That connection started when football, as we know it, wasn't even born, and the parents of Amos Alonzo Stagg were more concerned about his first tooth than they were about his becoming the acknowledged daddy of modern football.
LDS missionaries were sent to Tahiti, Hawaii and the other islands of Polynesia just a few decades after the Church was organized in 1830. Briefly discouraged, the missionaries struggled to learn the Polynesian languages sufficiently to take their message to native families. To the astonishment and delight of the “haole” (Caucasian) missionaries, many native Polynesians were almost instantly converted to “Mormonism.”
In the late 1800s a number of LDS Polynesian families left their ancestral island homes to move to Utah to perform church-related service in the Salt Lake Temple. This was a great sacrifice for those faithful Polynesians, who struggled with Utah’s harsh winters and hot, arid summers. Still, most persevered in ominously named Skull Valley (a placed they called Iosepa) for more than a decade, until they learned to their great joy that an LDS Temple would be built in Hawaii. The building was located on a scenic site in Laie, a small village on Oahu’s North Shore. In centuries past, Laie had been a “sanctuary” where Hawaiians who had broken a “kapu,” or law, would flee to avoid being put to death. The village was part of a 6,000 acre parcel of sugar cane plantation land that had been purchased by the LDS Church nearly 50 years earlier to provide a sanctuary and employment for Hawaii’s native LDS families.
Ground was broken for the LDS Temple in Laie in 1914 and it was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1919. This temple, so close and so important to Polynesia’s LDS faithful, attracted islanders to Laie from throughout the South Pacific.
Thirty-six years later, a former schoolteacher, David O. McKay, the ninth president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, approved a plan to establish a junior college campus in Laie. It was to be named The Church College of Hawaii and its primary purpose would be to provide fully accredited and Christian-centered higher education to young Latter-day Saints from all the cultures of the Pacific Islands.
The little school, staffed by a select group of educators personally interviewed by Pres. McKay, opened its doors in 1955. It later became a satellite campus of Provo’s Brigham Young University, changing its name to Brigham Young University-Hawaii Campus. Many of those first Polynesian students attending CCH/BYU-H from Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and elsewhere served missions for the Church. Those and others, when they returned to their homes throughout the Pacific, also served another missionary purpose: to convince their younger brothers and other relatives that higher education was not only important, it was also fun. And as frosting on the cake, BYU-Hawaii’s “parent” campus in Provo just happened to have a dynamite sports program.
It’s been a long time since those first Polynesian kids with arms as thick as most haoles’ thighs and hopes for great higher education experiences tried out for BYU’s football team. Not all of those kids were successful on the field, of course, and not many TOTAL BLUE SPORTS readers can remember the names of the first ones who did wear BYU blue. After all, more than 60 years have passed since the first Polynesian athlete arrived on the Provo campus, asking directions to the athletic department.
In his 29 years of coaching the Cougars, LaVell Edwards and his staff attracted some of the best LDS Polynesian athletes to strap on pads. Toward the end of the Edwards era, BYU’s football magic and mystique was lost on Polynesia’s stripling warriors and, for a time, some of the best stopped coming to Provo. It’s hard to determine what caused this, but the Cougars have experienced a recruiting revival of sorts which is reopening the Polynesian-to-Provo pipeline of promising young student athletes.
It is known that the Cougars’ first Polynesian football players came from Hawaii, many from families which had moved to Laie from elsewhere in the Pacific to take advantage of the closeness of the Hawaii Temple. There is some controversy about who BYU’s very first Polynesian football player was, but there is no doubt about one characteristic that is universally mentioned about most former and present Polynesian athletes. “They are the kindest, humblest and most loyal friends you can find, but don’t get them really mad.”
Apparently, Coach Edwards was capable of getting many Polynesians to translate that anger into mayhem on the other side of the scrimmage line. Numerous sportswriters became fascinated by the Cougars’ affinity for those rock-hard linemen with lots of vowels in their surnames. In 1987, Coach Edwards told Provo Daily Herald reporter Dorothy Knoell the Polynesian “culture is very compatible to football. They like physical games, and they are often big and quick, and intense."
The phrase “big, quick, and intense” may remind older Cougar gridiron fans of the formidable Famika Anae. Raised in Laie, Anae was the son of Polynesian pioneers who came to Hawaii from Samoa to be near the Hawaii Temple. He arrived at BYU long before Edwards took over the reins as BYU's head coach, playing in the 1954-55 seasons. Although Anae passed away years ago, records indicate he was one of early Polynesians to play football at BYU. He returned to Laie and later became one of the first head football coaches at Kahuku High School, just up Kamehameha Highway from Laie.
Kahuku High has since become a virtual incubator for many outstanding college and pro Polynesian players. Famika’s sons Robert, Alan and Brad followed in their father’s footsteps to BYU years later and in 1984, his final year, Robert became a part of BYU sports history when he played on BYU’s National Championship team. This season, the Anae dynasty continues: Famika’s grandson, Bristol Olomua, returned to BYU from a successful LDS mission, but transferred to Texas Tech for personal reasons.
Two years after Famika Anae hung up his cleats and Cougar uniform, John Kapele joined the team from 1957 to 1959, playing under coach Hal Kopp. Big, affable John passed his considerable athletic genes on to his son, John, Jr., who could hardly wait to grow up and don the Cougar blues – continuing another family line and becoming part of the BYU Polynesian pipeline.
Current sophomore defensive tackle Manaia Brown confirms the LDS Church and father and son affiliation with BYU. “For me,” says Manaia, “I chose BYU (after transferring from the University of Nebraska for family reasons) because my dad wanted me to go to there all along because of the Church.”
And while faithful LDS parents certainly help steer promising athletes (Polynesian and otherwise) toward the Y, it was the largely forgotten efforts by one BYU coach, Chris Apostol, which institutionally established and organized the BYU Polynesian pipeline. Apostol was an assistant coach at BYU from 1959 to 1970. He knew there had been a few Polynesian athletes at BYU prior to his arrival, telling reporter Dorothy Knoell that, “We had Polynesians long before my time. For example, John Kapele was already here when I got here.” However, Apostol recognized and developed BYU’s strong LDS Polynesian culture as a powerful recruitment tool that most other universities couldn’t touch.
“That’s what won me over,” recalled sophomore running back Fahu Tahi. “I only took two of my five recruiting trips. BYU and Arizona were my top two choices. My first trip was to Arizona. I was supposed to go to Utah after Arizona and then the following week to BYU, then to Nebraska and then over to Washington after. I went over there to Arizona and I liked it. I loved it over there and I kind of committed over there, too.” Then, Fahu noted, “I came over to Provo and that just won me over. The environment and campus culture would help me a lot more in preparing for my mission. So I cancelled my other trips.”
Long before the University of Hawaii became affiliated with the Western Athletic Conference, recalled Apostol, UH was an independent school, and many big name football programs loved to end their season on a high note with a bonus trip to tropical Hawaii.
“Many coaches found out there were good high school Polynesian football players in Hawaii. Southern Cal had a great reputation then. They pretty much got their pick. And Michigan State, under Duffy Daugherty, began to recruit there pretty heavily in the 60s,” Apostol said.
What a powerhouse coach like Daugherty could do in the rarified atmosphere of the Big Ten, Apostol decided he could also do. He established an LDS Polynesian network of information, with Hawaii’s BYU alums and local sports fans looking for young sports talent that would also thrive on the campus culture of BYU. Apostol told reporter Dorothy Knoell, "We always had people calling about good LDS football players who wanted to come to BYU. Sometimes they were just good LDS kids, but the people would still contact us hoping to get a scholarship for the kid. Still, they helped put us on to some good players."
In the days before VHS and DVD, BYU coaches on the lookout for exceptional sports talent living in Hawaii often cranked through hours of blurry, shaky home movie film, all to look at a few partially-in-focus seconds of their youngster playing high school football. If they where lucky, they might also review better-quality 8mm game film sent to them from Hawaii high school coaches or the potential recruit’s family. The Polynesian information network worked better and better as the years went by. It wouldn’t be long before BYU’s recruitment phone calls would have the same effect on Hawaii’s young LDS athletes as ancient Hawaii’s war drums once had, calling Polynesian warriors to battle.
Apostol’s coaching career lasted 11 years, followed by an additional three years on the staff as a part-time recruiter with Hawaii being his specific assignment. He left BYU’s coaching staff in 1973, with the pipeline secure and operating. His Hawaiian successor, Norm Chow, would keep the pipeline open. Chow was born and raised in Hawaii, so he knew the territory well. He attended Punahou High School and coached for three years at Waialua High before joining LaVell Edwards’ staff in 1973 as a graduate assistant. Two years later, he was hired as a full time coach, starting a standout campus coaching career that would span 25 years, from 1975 to 1999.
During his tenure as BYU’s maintenance man of the Polynesian Pipeline, Chow attracted to BYU high quality athletes including Pili Saluone (1970-71), Charles Ah You (1973-74, Keith Uperesa (1974-77), Pisa Finai (1975), Marcus Kanahele (1975-76), Pulusila Filiaga (1979-81), and Allen Salanoa (1982).
Even Arizona State football All-American and Hall of Fame star Junior Ah You, a Kahuku High alumnus, encouraged his sons Kingsley and Harland Ah You to play for BYU during the Edwards-Chow era. That may have also contributed to his brother’s (Sale) sons, C.J. and Matt Ah You, electing to sign and play for the Cougars when they had other Division I scholarship opportunities.
The rapid population growth of LDS membership in Tonga, Samoa and the Hawaiian Islands during this period was a boon to BYU’s sports recruitment efforts. Quality LDS youth programs in distant Polynesia, aided by Church schools and educational programs throughout the region, helped positively influence Polynesian people, LDS and non-LDS alike.
Southern Utah University graduate assistant/offensive line coach Sam Lutui explains, “In Tonga, LDS Church membership is high. It’s easy for a youngster to grow up in that culture and see what the Church has done in the Islands, where everybody in the Islands, whether Mormon or not, has benefited. I know a lot of kids growing up that weren’t Church members who got involved with the Church’s Boy Scouts. The Church also was the only one that had youth programs such as basketball and after-school activities. I got involved with that and I wasn’t a member of the Church at that time.”
From the island of Manua, American Samoa, current BYU defensive end Shaun Nua added: “I’m not LDS, but it’s not hard for me. Back home, there’s a lot of LDS people and so most of my friends, not all of them, but most of them are LDS. BYU’s culture is the LDS Church and where I’m from there are mostly LDS people. Also there’s a lot of Polynesians here and that makes it much easier. In my high school senior year, I heard about BYU, but not a lot. I heard about the LDS Church more than BYU. But when I got to Arizona (junior college), that’s when BYU came in. Hearing about BYU being an LDS school and thinking, “That’s where all my friends went. Let’s go check out where all my friends went to back home.”
Years earlier, Chow persuaded Kurt Gouveia to attend BYU. Gouveia, also non-LDS, was not even recruited by Hawaii, but earned All-WAC honors in Provo and later played for the Washington Redskins (1983-85). The list of others from Hawaii who joined the Cougars during the Chow years in the 80s is long and incomplete. We mention those we know of at the risk of missing many: Louis Wong (1982-84), Robert Anae (1982-84), Lakei Heimuli (1983-1986), Ladd Akeo (1984-86), Andy Kato (1984-1987), Steve Kaufusi (1983-86), Thor Salanoa (1985-87), Chris Bisho (1986-1987), Alema Harrington (1986-88), Tau Harrington (1988-1990), and Sim Tiatia (1988-90).
BYU’s roster of mainland-based Polynesian athletes also included Tom Tuipulotu from San Mateo, California, David Apuiu from Carson, California, and Vai Sikahema from Mesa, Arizona.
The Polynesian pipeline extended to American Samoa where Alema Fitisemanu (1985-90), Spencer Reid (1994-97) and Gabriel Reid (1999-02) were recruited directly from there.
Here is a list of other Polynesians who excelled on the gridiron field for the Cougars in the 60s: John Kawaa (1962-1963); John Lupoi (1967-1969) Henry Nawahine (1964-1965).
70s: Mekeli Ieremia (1974-1977); Wally Molifua (1972-1973); Pili Saluone (1970-1971).
80s: Wayne Faaluafua (1981-1982); Fotu Katoa (1989) Rich Kaufusi (1989-90); Chris Matau (1985-1986); Micah Matsuzaki (1989-1993); Phil Nauahi (1987-1988)
90s: Donny Atuia (1996-1999); Mark Atuia (1991-1996); Justin Ena (1997-2001); Elias Faupula (1994-1995); Setema Gali Jr. (1997-2000); Fred Katoa (1990); K.O. Kealaluhi (1995-1996); Tevita Liava'a (1997); Issiah Magalei (1996-1998); Shane Magalei (1996-1999); Reno Mahe (1998-2002); Itula Mili (19991-1996); John Moala (1996-1997); John Moeaki (1994); Stan Moleni (1998); Kelepi Ofahengaue (1996); Tevita Ofahengaue (1997-2000); Vaha Ongoongotau (1994-1995); John Raass (1994-1995); Stan Raass (1994-1995); Terence Saluone (1992-1993); Kapi Sikahema (1991); Kalani Sitaki (1994-2000); Casey Tiumalu (1982-1983); Mike Ulufale (1994-1995); Morris Unutoa (1989-1995).
Now the LDS pipeline has effectively nosed into Polynesian communities across the U.S. mainland. Current head coach Gary Crowton made a strategic and brilliant tactical move when he hired former Cougar standout Steve Kaufusi away from the University of Utah, where he had been an assistant coach for eight years.
BYU’s successful recruitment of the country’s No. 1 offensive guard this year in Ofa Mohetau from Euless, Texas, sent a powerful message everywhere that BYU has indeed restored its temporarily weakened Polynesian pipeline of top LDS recruits, starting again with BYU’s 2002 defensive MVP Aaron Francisco, yet another Kahuku High alumnus in a long line of Polynesian gridiron stars from that school. With Mohetau, Brian Soi, Manaia Brown, Mulivai Pula and RJ Willing, the Gary Crowton-led Cougars are back in the game for the top LDS Polynesian recruits anywhere in the country.
Despite the large number of Polynesians on the team, there were two players that catapulted BYU’s image into the forefront of Polynesian stardom: running backs Vai Sikahema and Lakei Heimuli.
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