Vai's View: Vai's View: BYU-Hawaii, prep football powerhouses and a living legend
Leimomi Kalama Cummings
Former ASU All American Junior Ah You, left, Vai Sikahema and Junior's son and former BYU player, Kingsley Ah You, in front of Ah You's restaurant, Tita's Grill, in Kahuku, Hawaii.
For a little over a year, we've planned a trip to Hawaii to celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, because of my mother's debilitating health, she wasn't able to travel, so sadly she and my dad didn't make it.
But we still came as a family because we hadn't been together with our ALL of our children for four years, because our last two sons' missions overlapped for three weeks. Also, our daughter-in-law Kaylie and our new grandson have never been to Hawaii. And my wife, Keala, grew up on the North Shore of Oahu in the village of Kahuku — more on that later. No one needs a reason to come to Hawaii, but still, the big one was my parents' 50th.
I had informed our friends at the Polynesian Culture Center of the purpose of our trip and because Mom and Dad were among the first group of dancers at the PCC in the '60s, they rolled out the red carpet. I only felt slightly guilty that we still got the red-carpet treatment even though Mom and Dad didn't make it.
Keala and I were invited to speak to the performers prior to the night show in their nightly devotional, which was such a wonderful privilege. When we finished our short remarks of encouragement, they asked us and our children to stand before them and the entire cast stood and serenaded us in a three-part harmony chorus of "Army of Helaman." We didn't even try to hide our emotions — it was useless. It was incredibly powerful.
The entire north shore reeks of power — spiritual and physical.
The Laie Temple was the first LDS temple built outside of the continental U.S. when it was dedicated in 1919 by Pres. Heber J. Grant. Two years later, Elder David O. McKay visited Laie and had a vision during an elementary school flag ceremony that a school would emerge in Laie that would have global influence. That flag ceremony is depicted in a mosaic tile mural over the entryway to the university.
Today, 74 countries are represented in the 2,700-plus student body, with China having the most students. Over the last 50 years, many of BYU-Hawaii's alumni have returned to their homelands throughout the Pacific Rim and they wield great influence in government, business, education, medicine and law, just as David O. McKay envisioned.
BYU-Hawaii and the PCC has been to Polynesia what the New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty has been to millions of European immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Only, Laie is a small town. And the village where the local high school is located, Kahuku, is even smaller. Several years ago, NFL statistics indicated that Kahuku was tied with Long Beach Poly Tech as the two high schools with the most players in the league with six — more than a lot of top Division I programs.
Provided by Vai Sikahema
In the fall, the one-hour drive on single-lane Likelike Hwy from Honolulu to Kahuku is often bumper-to-bumper with coaches from the SEC, Pac-12, MWC, Big 12, Big 10, Notre Dame and every other major college football program looking to land a Red Raider. It's not unusual for six or seven Red Raiders in one year to get Division I offers — they've had as many as 11. Division two and three programs as well junior colleges will sometimes take Kahuku backups in hopes they'll find late bloomers or just solid players who simply couldn't get on the field.
When we arrived in Hawaii last week, we learned Kahuku was playing Kamehameha — a big and well-funded private boarding school in Honolulu — at Aloha Stadium on Saturday night. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why Kahuku's football team has such a huge following because they haven't been around for as long as say, Kamehameha or Punahou, which is Pres. Barack Obama's alma mater.
Provided by Vai Sikahema
Yet, no matter where the Red Raiders play, their fans pack 'em in. Certainly, some of it has to do with their winning tradition despite losing many of their best players to scholarship offers from Kamehameha, Punahou and St. Louis High School — all private school powerhouses in Hawaii. It isn't unusual for the private schools' best players to ride a bus for an hour each way from the North Shore to Honolulu and back every day.
Several years ago, high school All-American linebacker Manti Te'o, now a star at Notre Dame, played freshman ball at Kahuku but left for Punahou his sophomore year. The Red Raiders' roster is raided annually, seniors by major colleges and underclassmen by Hawaii's best private schools. Yet amazingly, Kahuku continues to dominate.
They do so with an endless supply of big, agile and athletic Poly kids on the North Shore.
My theory is simple: It's a mixture of heredity and environment. The lion's share of kids at Kahuku are Samoan, Tongan and Hawaiian, who by nature are just BIG. Add to that kids who grow up learning the intricate dances of their culture, such as the Samoan slap and fire knife dances — the Maori haka and the Tongan lakalaka and ma'ulu'ulu — and you have young men who are more coordinated and agile than your average teenager. They're aware and fiercely proud of their warrior heritage. For better or worse, by tradition, Poly kids are also prone to be raised in homes where the father's authority is clear and unquestioned. These elements seems to translate well to American football.
In my lifetime, no player better exemplifies all those characteristics than North Shore legend Junior Ah You. Even in his 60s, Ah You's massive frame — enormous hands and forearms; powerful legs and calves — are still impressive. Yet, he speaks so softly you sometimes have to lean in. He is so gentle and meek it's hard to imagine he used to terrorize quarterbacks before sacks were an official stat.
As a boy growing up in Mesa, Ariz., when the Phoenix Suns were the only professional sports team in the area — Ah You was legendary as an Arizona State defensive end. The local press nicknamed him "Hawaiian Punch" because Samoans and Tongans were not yet known as a force in American football. In the off-season of his senior year at ASU and first two years in professional football, he was the featured fire knife dancer at the Polynesian Cultural Center — a main attraction of the night show.
Junior's grandfather was a Chinese merchant from the Sichuan province of Mainland China who settled in Samoa in the '20s and married a Samoan. Junior's parents converted to the LDS faith and in 1959, left Pago Pago for Lai'e to be sealed in the temple. Less than 10 years later, Junior started the pipeline from tiny Kahuku High to the country's top major college football programs. Junior wanted badly to attend BYU because of the LDS connection, but BYU seemed to be the only school from the WAC that DIDN'T recruit him.
It was a mistake that interestingly, changed the fate of BYU's football program. Because Junior Ah You's success as a two-time All-American at Arizona State wasn't lost on BYU's new head coach, LaVell Edwards. Over the years, LaVell often said that Junior Ah You is THE reason he was forced to recruit the Poly players and specifically, in Kahuku — an LDS community.
After ASU, Ah You took a three-year guaranteed contract with a fourth-year option to play in Montreal of the Canadian Football League and their new head coach, Marv Levy, passing on the NFL with its non-guaranteed money. Because he only weighed 220 pounds, NFL teams wanted to make him an outside linebacker, something Ah You wasn't comfortable with. Ah You became a star and household name in the CFL in the decade he played for the Alouettes.
He returned after every season from Montreal to Lai'e and with his earnings, started buying up real estate properties throughout the North Shore. BYU-H students rented from him but he learned some hard lessons about being a landlord in a town where everyone seemed to be related or at least claimed to be. It wasn't much better when he became a bishop and many of his tenants were also his flock.
His son Kingsley became a BYU Cougar in the late '80s, but after his mission he blew his knee out his very first practice back. As a result, Kingsley wouldn't enjoy his father's prominence on the field, but off it he seems almost as respected and beloved as his dad. Kingsley married, got his BYU degree and returned home to be a guidance counselor at Kahuku and help run the family businesses — which now includes a little eatery directly across the street from Kahuku High called "Tita's Grill."
"We make a little bit of money but money never motivated me or else I would have stayed in Canada where I had more opportunities," Ah You told me. "We bought the place because I love to cook, which I learned from my dad, but also to give my kids and grandkids jobs and provide a service to the community."
As we spoke, a 10-person crew from the VH1 reality show, "Basketball Wives," who are shooting nearby, were eating Kalbi ribs, terriaki beef plates and the spicy shrimp special. Junior glanced over and noticed one of the women in the crew had ordered one of his signature dishes, cocoa and a huge slice of buttered, homemade bread, which he personally bakes every morning. He quietly excused himself and meanders over.
"Hi, my name is Junior — I'm the owner. Thanks for coming. All the kids at that school order bread and cocoa for breakfast — even after school — and they seem to like dipping the bread in the cocoa. Try it and see if you like it."
She does and she does.
A legend's work is never done.