In 2010, the Kahuku community was hurting.

Back then, the town’s beloved high school football team had its season come to an abrupt end after it was discovered an ineligible player was used. The 2010 Kahuku Red Raiders, who were cruising through an undefeated season, were disqualified prior the OIA championship game.

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For many on Oahu’s North Shore, football is a way of life. And for some, the pain of not being able to finish the 2010 campaign was too much to bear. In the weeks that followed, linebacker Keoni “DeeDee” Tafuna died by suicide. Less than a month later, William “Willy Boy” Kealoha-Pastor, a disabled student who served as the team’s water boy, took his own life as well.

“It was a pretty emotional time when it happened,” recalled Reggie Torres, the team’s head coach at the time. “When we got the word (of the deaths), it was tough. It was emotional. It was sad.”

Saint Louis, led by future Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, went on to win the 2010 HHSAA championship. The Red Raiders, who were 10-0 at the time of their disqualification, handily defeated Mariota and the Crusaders 49-27 earlier in the season.

By the time the 2011 season rolled around, the Red Raiders were poised to finish what the 2010 team couldn’t. But it wasn’t just about football anymore. Kahuku, which already had strong community backing in Laie and beyond, needed to unite to an even tighter degree to make sure that no season would ever end like the one before.

Seamus Fitzgerald had lived on and off between his native New Zealand and the Kahuku community since the mid-1990s with his wife, Jelaire, a Kahuku alumna. Fitzgerald, a proud Maori man, was a special instructor at BYU-Hawaii at the time as well as a Polynesian Cultural Center manager and cultural specialist. He did not appreciate when football teams across the United States performed various haka that weren’t intended for them, a practice that still exists to this day. But prior to 2011, Kahuku was also one of those teams.

In the 2000s, the Red Raiders performed multiple haka originally from New Zealand including the “Tika Tonu” haka, which was taken straight from Fitzgerald’s tribe. Fitzgerald had been asked multiple times over the years to talk to the team about the art of the haka and to teach it to them. Prior to the 2011 season, he was asked to write one for the team.

In a matter of days, Fitzgerald had written and choreographed “Kaipahua Kura,” a haka made specifically for the Kahuku football and rugby teams, which translates in English to “We are the Red Raiders.” Ten years later, Kahuku is still believed to be the only football team in America to have a fully original haka.

“I was basically describing what was going on in our community at the time and how I see the program and how I see the boys and what they had just come through,” Fitzgerald recalled. “The 2010 season…that all was on my mind as well. Honestly, it came quite easy.

“I was at home trying to think of motions to use and my son (Kawika) came in from football practice and they had tackle practice. I had coached rugby and said, ‘How did they teach tackle?’ He showed me the movement of two hands pumping, coming up. So that’s in the haka. That’s an action that I put in the haka, because at the moment that’s what everyone was talking about — tackling. Not only tackling the opposition but tackling struggles, challenges, trials that you go through, and tackle them.”

Though not as dominant as the 2010 edition, the 2011 Kahuku football team accomplished what it set out to do. On Nov. 25, 2011, the Red Raiders performed a spirited rendition of Kaipahua Kura in the locker room before proceeding to top Punahou 30-24 in the state title game.

“Coming in, day in and day out, putting our hard work into this was the big thing with our team,” said 2011 Honolulu Star-Advertiser Defensive Player of the Year and former Hawaii linebacker Benetton “Benny” Fonua a decade later. “Also, just being together and finding that chemistry with each other, too. All in all, it comes down to each and every one of us and the loyalty, strength and the will to just keep playing and keep pushing for it no matter what obstacles came our way. I really feel like this team that I played with really respected the work and the grind, and coming together was the biggest thing of all.”

“The thing about that team, we were close. It was more of a family type of team,” added Torres, who is now the co-athletic director at Kamehameha. “We had experienced a lot of trauma. We lost two kids to suicide and we were battling because other kids were attempting. It was tough for our kids in our community and their families. It also brought us closer as a team. The kids bonded and it really helped us because we had to pull through it together. Tough to do it alone.

“We needed each other to pull through that, those tragic moments. Football helped. It gave them something to do. We reset our goals and it wasn’t just about winning a championship. It was who were trying to win it for. Not just our fallen comrades, but at the same time, for our family, our friends, our community, our school. Basically, trying to bring some positiveness to the community because the tragedy, it’s still there. We still miss DeeDee and Willy Boy.”

The Red Raiders found redemption in 2011 by winning the state title. But in Kaipahua Kura, they also found distinctiveness.

“We take a lot of pride in it. We see other schools do hakas but we really don’t pay any mind,” Fonua said. “We know in our heart that this haka was written for us. We knew that being grounded in it and holding still to it that we can do anything. I think, really, that was kind of our identity.”

Since 2011, practicing Kaipahua Kura has been a must for Kahuku during its annual preseason camp, better known as “Hell Week” within the program. During those crucial days, the haka becomes engrained in each player through the constant drilling of it. What good is an original haka if it isn’t performed the way it was originally intended?

Over time, Kaipahua Kura became a rallying cry in the community and has been performed at funerals, graduations, and of course, before and after football games.

In 2015, Kahuku performed Kaipahua Kura during the coin toss of the HHSAA title game against Saint Louis, earning a 15-yard penalty. It mattered little, as the Red Raiders walloped the Crusaders and their star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, 39-14. The following year, the Red Raiders were effectively banned from performing the haka on the field. So instead, the entire Kahuku cheering section, which consisted of over 10,000 fans, performed Kaipahua Kura and were led by Fitzgerald in doing so. Saint Louis, however, ended up winning that matchup, 30-14, in a day that still lives on in island football lore.

Kaipahua Kura itself has also evolved over time. In the first handful of years, the Red Raiders performed a simplified version of what Fitzgerald wrote, as he thought the full version was too intricate for the team initially. After the Kahuku rugby team performed Fitzgerald’s full haka, which consists of a full introduction and makes the haka about a third longer in duration, the football team followed suit and has performed the complete version of Kaipahua Kura publicly since 2017.

“The full intro is very important because it speaks a lot about what I was originally thinking of,” Fitzgerald said. “How do you describe these boys?

“It’s humbling. You wonder what happens to your compositions. I’ve chuted Maori performing arts for a number of years and I’ve written other haka of course and action songs and poi and I’ve taught groups that have competed. Some of those songs, they resurrect from time to time. I don’t have anything I’ve written that’s constantly being used other than the Kahuku Kaipahua Kura haka.”

As much as Fitzgerald appreciates the warm reception he has received for writing Kaipahua Kura, he also considers it a burden.

There are times where Fitzgerald believes Kaipahua Kura opened a can of worms. Some from New Zealand have written to him to tell him he shouldn’t have composed it. Other times, he believes the haka is not performed to its standards.

Fitzgerald also says on occasion, he comes across common misconceptions of haka.

“There’s a lot of different types of haka, I could probably name a dozen. This is a haka taparahi, which isn’t necessarily a war dance. People say, ‘Oh, haka is a war dance.’ They’re not. You’ll know if it’s a war dance because they’ll have weapons in their hands,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s all these different types of haka that are used with weapons. This one, there’s bare hands. Nothing in your hands. Those haka were used to recount history. They’re used in training as well. The beginning of the haka, really, is recounting how I see them and hopefully to inspire and encourage them to go out and be good fathers one day, to carry on the legacy but also be good people in the community, so that’s how that all came about.”

Fitzgerald says the BYU’s men’s rugby team once had a haka written specifically for the squad, but when the coach who wrote the haka left the team, he took the haka with him. Fitzgerald, who relocated with his family to Utah earlier this year, said he considered doing the same for Kaipahua Kura.

Due in part to the pandemic, there wasn’t an opportunity for the team to practice Kaipahua Kura as intensely in 2020 as it had in past years. Fitzgerald says it showed.

“This year, the coaches brought me back in and we probably did about three sessions just trying to fix it. It’s funny now thinking about the timing of it is, ‘Wow, it’s 10 years old,’ and we did this big clean up. The boys this year do it really well. When you see it done well, actually when you see any haka done well, you just feel that mana, that power, the prestige. We call it ihi, wana, wehi, the awe, the chicken skin, when it’s done well. When it’s not done well, though, you feel the opposite,” Fitzgerald said with a laugh. “The boys this year, they’re doing it really well and got it to a good place.”

As the architect of Kaipahua Kura, Fitzgerald will continue to keep a watchful eye over his creation and make sure it’s in careful hands. The 2021 haka is led by junior linebacker Leonard Ah You, who follows in the footsteps of his brothers Zion and Miki as past leaders. Kawika Fitzgerald, a 2014 Kahuku alumnus, as well as Seamus Fitzgerald Jr., a 2019 Kahuku alum, have also led the haka during their respective playing days.

“Knowing that my older brother led it a couple years ago, my brother Zion last year did it, means everything,” Leonard Ah You said. “Another generation doing it.”

“It just gives you chills,” consensus four-star linebacker Liona Lefau added. “I mean, everybody knows — even if you’re not doing it, you get chills.”

The meaning of Kaipahua Kura has certainly not been lost on this year’s team.

“When we do the haka, it’s not for ourselves as players. It’s for everybody. It’s for our Red Raider nation,” head coach Sterling Carvalho said. “It’s for everyone that knows Kahuku football and the legacy that we are carrying.”

Added junior slotback Kainoa “Kaikai” Carvalho, Sterling’s nephew: “The haka, the words behind it is like bringing your family together, never letting them go so to the community, it means a lot too because it symbolizes them as well.”

The similarities between Kahuku’s 2011 and 2021 teams are striking. Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the Red Raiders from competing for the HHSAA title. No state champions were crowned in the 2020-2021 academic year for any sport across Hawaii due to local pandemic restrictions.

This year’s Kahuku team has also had its share of grief, as three coaches and community staples in Matt Faga, Maui Kahalepuna and David Vimahi have all passed away within the past year, with Vimahi’s death coming earlier this month.  

On the field, the 2021 Kahuku football team is currently 5-0 and has throttled every single team it’s played, outscoring opponents 231-40 so far. The top-ranked Red Raiders, who close out their regular season against No. 6 Campbell on Saturday, have the look and feel of a team of destiny.

Like the 2011 team, the 2021 team has stable senior leadership while boasting a strong junior class. The Red Raiders will presumably top local preseason polls in 2022 regardless of how the current season ends. Whereas the 2011 team had standout juniors in Kawe Johnson, Aofaga Wily, Johnny “Kuj” Tapusoa and John Wa’a that led the program to another state crown in 2012, a handful of the 2021 team’s juniors in Lefau, Ah You, Brock Cravens Fonoimoana, Carvalho and Chansen Garcia have accumulated college interest far beyond that of their predecessors. There’s also a chance that Tausili Akana, a North Shore native and one of the nation’s top players, re-enters the mix in 2022 to form what could be one of the state’s all-time great teams.

“I’m pretty sure it would mean a lot for a lot of schools if they bring that state championship back to their hometown. But for us, on the Kahuku North Shore, we would take big pride in it,” Fonua, one of the senior leaders of the 2011 team, says of watching the current squad. “Because at the end of the day, we came in and we worked hard for it, especially for the community as well. The community is like our family. We treat it as if we’re playing for our family on the field, and I think that’s what brings out our family and everything we do on the field.”

It wasn’t long ago that the current Saint Louis dynasty looked immortal. Since the introduction of the HHSAA Open Division in 2016, the Crusaders have won four straight state titles, beating the Red Raiders in three of those championship games.

In 2021, the two programs look bound for another meeting in the state title game, which is set to take place on Dec. 23 at a yet to be determined location. However, both teams are highly unlikely to look that far ahead, especially the Red Raiders, who have four more games before another potential title shot.

Nobody knows for sure how and when Kahuku’s season will come to an end later this year. The only thing that is certain is what the Red Raiders will do before and after their last game. Red helmets will be scattered on the ground around them, and hearts and souls will be poured into a reminder of who they are and the legacy they’re working to uphold beyond football season. By the end of it, there will be no question who and what these young men are.

Kaipahua Kura.

Kaipahua Kura – By Seamus Fitzgerald (courtesy Seamus Fitzgerald)

I ngā ra o mua o te taenga mai          In the days before the arrival

 o tauiwi mā ko tane te kaitiaki         Of Foreigners and others, men were the

o wahine mā                           Protectors of their women

Tāku Tūranga-                       That’s still my position/my responsibility

Whakangungu rakau mō ngā tamariki          Men took up arms to defend children

Tāku Tūranga!                        That’s still my position/my responsibility

Tama Toa tu Parekura                       Warriors would stand to fight to protect

Tāku Tūranga!                         That’s still my position/my responsibility

Tomo Pa o Whakaariki                       They’d storm fortifications of adversaries

Tāku Tūranga!                         That’s still my position/my responsibility

Ko mātou te Ope Toa Taitama          We are the stripling warriors

A Kura Kahuku                                    Of Kahuku High School

Kei te Papa Pakanga              And this is our battle field

He iwi kotahi                          We are unified we are one
Mō ngā iwi Whanui                            For our families and community
Tāngata kairakau                               We will stand as warriors (for them)
Tāngata Maia             We will stand brave
Tāngata Wehi kore                 And we will never retreat, there will be no surrender
Kaua ka mate wheke We won’t die like octopus (retreating from danger)
Ka Mate Ururoa! Kaipāhua!
But we will fight with courage like hammerhead sharks, like the Raiders of the past

Ruturutu – Hi              We will tackle hard
Makamaka – Ha                     We will play as a unified force
Ruturutu – Hi              Tackling hard
Makamaka – Ha                     We will play as a team

Ko Wai Mātou? Kaipāhua Kura HI
You may wonder who are we? We are the Red Raiders (we continue the legacy)