On September 3rd, minutes before kickoff against Boston College, a new tradition was unveiled as members of the BYU football team lined up on the southeast corner of the field and performed a Maori haka for tens of thousands of exhilarated fans. That moment had been planned and prepared for under a cloud of secrecy for months. Were it not for a slip of the tongue by BYU receiver and return specialist Bryce Mahuika after a practice last April, the surprise may have been complete.
During an interview with Total Blue Sports, Mahuika was asked a question about having the football team perform a haka before home football games. Coach Mendenhall’s emphasis on embracing BYU’s heritage and developing a warrior’s mentality made the Haka seem like a natural fit.
“Well, we are actually working on doing that for…” Mahuika said, stopping mid sentence. “Dang, I wasn’t supposed to say anything. Could you keep that a secret for me? I forgot we weren’t going to let this out yet.”
For the next four months nothing was said publicly, but during that period the story behind the Cougars haka became clear. To fully understand the tradition of BYU’s haka, one has to look even further back than that spring camp.
“My grandpa [Napi Mahuika] is the chief of our tribe, the Ngati Porou tribe,” Mahuika said. “My dad [Michael K. Mahuika] was the oldest son and so he was the next in line, and because the traditions of my family ran deep in the Maori culture he was the one that was taught everything. My dad grew up with his grandparents. My great-grandpa [Haumana Mahuika] was the one responsible for teaching my dad everything. My dad didn’t really speak English and in New Zealand a lot of people don’t really speak Maori, but my dad grew up speaking Maori, so he just got taught a lot about that stuff.”
Michael K. Mahuika left the island of New Zealand for Hawaii to attend the Church College of Hawaii, now named BYU-Hawaii, where he found employment at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It was there at the Maori Village that he displayed the dances of his forefathers for tourists.
“My father worked at PCC [Polynesian Cultural Center] and did a lot of the Maori dances over there, and then when his kids started growing up he made it a point to pass down that tradition to us to keep the heritage going,” said Bryce. “The haka is basically just a dance for preparation of war the Maori people would do between tribes and between anybody that would come in contact with one another that may be hostile. The intent was to let people know they were ready for war and ready to battle, and so that is basically the purpose of it.”
In early spring of this year, the Mahuika family suffered a loss that served as the inspiration behind BYU’s new pre-game tradition. On March 27th, 2005, Michael K. Mahuika passed away in Vancouver, Washington after a battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Over 1,000 people were in attendance for the funeral, including BYU running back Curtis Brown, to honor the Maori Ngati Porou chief.
“When my dad passed away, and because he was the chief and had deep roots to his culture but lived here in America for so long, we wanted to make sure that his funeral and everything that had to do with it was done in a way that he would have wanted it done,” said Bryce. “My brother [Kyle Mahuika] does a lot of [Maori] woodworking so we built his casket. We did a lot of New Zealand carvings with different things on it. It was really nice, really nice.
“We kept it as traditional as we could, and we knew he would have wanted us to do the Haka at his grave site, so right before we put him down into the ground me and my brother Kyle, who is the oldest son, led us in the Haka for my dad right there at his grave site. We did it for him and usually the Haka is not an emotional thing, but when you do it for somebody who has passed away and you know how meaningful it was to him, it becomes very emotional. My dad was crazy about the Haka, I mean crazy. He would do it at the drop of a hat. I’ve seen him do it at a gas station at midnight with his friends. He would do it anytime so I knew how important it was to him, and when he taught us he told us if we ever do it to do it for real and with the right intent.”
Following his father’s funeral, Bryce returned to Provo to join his teammates. During a team meeting in April, Coach Mendenhall asked each of his players to address the team with a personal request.
“When I had gotten back here, Coach Mendenhall asked the team, what it would take to win this year, and he wanted people to come up and tell the team what it is going to take.” said Mahuika. “I had just gotten back from my dad’s funeral, so I just wanted to go up and thank the team for all the support they gave me through the whole thing. So I went up there with that intent.”
With a heart full of gratitude for the support he received during his time of trial, Bryce Mahuika was simply going to thank the team for their support, but while addressing the team he received a flash of inspiration that would meet the requirements Coach Mendenhall gave to his players.
“When I got up there it just kind of hit me that doing the Haka would help our team out and get us ready before the games. There were times last year where I thought we kind of came out flat and not as focused as we should have been. So I brought it up because I thought it would help, and basically just told the team what it was and what the Maori people used to do it for, and I just said that I would love to lead you guys in a Haka before the game if you guys where up for it.”
Coach Mendenhall and the team accepted Mahuika’s request and war dance practices began soon thereafter.
“It makes me feel good because I know my dad was such a big fan, and honestly I wish he could have been there to have seen it, but just to know that we are doing it is a really good feeling,” Mahuika said. ”It’s in somewhat of dedication to him, at least the first one I feel was in dedication to him, but really there are a ton of purposes for doing this. For one, to bring the team together, for another in dedication to my dad, it gets us fired up before the game and it gets the crowd going it early. I think it will be a new tradition as long as I’m here and the coaches want to do it, I don’t think any of that will ever be a problem.”
An extended version of this story will appear in the November issue of Total Blue Sports magazeine. For magazine ordering information click here.