War Party

Where the Warriors play, the Road Warriors follow
Story by Larry Lieberman. Photos by PF Bentley.

On a cloudless Saturday morning, hundreds of people gather under a huge party tent in a sprawling parking lot. There’s Hawaiian music playing and a catered buffet serving favorite local tailgating staples: chili and rice, hot dogs, teriyaki burgers and plenty of fresh-cut pineapple.

It’s a pregame rally for the University of Hawai‘i Rainbow Warriors football team, and their fans have come out in droves. Men and women, young and old, all of them passionate about their home team Warriors. They’ve adorned themselves with every iteration of UH logo wear and Warrior fan accessories imaginable, sporting rainforest green UH-themed shirts, hats, dresses, necklaces, earrings, bead lei. But there’s a twist: This ocean of green is in the parking lot next to the California Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The Warriors are in town to play against UNLV, and the war party has followed them.

This party got started in Honolulu, even before boarding the flight to Vegas, as the football team waited at the airport gate, mixing it up with family, fans and the general public. The players were jovial, good-natured, some of them slighter than their padded uniforms make them appear on field, others massive mountains of men. Most of them still just kids, really, laughing, joking or lost in thought contemplating the big game ahead. All of them eager to meet their opponents on a field of battle thousands of miles away, and none of them without a friend, family member, coach or fan beyond an arm’s length.

The “Road Warriors”—a band of University of Hawai‘i football fans who show up in force at away games—cheer for the Warriors against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Rebels. On the opening spread, Road Warriors get into the spirit during a pregame party at the California Hotel & Casino.

“It’s definitely nice to have this much support, especially considering it’s tough on us to travel so far for the away games,” one of the players says. It’s clear they appreciate the fans who travel to see the Warriors—turning Mainland games into tailgating parties. “It’s great,” another player says. “Other teams just don’t have this kind of support.”

“We love the excitement of being in the stands, outnumbered, rooting for the team,” says a spry older gentleman getting ready to board the flight. He’s tiny—two or three of him could likely fit into the frame of one of the team’s linemen—but he has a loud voice and plans to use it at the game. “We go so far, traveling thousands of miles and through different time zones just to be there. Sure, it’s more expensive to see a game on the Mainland, but I just like to follow the Warriors.”

While the plane taxis for takeoff, video screens play a music video by Hawaiian entertainer Henry Kapono. “Home in the Islands, I’m home in the Islands,” he sings, and some of the players begin singing along in their seats. There’s a buzz on board, a feeling that it’s not just a plane ride, it’s a warm-up exercise in team spirit. Even random travelers on the same flight find themselves rooting for the Warriors, including Mainland-bound tourists along for the ride.

Enough Hawai‘i fans attend away games in Las Vegas that a UH concession shop has been set up at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium.

It’s true that the University of Hawai‘i’s football team has to travel farther for their “away” games than any other Division One school in the country. What’s also unusual is the number of fans who trail them, along with the number of local and regional residents with Hawai‘i connections who come out of the woodwork wherever the team shows up. “We call them the Road Warriors,” says Kurt Osaki, co-creator of the UH Warrior logo and one of the founders of the program that brings aloha to town when the Warriors come out to play. “The whole idea is to connect with the community wherever the team plays on the Mainland because one thing that’s unique about Hawai‘i is that no matter where you go in the United States, you find Hawai‘i people there.”

Osaki is a creative force with an out-going personality and down-to-earth style. Originally from Kaua‘i, he moved to the Mainland and set up a graphic design shop in San Francisco in the 1990s after graduating from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. It wasn’t long before he discovered there was a large community in the area with links to Hawai‘i. Some had moved from the Islands, others had family in Hawai‘i and some were frequent visitors. Along with friends Eric Tao and Rodney Park, Osaki co-created the Hawai‘i Chamber of Commerce of Northern California. The intent was to support the Island trans-plant community while also promoting Mainland businesses with Hawai‘i ties. In 2001 Osaki got a call from UH Auxiliary Enterprises. “I’ve got to credit this to two people at the university,” Osaki says. “It was Wayne Fujishige and Brian Pactol. They wanted to do something that would build up the fan base and support the team at away games. I said, ‘Let’s do a ‘Road Warrior’ thing, where every city they go to, we can connect with the Hawai‘i community.’” There was a game coming up at San Jose State, and UH asked Osaki to organize a tailgate party in one month. Osaki thought the schedule sounded impossible, but he went for it. “I said, ‘Sure, we can do it! One-hundred percent!’”

A sea of green: No one fills UNLV’s visiting bleachers quite like UH fans. “There’s such great support when we play Las Vegas,” says former UH coach Bob Wagner. “It’s a special venue and special place to play. It can be almost like a home game.”

Osaki scrambled and pulled together an event that set a high bar for future efforts. He brought in Hawai‘i-born NFL stars Jesse Sapolu and Gary Allen, enlisted the help of the local Hawai‘i expat community in Northern California and got the word out about the first-ever Road Warrior event. “We had Hawai‘i people, we brought the food, the music,” Osaki recalls. “We got the whole thing organized in a month, and everything just came together. It was something special, like Woodstock.”

Osaki estimates about 75 percent of the Road Warriors at the first event in 2001 were Mainland people with Hawai‘i ties. The program has been growing ever since, and now it’s common for more than 40 percent of the UH fans attending away games to make the trip from the Islands. Since the Warriors play in the NCAA Mountain West Conference, most games are in Western states, which are relatively easy for Hawai‘i-based fans to reach, and there are vibrant pockets of Hawai‘i-linked residents living in just about every host city. There’s typically a huge Hawai‘i crowd at games in San Diego and San Jose, and an active contingent of Road Warriors who come out to some of the farthest destinations (like New Mexico and Wyoming). While football is usually the big draw, many show up to support other sports, including baseball, basketball, volleyball and even swimming. But the biggest tailgating party of them all happens every other year, when the Warriors confront the UNLV Rebels.

Thousands of UH fans—including both Hawai‘i residents and transplants to Hawai‘i’s “ninth island,” as Las Vegas is called—converge on Sam Boyd Stadium every other year to root for the Warriors and reunite with family and friends.

It’s no coincidence that the UH-UNLV game brings out the largest contingent of Road Warriors. It’s estimated that close to one hundred thousand Hawai‘i transplants live in and around Las Vegas, the town often called the “ninth island” because of the size of its Hawai‘i community and reputation as a year-round getaway destination for Islanders. The capital of the ninth island is undoubtedly “the Cal,” the California Hotel & Casino, which has been marketing almost exclusively to Hawai‘i residents for more than forty years. Sam Boyd, a Las Vegas icon, managed casinos on gambling ships out of Hilo in the 1950s. Boyd’s son Bill grew up there. Years later, after returning to Vegas to start his own casino empire, the senior Boyd convinced his son to come join the family business. When a marketing concept was needed for the then-new California Hotel & Casino in 1975, Bill Boyd encouraged visitors from Hawai‘i to stay at the Cal. Their slogan is“Aloha spoken here,” and it’s literal. Many of the hotel staff are from Hawai‘i, and most of the guests are, too. So when the University of Hawai‘i comes to play at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, it’s kind of a big deal—especially at the Cal.

“We put on all the games,” says David Lebby, retired general manager of the Cal. “UH football games, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball—we put it all on the TVs downstairs, and at 8 on a Saturday night when UH is playing, our sports book downstairs will be packed and everybody’s just screaming and loving it.”

Just before the game, Road Warriors fill the party tent in a parking lot in downtown Las Vegas.

With game time approaching, the tailgating parties are in full swing. Under the tents at the Cal and in the parking lot of the stadium, UH fans gather in large, green groups. Often multiple generations and extended families gather, giving the festivities a backyard reunion vibe. Families separated by the Pacific are brought back together, and whether they win or lose, the UH Warriors deliver joy to their fans just by coming to town.

As the pregame party at the Cal winds down, what seems an endless stream of Hawai‘i families and friends boards bus after bus bound for Sam Boyd stadium. Grandparents hold grandchildren they see only when visiting; aunts and uncles laugh with their nieces and nephews. Siblings whose lives led them to different parts of the country meet again, even if only for an all-too-brief weekend.

In the stadium lot the smell of chicken teriyaki wafts from hibachi grills. Plenty of red-shirted Rebels fans mill among the Hawai‘i state flags and green UH logos, but once in the bleachers, the fans separate to their color-coded opposing sides. The Rebels aren’t used to seeing many spectators in the visiting team’s bleachers, but it’s a different story when UH is in town. “I’ve seen times we’ve had five or ten thousand fans come when we played Vegas,” says Bob Wagner, the retired UH head football coach who led the team for nineteen years. “It can be almost like a home game. And it helps to have the sup-port, because otherwise it would be like, ‘It’s us against the world,’ and all we have is ourselves.” On this early November day, there are almost as many Warriors as Rebels fans in the stands.

The Road Warrior program started in 2001 when Kurt Osaki helped organize a tailgating party for UH fans at an away game against San Jose State. Now it’s become an annual party pilgrimage for dedicated UH supporters all over the country.

With my all-access press pass, I take in the game from every vantage. From the sidelines the intensity of the contest is palpable, the players striving to play their best. From the stadium’s club levels, VIPs lounge in private suites, where some of the Road Warriors meet up with business colleagues and old friends in literally high places. From the press box, a bevy of announcers broadcasts the game to radio and TV audiences in Vegas and Hawai‘i. Road Warriors aren’t the only ones who travel to see the team—in the stadium’s media center I find Robert Kekaula, one of Hawai‘i’s most recognizable newscasters, delivering live televised updates for viewers
back home.

Out in the stands, on both sides of the stadium, I discover pockets of red and green commingling; this is what happens when Hawai‘i students go off to college at UNLV and then have a hard time deciding whom to root for. Some parents from Hawai‘i wince as their kids attending UNLV cheer for the Rebels, and some Hawai‘i-based UNLV students switch from red to green just to join their families for this one game. In the end UNLV defeats UH 31–23, but it hardly seems to matter: All the fans win.

After the game the party keeps going. Throughout the Strip and downtown Vegas, Road Warriors can be found at restaurants, in clubs and, of course, trying their luck at the casinos, which is where I find Kekaula late that night: playing Texas Hold’em at the Golden Nugget. Grinning, he pulls in a giant pot—and some of those chips were mine. “Can’t beat this experience,” Kekaula says. “So many Hawai‘i people love coming to Vegas anyway, and if you can combine it with seeing the Warriors play, well, why wouldn’t you?” I’m fairly sure he wasn’t bluffing. HH