Story by Ronald Williams, Jr.
Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams
It’s a tough day for practice. Even with the usual tradewinds that breeze across this campus high in Palolo Valley, it’s hot. The sparse patches of green on a field trampled by heavy feet seem to long for rain. Jerseys hang limply from shoulder pads, sticking to sweaty stomachs and backs. Players keep glancing at the oversize Gatorade thermos that’s a fixture at any football practice. Looking out across this field, it seems it could be an early fall afternoon on any high school athletic field in the country, from Tacoma to Topeka … until you listen.
“Lima! Lima!” someone in the defensive backfield shouts, and players shift into nickel coverage. Without missing a beat, the quarterback audibles, “‘Aina! ‘Aina!” and follows with a rhythmic “Ha, he, hu!” At “hu!” the center snaps the ball. The quarterback hands it off, and the play sweeps to the outside. A linebacker yells, “Hema! Hema!” and the defense swings left in pursuit.
They’re obviously not in Kansas. This group of young men and coaches is Na Koa (The Warriors), the hui popeku (football team) of Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘O Anuenue (The Immersion School of Anuenue), and they’re conducting football practice in the native tongue of these Islands, a language that only a few decades ago had nearly gone extinct.