LAIE, Hawaii — Take a drive around the paradise that is the North Shore and prepare to be captivated by the lush, green vegetation and ocean views that are stunningly gorgeous.
The North Shore on the Hawaiian island of Oahu is home to some of the world’s most famous surfing spots, like Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline, and it’s home to one of the Aloha State’s most popular tourist attractions, the Polynesian Cultural Center.
It’s also home to one of the nation’s top high school football programs — Kahuku High.
Jeff Call, Deseret News
Along the Kamehameha Highway that hugs the coast of the North Shore, Kahuku High Red Raider flags are abundant, an outward sign of unwavering support for a program that perennially is one of the top prep programs in Hawaii. It’s not uncommon for Kahuku to be nationally ranked.
Amazingly, Kahuku has produced 17 National Football League players since 1970, in addition to countless college players.
In 2006 and 2007, NFL rosters featured four former Kahuku players, tying Kahuku with four other high schools with the most NFL players. Those other schools — Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Blanche Ely High in Pompano Beach, Florida; Dorsey High in Los Angeles; and Long Beach Poly High in Long Beach, California — are considerably larger than Kahuku.
So how is it that a school like Kahuku that typically has a graduating class of 200 every year can produce a number of exceptional football players that belies its size?
“It’s that blue-collar mentality — the players get up and put an honest day’s work in,” said first-year Kahuku head coach Makoa Freitas. “They’re not afraid of hard work and they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. That comes from their families. When they play Pop Warner and Big Boys league, those coaches do a good job of teaching them the game. They’ve learned how to play football the right way, being physical. By the time they come to the high school, they’re ready to go. It’s not a big school but we’re blessed with some good players.”
BYU's Aaron Francisco brings down Wyoming's Ivan Harrison during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Oct. 16, 2004. | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Kahuku alumni that are playing or have played in the NFL include Manti Te’o, Al Afalava, Toniu Fonoti and Al Lototai, as well as former BYU stars Itula Mili and Aaron Francisco.
It’s little wonder that the BYU football program has recruited from Kahuku High for decades. There’s an unbreakable bond between BYU and Kahuku that transcends football. Laie (population: 6,000), about an hour’s drive away from Honolulu, is saturated in LDS culture and filled with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
BYU-Hawaii, like BYU in Provo, is owned and operated by the LDS Church and is located in Laie (pronounced lah-EE-ay). It was established in 1955 as The Church College of Hawaii. The nearby Polynesian Cultural Center opened in 1963 as a means to provide employment and scholarships for BYU-Hawaii students and preserve Polynesian heritage.
The LDS Church’s relationship with Laie goes even farther back than that. In 1919, the Laie Hawaii Temple became the first dedicated LDS temple outside the contiguous United States.
Kahuku High is situated just a few miles north of Laie, where a Mormon enclave has blossomed.
“We have a lot of our players who are members of the Church, and they want to go to a Church school and get a Church education,” said Freitas, a former University of Arizona offensive lineman who, in addition to coaching at Kahuku, works as an accountant — he’s the assistant controller at BYU-Hawaii. “BYU’s a great fit. They have a great football tradition. They’re strong academically as well. I’m grateful that the church is here. A lot of our players come from families that are service missionaries. There’s a strong relationship between our community and the church.”
“My family came (from Fiji) because of the Polynesian Cultural Center and the Church College of Hawaii,” said former BYU player and current BYU director of player personnel Jack Damuni, a Kahuku High alumnus. “That’s why that area is filled with so many Polynesians, because of the (LDS) church. People have come from different islands to go to school. They end up staying (in Laie) and raising their kids. Starting in the early ‘60s and ‘70s, there have been so many players that have ties with Kahuku and came to BYU. Those are the guys we looked up to. We wanted to be like them. They were our role models. What made it special is because of the church.
"When you go to church and play a sport and you find out that BYU is a church school, and there’s no other school you want to play for than BYU. Even those outside of the community who aren’t members that are from Hawaii love to come to BYU, too.”
Kahuku plays football at a high level and receives support at a high level — equal to some top-flight programs on the mainland in California, Florida and Texas.
“What makes Kahuku so special is the community. That is a community that is like no other because they support football 200 percent,” Damuni said. “It’s like 'Friday Night Lights.' The whole town is empty when there’s a football game. The community of Kahuku is exactly like that. The players play for their families, the school and the community.”
BYU's Lakei Heimuli pushes for extra yardage against Wyoming. | Tom Smart, Deseret News
Other former Cougars who hail from Kahuku include Robert Anae, Lakei Heimuli, Mark Atuaia and Tevita Ofahengaue. Current linebacker Johnny Tapusoa is also a Kahuku product.
“When people talk about the 'Polynesian Pipeline' that was first created here at BYU, a lot of good players came from Hawaii and Kahuku,” Damuni said.
Obviously, for a BYU program that just turned in a dismal 4-9 campaign — arguably its worst in 50 years — recruiting is a major priority.
The Cougars offered Kahuku’s star, 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior linebacker, Miki Ah You, a scholarship when he was in the ninth grade.
“He’s probably the hardest worker on our team,” Freitas said of Ah You. “He’s one of those kids that, from day one, he had leadership ability. Every play is full speed for him. He has a good motor.”
Freitas estimates that he had 15 FBS-caliber players on his 2017 roster.
While there are natural, longstanding ties between BYU and Kahuku, the Cougars’ connection to Kahuku is as strong as ever. Damuni was born and raised in Laie while Ofahengaue is BYU’s director of recruiting operations. Head coach Kalani Sitake, the first Tongan head coach at an FBS program, spent considerable time in Laie as a youngster.
The fact that BYU has a robust Polynesian influence on its coaching staff helps when it comes to recruiting Kahuku and other high schools.
“Anytime you can find some commonality with coaches and you establish a relationship with them, it’s good for the players,” Freitas said.
“We know the culture and the boys feel close to us, and we can relate to them and their lifestyles, whether they are LDS or not,” Damuni said.
Kahuku is a place that BYU, and many other schools around the nation, raid for players.
“It has depths of talent, primarily in the trenches. They grow them,” said Cougar running backs coach Reno Mahe. “Everyone knows about Kahuku. We have so many ties there because of the church. You try to tap into those ties, and hopefully you can be able to get some kids. It’s hard when everyone knows about them.”
“We have a bunch of Division I recruiters come through,” Freitas said. “A lot of Division I coaches and some I-AA and junior college coaches as well. Because of the success of our alumni, they’ve opened up the school to some national recruiting.”
A couple of weeks ago, Kahuku, ranked No. 2 in Hawaii, lost in the state championship game to top-ranked Saint Louis, 31-28. The Red Raiders’ only other loss this season came against Bingham High in Las Vegas last September.
Damuni stayed up until 4 a.m. to watch the state championship game between Kahuku and Saint Louis on his computer.
“Close to 25,000 attended that game at Aloha Stadium. Of those, I’d bet 20,000 were Kahuku fans,” Damuni said. “These are the two powerhouse football teams in Hawaii. ESPN and Fox should pick up that game. It’s an unbelievable atmosphere.”
While disappointed in the outcome, Freitas was pleased with his team’s performance in the title game.
“Our players battled back,” he said. “We were down 24-7 in the third quarter. It’s one of those losses you can learn from.”
Kahuku High finished with an 11-2 record in Freitas’ first season at the helm.
“It was a good experience. I’m lucky I had a good staff to fall back on,” Freitas said. “I think it was a success.”
BYU senior defensive lineman Handsome Tanielu, who prepped at Waianae High near Honolulu, is well-aware of Kahuku's tradition.
“My high school and Kahuku were public school rivals. We’re the kings of the West, and they’re the kings of the East,” Tanielu said. “We always played each other in the state playoffs. It’s big. Our teams just played in the semifinals. Kahuku won. They were so lucky. I was so mad.”
BYU left tackle Thomas Shoaf served in the Hawaii Honolulu Mission, and he spent most of his missionary service on Oahu.
“Red Raider football is everything on the North Shore. It’s not just a school; it’s a whole community,” he said. “I think that’s why they have a lot of success — everybody’s behind them and roots for them. As a player, I could imagine an environment where everybody’s got your back and makes you want to do your best and work extra hard to perform and show pride in Kahuku. I knew families on Molokai from Kahuku, and they were Red Raiders for life.”
Once you play for Kahuku — surrounded by the tropical splendor of the North Shore — you’re always part of the Kahuku Family.
“You’re playing with guys from different nationalities and ethnicities,” Damuni said. “You’re playing with guys from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, all the Polynesian islands plus everywhere else. They all come together like brothers, and they stick together for the rest of their lives.”