Hawai‘i Football is Hot Right Now—Here’s Why It’s Headed for Trouble
Hawai‘i football couldn’t be hotter. More local kids and their families are dreaming of riding the “Polynesian Pipeline” to Mainland colleges and the NFL—and going to extremes to make that dream come true. But the Island game also has problems, including a big one that makes even boosters wonder if football has a future.
Coin toss at the 2017 state championship game featuring Kahuku and St. Louis
photos: gregory yamamoto
Fans, and the long-suffering spouses and families of fans, could be forgiven for blinking at the television remote during 2017’s Thanksgiving football week. Surely this was a replay? Because, for four straight days, a quarterback from Hawai‘i was in the national spotlight.
First, Jordan Ta‘amu of Pearl City and Ole Miss shocked favored Mississippi State in a storied rivalry game. Then McKenzie Milton of Mililani and No. 20 Central Florida won a shootout over intrastate rival South Florida to cap an undefeated regular season. On Sunday, former St. Louis and Oregon star Marcus Mariota did just enough to help his Tennessee Titans stay in the NFL playoff hunt. Former St. Louis star Tua Tagovailoa had it easier; all he had to do to cause a stir was ride the bench as No. 1 Alabama lost its first game, leading to calls of Play the freshman!
On the high school level, the previous week produced what Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist Dave Reardon called “the greatest game in Hawai‘i prep football history.” The Division II state championship tilt between small schools Lahainaluna and Konawaena went to seven overtimes, pushing a down-to-the-wire, last-second open finale between powerhouses Kahuku and St. Louis into the wee morning hours.
“Of the 12 participating teams,” in the state championships, says Christopher Chun, executive director of the Hawai‘i High School Athletic Association, “11 of them had a lead at some point in the game … Six of the nine games came down to the final possession of the ball. This was the most competitive and memorable state tournament in history on all levels.”
With more than 20,000 in attendance at Aloha Stadium, the state finals drew “one of the largest championship crowds in the nation,” Chun adds. For comparison, California’s state finals usually average 5,000 to 8,000 fans.
Add in the couple dozen or more other players from Hawai‘i on college and pro rosters for those weekends, part of the estimated 300 athletes with Polynesian ancestry nationwide active at the U.S. game’s two top levels, and it can be said: Yes, we’re having a moment.
“When I was young, I didn’t like football at all,” says Kaedin Reis. “But when I was 7, Mom pushed me to play.” Now 14, a sturdy country kid whose complexion hints of his father’s Native Hawaiian, Filipino and Sicilian heritage, Reis was at first stuck playing on the line. After a few years, his mother, Desirae, recalls: “We had kind of a situation where the coach’s sons were playing QB. He wanted to try. I told him, honey, you got to talk to the coach. Well, the coach told him that if he was going to be QB, then he should’ve started in Mighty Mites, when he was 7 years old.”
After practice, though, Kaedin would get together with his friends and toss the ball around, which is how a coach for another Kaua‘i youth league noticed him. “When he switched leagues, Kaedin was able to show he could make the throws,” says Desirae. His new coach, Rich Alao, gave him tips and Kaedin also attended two camps on Kaua‘i led by longtime St. Louis coach Vinny Passas, whose free Sunday quarterback camps are legend. “Coach Vinny allowed Kaedin to practice with the high school group, where Kaedin held his own. At the end, he said, ‘Hey, your son has raw talent. If you’re ever on O‘ahu I want to work with him.’”
Despite a sudden camp cancellation when the Reis family came to Honolulu to tour high schools, Passas made time to work out the 14-year-old with members of the St. Louis team. “I have videos of the players coming up and high-fiving him,” his mother says.
A “star is born” moment? Perhaps. Kaedin and his parents are leaning toward Kamehameha Schools-Kapālama, for its tuition help and because he may have a better chance to play.
“I knew leaving home to play, I was going to represent a lot more than myself.” —MARCUS MARIOTA
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino
The story of Kaedin Reis is not an isolated one in Hawai‘i. Marcus Mariota was also once a kid playing out of position. As a wide receiver for the Kalani Falcons, he had to be ordered to play quarterback at a Pop Warner practice: “I was the only kid who could throw a ball,” he says, because, ever since he was little, “playing catch with my Dad, he’d make me throw it back to him.” Mariota became a Vinny Passas pupil, as most of Hawai‘i’s recent quarterback sensations have been. But he rarely played, much to his father Tua’s displeasure. Then, when he finally started getting into games early in his junior year, he broke his elbow.
Here is where the legend kicks in. Making it to college and the NFL wasn’t a question for young Mariota; the question was whether he’d ever play in high school. But his father and mother believed so much in his talent that—take a deep breath, parents—they sold their Nu‘uanu house to fund a summer circuit of Mainland football camps. Almost immediately, he was spotted by an Oregon coach and offered a scholarship before he’d ever started a high school game. From there flowed record-setting seasons, a national championship game appearance and a Heisman Trophy that cemented the well-mannered, well-spoken Mariota as an Island legend and ambassador.
It also gave sports-obsessed parents reason to think their little kid could do it, too.
After Thanksgiving, the website hawaiiprepworld.com tallied 34 graduating high school players who’d already received college scholarship offers. These days, Mainland coaches no longer whisper about a “Samoan Pipeline” or a “Hawai‘i Pipeline”—they’re shouting and elbowing each other aside. Where coaches once let top talent slip to the University of Hawai‘i or the Utah colleges, today many see players with Polynesian roots as a way to transform a program. Lowly Pac-12 member Oregon State had 11 players from Hawai‘i on its 2017 roster, the most in college football. On the flip side, UH couldn’t sign a single Top 300 recruit from Hawai‘i in 2016—and just lost two coaches to the Beavers.
Superagent Leigh Steinberg, writing in Forbes magazine, claims a Samoan male is 56 times more likely to play pro ball than a non-Samoan male. PBS exclaims: “Polynesian players are 28 times more likely to go pro.”
If it feels a little creepy, this open focus on ethnicity and race—I was once asked by a well-known California coach if I could “hook him up with some vitamin S”—many Polynesians claim their success is cultural. One, Vai Sikahema, the first Tongan to play in the NFL, is quoted in a recent Austin Murphy Sports Illustrated article as saying, “My great-grandfather in Tonga killed people with a club.”
“We are a warrior culture,” says nine-year NFL veteran Esera Tuaolo, who is of Samoan ancestry and hails from Waimānalo (he also recently appeared on The Voice).
Keith Amemiya had a ringside seat for the birth of the current boom when he became head of the Hawai‘i High School Athletic Association in 1998. Hawai‘i football was in decline, with the same four schools meeting each other like clockwork in the championships every year. “It was during the time when St. Louis was dominant and on their record run of 13 Prep Bowl championships in a row,” he says. Mimicking the practice of California’s Catholic superpower Mater Dei, which suited up 100 players or more and entered a stadium like a conquering army, the Crusaders loaded their roster with top athletes from all over O‘ahu, draining public schools of players and enthusiasm.
There is nothing new about the practice of private schools, locally and nationally, recruiting players. It’s not permitted by public schools, though transfers take place that raise eyebrows and emotions. Private schools will admit they used to do it, but not now—although fans may recall how Punahou’s 2014 team featured a backfield that had been Kahuku’s the year before. The issue is fundamental and an unsolved source of friction and resentment (it flared up in 2017, delaying the HHSAA from arriving at an agreement on competition brackets and a championship format).
The pendulum swung back in 2000. “When Kahuku beat St. Louis in the state championships and ended their dominant run, it gave hope to the rest of the schools in the state,” says Amemiya. “The other big thing was the 2002 doubleheader in Aloha Stadium,” pitting national champion Concord De La Salle against St. Louis and Long Beach Poly against Kahuku. The two California teams had played the previous year in a nationally televised game tabbed as the first-ever national championship game. “It was rare to have two football powerhouses play each other in the same season, let alone four,” says Amemiya. “We drew almost 28,000 fans. It was shown live on Fox Sports and USA Today did several articles about it.”
ST. LOUIS VS KAHUKU
June Jones has his own story about the boom. “When I arrived in 1999 to coach the University of Hawai‘i, it had mostly been offensive and defensive linemen who were getting recruited, real physical guys,” says the former UH quarterback who went on to become head coach of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and Southern Methodist University, among other teams.
Then came Jones and UH, racing to an undefeated regular season in 2007, followed by an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. “When we had our success, all of a sudden everyone was looking at our little guys—the fast guys and quarterbacks.”
If football is no longer conservative, says Jones, it’s mostly because of an irrepressible innovator, Mouse Davis, who turned Portland State into a skunk works for his warp-speed pass-first system called run-and-shoot. One of his first subjects was Jones, a transfer quarterback. “I spent a lot of time learning the run-and-shoot from Mouse Davis,” says Jones, “and a lot of that time was with Cal and Ron Lee,” two young Hawai‘i coaches who brought the system back to the Islands—and St. Louis. “They had a lot of success with it and when I got the UH job I hired Ron and Cal. We changed the face of football in Hawai‘i.”
And so football has joined other iconic products associated with Hawai‘i, including aloha shirts, Spam (made in Minnesota, but … ) and pineapple (well, not anymore). It may be Hawai‘i’s most successful and visible export outside of Barack Obama and Bruno Mars.
Football in Hawai‘i is so ingrained and popular that it’s breaking gender boundaries (as has happened here in wrestling, boxing and UFC—we’re the state that gave the U.S. Title IX, after all). In 2017, 16-year-old Alexandria Buchanan started at quarterback at McKinley High School—and threw a touchdown pass. Even the old argument about the terrible odds of making it in college and then the pros doesn’t faze Hawai‘i parents. (High school players have a 1 in 17 chance of getting a college scholarship and a 1 in 10,000 chance of being drafted into the NFL.) They think they, and Hawai‘i, are exceptional.
Perhaps we are. When St. Louis was in danger of closing—or admitting girls—in 2013, says school president Glenn Medeiros, a providential assist came from the charismatic play of Oregon quarterback Mariota. “Basically, an alumni package got us out of debt and Marcus brought us a lot of attention,” says Medeiros. “And we focused on bringing back the strongest coaches—there are coaches who are really good at drawing student athletes who want to go to the best colleges they can. Getting Cal Lee back was huge.”
Lee, teamed with his brother, Ron, had won those 13 straight state championships at St. Louis and at one point won 55 games in a row. Overcoming a 1998 team discipline meltdown on a Las Vegas road trip, the Lees led the Crusaders into the spotlight nationally. But the incident, involving allegations that players drank alcohol, hired strippers amd damaged hotel rooms, created fissures in the school that lasted a decade. The Lees left in 2001, moving over to UH; in 2012, they went to public school Kalani, where they resurrected a moribund football program.
When St. Louis was on the ropes in 2014, though, the Lees rode to the rescue. And Mariota appeared in ads and spoke about what a Marianist education meant to him. “When I went off to Oregon,” Mariota told HONOLULU a year ago, “Vinny said, ‘Keep the Brotherhood in your heart. And be yourself.’ The Brotherhood is tough to describe—what going to an all-boys school is like. It’s a closeness, and something that can’t be taken away from you.”
Since the Marcus Mariota era, St. Louis has doubled enrollment, adding a fifth grade in 2015 and then expanding to a K-12 program. They call it The Mariota Effect.
“Everyone wants to go to a great college at low cost,” says Medeiros. “Catholic schools tend to service those at the bottom of the social ladder. Some athletes don’t do well on standardized tests, but through football there are opportunities. It runs into our mission of letting people reach their full potential, no matter what their background is.”
Coach Cal Lee
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino
How long will it last? Hard to say. Not every boom sows the seeds of its bust. As in the late 1990s, the same few teams dominate—in divisions great and small. Due to this lack of competition, in every division teams are having to play each other two, three, even four times in a season. Like shoals of akule, players migrate to winning programs from weaker ones—some mid-season.
The major destabilizing factor is the rise of the free-agent secondary-school athlete. America is a mobile society and parents and students have long moved to be closer to better schools, safer schools, magnet schools and athletic powerhouses. But since Mariota turned Oregon’s warp-speed offense into a national spectacle, the Hawai‘i Pipeline has gone broadband. “With more exposure, now there are players from Hawai‘i all over the country,” says Amemiya. High school coaches have taken note and so players and parents are reaching out—or being recruited—for Mainland schools.
Some families go to extremes, willingly disrupting their own schedules and lives while pegging their self-esteem and life goals on the shoulders of a future Mariota. Other players become gypsies by circumstance. Physically gifted, Nayton Koki found himself on a weak and undermanned team at a private school that strained the family finances; he transferred to a public school with a midlevel team where he made honorable mention at defensive end. Then, before his senior year, a paperwork wrangle exiled him to a different public school with a lackluster team. Finally, his prospects slipping away like Mariota’s, parents Kim and Kapena bit the bullet and sent him to Las Vegas, where he played his senior season—one semester—before returning to graduate from public school.
Why Las Vegas? Because the dream crib for free agents is a Catholic school there, Bishop Gorman, whose $100 million athletic facility was funded by the Station Casinos gambling family. From out of obscurity, Bishop Gorman has shot to the top of the hill very quickly; it uses the children of celebrities and athletes as a lure, but its reputation is pure football factory. A number of top Hawai‘i players have moved there, so many that another Vegas high school, Liberty, has become a de facto overflow for local kids who don’t make the roster at Bishop Gorman.
Liberty is where Nayton ended up. “The campus was beautiful, like a college, and the education was like a private school’s,” says Kim, his mother (an aio employee). But he also experienced black-white racial divisions for the first time: “He’s a nice kid and will walk up to anyone and say hi,” his father, Kapena, says. That didn’t fly at Liberty, he discovered. And when the season was over, the new friends he thought he’d made in football scattered and forgot him. “They wouldn’t even say hi,” says Kim. But college recruiters did seem interested. “He had some coaches talking verbal offers,” Kapena says. “But the verbals didn’t translate.”
Toughened by the experience, Nayton finished up his senior year in Honolulu and went off to Butte College in Northern California to play and study for a year. Now he’s home and, admittance letter to UH in hand, is about to walk on and try for a scholarship.
Unlike the Kokis, some sports parents turn their kids into plug-in free agents and unhook them from support and educational systems. In a sports-gig economy with ever-tightening windows of opportunity, public school parents across the country have lately taken aim at transfer rules, suing to force their Johnny Hopscotch onto the roster at the right school. In such a climate, moving to Las Vegas is no different from choosing a STEM charter school.
As the rise of high school free agency makes the strong stronger, the small get smaller—and trampled.
Consider that private St. Louis suited up 141 players for varsity at the beginning of last season (although only 99 dress for any one game). Public Kaiser rustled up 22 players. At St. Louis, 35 players were more than 200 pounds, four more than 300 pounds and one of those just shy of 400 pounds. At Kaiser, eight were more than 200, which is entry-level for playing on the line, especially in wide-body Hawai‘i. At the low end were players weighing 120, 125, 130, 140 …
True, the two were in different divisions. But Kaiser did open the season at defending OIA champ Mililani (insane; forfeit). Next was a forfeit to comparatively lowly Radford, followed by a 71-0 rout by Campbell. Down the road, Kaiser was facing ‘Aiea, Wai‘anae and state championship runner-up Kahuku, which had 27 players over 200 pounds—most of them well over, including two 300-pounders.
Here the dark side of the boom merges with Hawai‘i’s and the U.S.’s income inequality crisis: “It’s nobody’s fault,” says Amemiya, “but the reality is that most younger families are out on the West Side of O‘ahu.” Housing prices are driving families with school-age children away from town, and shrinking enrollments at Kaiser, Kaimukī and other town schools are reflected in shrunken football rosters. And it’s affecting private schools, too, even big ones. “In spite of Punahou’s varsity success in recent years, our numbers are down at the intermediate and JV levels,” says school president Jim Scott. “Some of that may be due to concussion issues and physical safety concerns.”
Kaiser’s principal, Justin Mew, saw that play out this year. Concerns about safety on the field finally drove him to cancel the school’s season after the Campbell game. “We were in a division where we didn’t have players to compete,” he says. “Our students were actually getting hurt. When you see concussion-type injuries, parents will say, ‘No, why should my son play this game?’ Yes, football is a violent sport, but if you’re undermanned and playing a team with 100 players, it’s dangerous.”
Says Jones, the former UH coach: “What good does it do for kids to get beat by Campbell by 70 to nothing? That’s insane. It’s a safety issue, absolutely.”
Mew wasn’t just making a snap judgment of the 2017 season. “When players get pounded, they don’t come back. We had one of our better players last year say, ‘No way, I got hurt last year.’”
But Mew faced a second threat as bad or worse than any coming beat-downs. Ugly scenes captured on video showed an act of parental aggression aimed at the head coach—apparently for refusing to fill out the ranks of the varsity squad with junior varsity players he had judged unready. The parent who allegedly escalated a shouting match with the head coach was arrested and charged, later, with two counts of second-degree assault, harassment and terroristic threatening. “It is a felony offense to go after an educator,” says Mew, “and that includes coaches, custodians and security.
“What happened at Kaiser was a form of bullying,” adds Mew, “including social media bullying. It carried over into the school itself. Parents were involved, booing their own team’s players.” One contributing factor: The school’s field was under renovation, and the team had to practice at a community park. Parents are usually banned from the sidelines of practices, but, in this case, Mew says, “It was difficult to keep the parents off, especially the parents who were escalating things.”
The warrior mentality has a definite downside. When who gets to play and who doesn’t becomes a question of who goes to college and who doesn’t—and an obsession with a child’s football future starts as early as in the womb—emotions spike and the kraken of the obsessive, even violent, sports parent is unleashed.
Kahuku shows its pride
And it doesn’t just affect the losers. Kahuku is supported and led by generous, respectful and faith-guided parents, but it also has been rocked by periodic waves of fierce emotions spilling over into public spectacles. Coaches with astonishing winning records find their jobs in jeopardy if the team loses two games in a season, or even just one; others have been reportedly removed to chill a win-at-all-costs mentality. There have been five coaches there in six years. As 2017 ended, the respected Makoa Freitas, 11-2 his first year, saw the school advertise the position despite his state finals finish—a last-second loss to St. Louis.
To the man in charge of education at Kaiser, it shouldn’t be that hard. “I saw encouraging T-shirts on the sidelines of a youth sports league after this happened,” Mew says. “The coach’s shirt read: I coach. The players’ shirts read: I play. And the parents’ shirts read: I cheer.”
With so much passion aroused by heightened expectations, a lot of it parental, the cause of the most serious long-term threat to football feels blessedly sensible, if almost ironic: parental caution.
Cases of tragic early dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy among NFL and college players have made the public far more aware of the dangers of concussions: “The trickle-down effect is happening,” says Jones. “We’re seeing fewer numbers at Pop Warner, fewer at intermediate levels. Already a lot of California schools are dropping football. In the next five to seven years we’ll see the effects at the high school and college level.”
What does it mean for the future? Amemiya sighs. “It’ll be the super squads vs. the Kaisers.” Particularly as the high-tech, impact-resistant helmets developed for the NFL and colleges make their way down to the high schools—because, at $1,500 each, only the wealthy schools will be able to afford them.
In 2017, as the HHSAA struggled to get public and private leagues to agree on divisions and brackets, the impasse sparked—and was possibly prolonged by—a secretive, unreported proposal to create a super league. The audacious plan called for the top private schools to opt out of the system entirely. They’d travel to the Mainland and play other elite teams, from Vegas’ Bishop Gorman and Bellevue High in Washington, to the Catholic powers of California and perhaps Florida’s IMG Academy, founded and run by the world’s largest talent management agency—that’s right, a Fame-style high school for jocks with ready-made sports and Hollywood connections.
Fortunately, an attack of common sense broke out. “The proposed super league concept with Mainland schools had some merit, but for Punahou the idea was not central to our educational mission,” says Scott. “Instead, I would like to work vigorously with other private and public school leaders to create and actively support a super league open division concept on O‘ahu with ILH and OIA schools.”
If that happens, says Amemiya, “A Punahou-Kahuku, Wai‘anae-St. Louis doubleheader, that would draw 50,000 at Aloha Stadium.”
And then? Who knows? With the advent of Star Wars helmets and body armor, the high school game might just blossom into something truly gladiatorial. But is that really what we want?
35 over 200 LBS
4 over 300 LBS
1 at 397 LBS
8 over 200 LBS
As of November, 34 graduating students had received college scholarship offers
Senior editor Don Wallace is the author of One Great Game: Two Teams, Two Dreams, in the First Ever National Championship High School Football Game (Atria, 2003).