Polynesian Classic in Las Vegas mixes excellent football with celebrating heritage

Photo: Willie Ramirez

LAS VEGAS — Southern Nevada has gradually become a mecca for spectacular sporting events at every level.

In the 1970s, boxing made its mark. In the 1980s, AAU basketball arrived. In the 1990s, the Las Vegas Bowl ushered in postseason college football. And since the turn of the century, professional sports have crept into the Entertainment Capital of the World.

With the emergence of Bishop Gorman’s national powerhouse program over recent years, high school football games have become a hot commodity, with national television coverage helping to spotlight Southern Nevada as a viable hotbed for an event.

Enter the Polynesian Football Classic.

On Saturday, four of the nation’s more prestigious programs were featured in a doubleheader at Sam Boyd Stadium. The inaugural event kicked off in front of a vibrant crowd, including a rowdy and entertaining populous from Kahuku, Hawaii. Players from all four teams have Polynesian roots.

“Las Vegas was chosen to organize what we hope to be the No. 1 high school football classic in the country,” said Classic director Burt Trembly. “With the emergence of the Polynesian Hall of Fame and Polynesian Bowl, we felt this was a great opportunity to invite a lot of the school from the predominately Polynesian communities, which are mostly clustered out West. Vegas seemed like the perfect place, not only because you have a huge Polynesian community here, but also from California, Utah, even Hawaii from a direct flight.”

And while the first Classic featured two blowout wins — Nevada’s Liberty topped Alta (Utah), 28-7, and Super 25 No. 22 Bingham (Utah) dealt Kahuku its first shutout loss since 2008, 17-0 — the event was well received by fans, players, coaches and Classic staff.

“This is a great event, they did a great job of organizing this thing and we were so honored to be a part of the inaugural game that played here and hopefully down the road we’ll get a chance to come back and give it another shot,” Alta coach Alema T’eo said.

Added Liberty coach Rich Muraco: “It’s such an honor. Obviously, we have quite a few players with Polynesian heritage in our program and we’ve been successful the last few years. When they came to me and said they were going to put this event on, I felt it was perfect because we want to play national level teams and to not have to travel, to get to stay at home and do that, it’s just awesome.”

Las Vegas is long recognized as the “ninth island,” and many from the Hawaiian Islands love visiting. And with an opportunity to be a part of a tradition that embraces a culture known for its ohana (family) values, Trembly seized an opportunity he believes will “continue to grow and expand to maybe four, five, even six games.”

Four-time Super Bowl champion Jesse Sapolu, a co-founder of the Polynesian Pro Football Hall of Fame, said he remembers when there were fewer than a dozen Polynesian football players in the NFL. The number has grown to nearly 80 in the NFL and close to 1,000 in college.

Now, Sapolu feels during a time when tension between ethnicities is possibly at an all-time high, an event like this can bring cultures together, under the Polynesian umbrella.

“This is a chance for us to share that we are proud of the game that has afforded our kids a free education, and at the same time continuing to give back,” Sapolu said. “Respect is one of the most important things, and how you treat one another. With all the politics and division in our country, especially now in sports, we want to focus on teaching the kids to respect one another. At the end of the day you carry yourself with class and representing your family the way they want to be represented.”

A good example of that was revealed Saturday, when two members of the three-time defending Super 25 champion Bishop Gorman Gaels were on hand to assist as part of the Classic staff. Despite suffering losses the past two weeks, Palaie Gaoteote and Jacob Isaia felt their involvement was important.

“It’s truly a blessing, and really shows how two people from Hawaii can impact the sports world,” Isaia said. “I wanted to be with my usos (brothers) out there, and hang out with them or support them. I mean I wish I could play against them, don’t get me wrong, but at least I get to talk with them and see how they’re doing and support them.”

Gaoteote, a USC commit who is widely regarded as the No. 1 linebacker in the country, also felt the event is important to finally centralize a spotlight on Polynesians at the high school level, knowing his counterparts from around the country offer so much talent and deserve the exposure.

“From the football aspect, the Poly legacy is always been living on and always been strong,” Gaoteote said. “The football tradition, and how powerful we are when it comes to football has always been big. But at the same time we still have that ohana spirit. We don’t take things personal, we just like to play our hardest because we have our names on our back, so we just like to play to the fullest and just live up to our name.”

Even in defeat, a somber Kahuku coach Makoa Freitas was appreciative of the opportunity to be a part of the inaugural Classic, which also featured Polynesian legend and Grammy-nominated musician Fiji The Artist between games.

“It’s very special for us, we feel honored and privileged to be a part of this, especially to go against such a good team as Bingham,” Freitas said. “Whenever we go away from Hawaii, it’s always important for us to represent our home state well, and our families and our communities. We just need to turn these traveling games into W’s.”

Trembly said he plans to hold the event annually early in the season, always inviting national powerhouses with Polynesian influence.

“For us, it’s not only about recruiting, it’s about culture,” Trembly said. “We’ll eventually add an Aloha Festival as part of this so it really expands from a cultural perspective. Polynesians are about family, culture, so it’s a real important thing.”

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