, facing the field on which he’d once been a holy terror.
A gathering of Red Raider Nation might easily be mistaken for a convention of bouncers and bodyguards: legions of thickset men with oaken calves and powerful upper bodies, exuding a stolid, low-grade menace. Compared to many of those hulks, the 6' 3" Ah You, who looks to be around his playing weight of 233, is on the svelte side. There’s not much about him to suggest that he is, arguably, the best player ever to come off this island. But Ah You was Von Miller before Von Miller, an edge rusher and sackmeister before the NFL fully appreciated such specialists. So he took his game north of the border, to the pass-happy Canadian Football League, and got paid. Which is how a native of American Samoa, whose parents moved to Laie when he was a boy, is now beloved in Montreal and a member of the CFL Hall of Fame. (The Ah You line is not exactly petering out. While BYU whiffed spectacularly in passing on Junior, sending him into the arms of then-WAC rival Arizona State, his younger brother, Sale, did play for LaVell Edwards in Provo. The brothers later sent two sons apiece to BYU; a fifth, Sale’s oldest, Jasen, is the Cougars’ director of football athletic relations. Jasen’s son Chaz, a four-star safety, is a freshman there this season too.)
Despite the presence of Maiava and his 6' 5", 270-pound left tackle–bodyguard, Enokk Vimahi (whose suitors include Nebraska, Ole Miss and USC), the unquestioned alpha of Kahuku’s 2017 team is Miki Ah You, a sculpted, speedy, unfairly handsome junior linebacker. (BYU offered him when he was a ninth-grader; Oregon followed suit in June.) And there was Miki in the third quarter against Leilehua, knifing off the edge to blindside the QB for a 12-yard sack. Forty or so yards away, his grandfather grinned broadly.
When I asked Miki what motivated him, whom he played for, he paused and chose these words carefully: “For the foundation that previous generations laid down for us, and for the guys coming after us.”
He’s not always this reflective, such as when he addressed the defense a few days before the team left for Vegas. “Last year we went up there and got f----- up,” he snarled, recalling that loss to Gorman. “Some of you guys are playin’ around too much. If you’re not gonna be physical, don’t come. We’re gonna go up there and punch ’em in the mouth.”
The serial maulings meted out by the Red Raiders are but one manifestation of a broader trend. From Utah to Oahu, Pago Pago to Melbourne, Polynesian players are flocking to this cousin of rugby in ever-increasing numbers. And their chances of being good at football are probably much better than yours.
In the last U.S. census, in 2010, 1.2 million Americans identified as Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (NHPI)—roughly one-third of a percent of the 309 million people in this country. And yet: Of the 1,696 players in the NFL last season, 70 of them—4.1 %—were Polynesian.
Part of that is genetics. Many islanders are large, bulky men with low centers of gravity. Part of it is culture. Jesse Sapolu, a native Samoan who won four Super Bowls with the 49ers, explains it this way: “The thing about Poly kids, they grow up in a household where there’s”—here he’s thoughtful in choosing his words—“achiefly protocol. There’s a huge emphasis on humility, on respect for elders, family and community.”
Who says graveyards are just for grieving? On Sept. 3, with the Red Raiders sitting pretty at 4–0 and having outscored opponents by a collective 152–13, the extended Fonoimoana clan gathered in a cemetery just behind the 7-Eleven in Hau’ula, six miles south of the high school and across the Kam Highway from the Pacific. The mood was cheerful, festive. As on the first Sunday of every month, they were observing Family Home Evening, an occasion to catch up, say a prayer or two, and sing some songs. When this afternoon’s speaker asked if anyone had anything else they wanted to share, Kana and Mana Fonoimoana—sophomore rising stars in the Kahuku secondary—remained silent . . . until their mother, Kaui, glared at them.
This was three days before the Red Raiders flew to Las Vegas, a trip made possible by financial donations and plate-lunch purchases from many of the 50-odd Fonoimoanas assembled at Family Home Evening. Now the boys rose to thank them personally. Intense and predatory on the field, they are perpetually grinning and happy-go-lucky off it—so it was surprising to hear Kana’s voice crack as he assured his people he would be playing for them in Vegas, and for all their ancestors who’d donned Kahuku red. As he spoke he stood beside the gravestone of his great-grandfather, Kosena, a Red Raiders quarterback who passed away 10 weeks earlier, leaving behind, according to his obituary, 55 grandchildren and 64 great-grandchildren.
Not all of those descendants made the trip to Vegas. It only seemed that way, to see the army of Kahuku faithful sporting customized FONOIMOANA T-shirts, sharing the stands at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium with legions of Reeds and Ah Yous, Kanihos and Alapas, Nawahines and Loos, and thousands of other red-clad pilgrims. A good portion of that horde stuck around after the game, in no rush to leave the grassy area they’d staked out for tailgating. And while you couldn’t find a beer to save your life (#MormonTailgate), there was plenty of music and laughter. Red Raider Nation knew it would get Maiava back (he looked sharp in his return three weeks later, passing for 202 yards in a 45–6 rout of Campbell) and that its team remained the favorite to win Hawaii’s OIA title.
So it came to pass that Kahuku lost the game but won the party. And how often can you say that about a bunch of Latter-day Saints?
On a recent flight from San Francisco to Honolulu my plane swung west over the southern tip of the Big Island before vectoring north toward Oahu. For five-or-so minutes we were following the path sailed by HMS Resolution in 1779, shortly after its renowned captain, one James Cook, came to grief. Upon killing the great explorer, the natives baked him in an underground oven—not to eat him, mind you, but to expedite the removal of flesh. The bones of such a powerful man were, to them, a source of immense mana.
Native Hawaiians believed—many still do—that their world was guided and influenced by mana, a kind of mystical energy, a force “present in the atmosphere of life” and “manifested by results which can only be ascribed to its operation,” wrote British missionary and anthropologist Robert Codrington in 1891.
When Vai Sikahema describes the North Shore as a place that “reeks of power, spiritual and physical,” he is referring, knowingly or not, to mana. Sikahema, an All-Pro kick returner with the Cardinals in 1987, is a native Tongan who lived in Laie as a boy. He pinpoints another characteristic that, he believes, may predispose Polynesians to football success: “For a lot of people who live in the States, their connection to their warrior heritage”—here he’s talking about close quarters, pre-firearm, hand-to-hand combat—“may go back to the days of Richard the Lionheart or William Wallace in the 1200s. But for some of us Polynesians, our warrior heritage goes back just two or three generations. My great-grandfather in Tonga killed people with a club.”
A 2003 archaeological survey of Waimea Valley, on the North Shore, identified 78 “surface sites of interest”—burial caves, shrines and temples. It is a sacred place, steeped in history and mana. No less sacred to countless Latter-day Saints is another place of worship, 10 miles due east, over the spine of the Ko’olau Mountains. There, rising from an Elysian arrangement of terraces and reflecting pools, is a vest-pocket Taj Mahal, the century-old Laie Hawaii Temple. Mormons believe in “celestial” marriages, which can be sealed only in an LDS temple. And as the first Mormon temple constructed outside the contiguous U.S., the gathering place at Laie served as a beacon and magnet to Saints from across the Pacific.
Migration to Laie quickened midway through the 20th century when, determined to open a Mormon-affiliated college (now BYU-Hawaii), church elders sent out a new call for missionaries to help with construction. Still more Saints were summoned for the building of the Polynesian Cultural Center, which opened in 1963. And so it came to pass that the hallways of Kahuku High, three miles up the road from the temple, were chockablock with burly first- and second-generation Pacific Islanders: Maori, Tongans and Samoans on whose good side one wanted to stay.
“Take a walk around this place when class gets out,” says Tommy Heffernan, who quarterbacked Kahuku in the 1960s. “You’ll be tinkin’, What da hell dese kids eat over here?”
A 40-foot wave is breaking on the north end of the Kahuku campus. It’s not theactual ocean but a mural painted by local artist Hilton Alves, whose work, in this case, draws the eye away from the corroded exteriors of 40-year-old classrooms.
“The salt air deteriorates a lot of tings around here,” says Heffernan. Known across the island as Uncle Tommy, he is a plainspoken Vietnam War vet and retired maximum-security prison guard who apologizes in advance for any profanity that might escape during his guided tour. A former Kahuku High coach and administrator, he now serves as a caretaker of both the school’s athletic facilities and its traditions. He’s the person most responsible for transforming the locker room from the “dump” (his word) it was a few years ago into what it is now: a multi-purpose changing area, shrine and museum celebrating the team’s glory-drenched past. State championship trophies and banners; Parade All-America plaques; framedHonolulu Star-Advertiser stories announcing all-star rosters lopsided with Red Raiders.
It is remarkable, notes former Kahuku coach Reggie Torres, how many former players have gone on to the college and pro ranks, “but it’s sad we don’t have more.” Torres, who won three state championships during his tenure, from 2006 through ’13, laments the number of Red Raiders prevented from playing at the next level by subpar grades or test scores. He wishes some Kahuku parents would spend fewer dollars sending their boys to the mainland for football camps “to get recognized” by college coaches, and more on tutoring them for the ACT and SAT.
In Friday Night Lights, Bissinger limns a dark, downbeat universe. Odessa is in the slough of an oil bust. Unemployment runs high; racism is baked into the landscape. One of the team’s stars is nagged by the sense that America is on the wane, that he is coming of age “in this place that didn’t seem like a land of opportunity at all, but a land of failed dreams.”
There’s plenty of hardship and disappointment on the North Shore. But despite its distance from the mainland, the American Dream—the chance to improve one’s lot by earning a college scholarship—remains vital and alive here. It could be a by-product of strong faith or the jaw-dropping natural beauty all around, but the vibe one gets from the Red Raiders and their coaches and parents is upbeat, buoyant, optimistic.
And, when necessary, aggressive. Among the vows cried out by the players during their haka: “We will fight with courage like hammerhead sharks, like the Raiders of the past!”
While shouting that line, players pantomime hoisting a heavy rock. What’s up with that?
When pulling that jersey on over your shoulder pads, Fitzgerald reminds the players in his periodic haka tutorials, “you’re holding the legacy of the Raiders who’ve come before you. It’s a blessing, but also a burden. So I want you to reach down and grab it like it’s a 150-pound boulder, and lift it over your head.”
That boulder is the bedrock of this community, this ohana, this extended family whose members are bound together by a violent game that comes to them as much as they have come to it.
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