The Red Raider Experience

Kahuku Red Raiders fans cheering in the stands ANTHONY CONSILLIO PHOTO

Kahuku Red Raiders fans cheering in the stands

I wouldn’t call it a quest needing to be filled before some fateful date, but until Oct. 17 I had never been to a Kahuku football game in Kahuku. Somehow, this just seems like a mistake for any area sports fan.

No community, legend has it, is more committed or more connected to its school than this rural North Shore town.

So, on that rainy date, I made the nearly six-hour commitment to brave the choking traffic, the game, interviews and drivers, who self-regulate posted speed limits by driving 10 mph below them, to discuss something most already know: High school football at Kahuku is simply a great experience.

It’s the closest thing we have to Friday Night Lights — minus the manic coach and the dangerous obsession. One approaches that stadium with the lights leading the way. That image of light towers as beacons is well-seared into our memories from a collection of mostly bad movies, in which a high school football team overcomes some sort of adversity to triumph in the final minutes against a supposedly superior opponent. That rarely happens at Kahuku. Red Raiders are rarely the under-dog.

The buzz around the game is noticeable as you approach the school. Fans and families stretching back generations walk along Kamehameha Highway, onto campus and into the battered but beloved stadium. Once inside, you can’t help notice the aromas coming from Tita’s Grill and the impressive collection of T-shirts, jerseys and other red wear offered. Among the screaming teens (that’s the girls, the guys hang out trying to look cool) and children running barefoot — their shoes and slippers discarded for the simple joy of getting dirty — are the side-by-side competing food fundraisers for both the boys and girls basketball teams.

The turnout against Kapolei is good but not typically as large, with the game being broadcast on OC-16. No matter, the crowd is big and boisterous for both sides. Each teams begin with the singing of their respective alma maters. Being at home, Kahuku fans are louder and more numerous. Backed by a sea of red and surrounded by U.S., Hawaii and Kahuku flags that snap in the brisk wind, it’s an impressive sight. The adopted Tomahawk chop would be the envy of any Atlanta Braves fan.

Kahuku won a low-scoring and sloppy contest that neither coaching staff likely was happy with. But that didn’t really matter. Even at Kahuku, the joy is in the competition. Unless they lose.

While nearly the entire side-lines were clad in enthusiastic red, perhaps no one was more emblematic of Kahuku pride than 4-year-old Olu Maiava.

Dressed in his Halloween outfit (a red football jersey with padded shoulders and a soft foam helmet) Olu acted out nearly every play that occurred on the field. In fact, watching the game was secondary because, in his mind, Kahuku was winning and he was its next great star.

“He loves Kahuku,” says father Gerald Maiava, a Kahuku graduate who also braved the traffic with Olu and wife Whitney from their home in Honolulu. “The whole family is from this side, so he has always been around it. It’s already in his blood.”

Even more than football, says Maiava, the school is the community centerpiece.

“This program means a lot to this community,” he adds. “It gives us a sense of pride. It’s inherited. Everyone knows it, everyone does it, everyone feels it.”

First-year coach Lee Leslie has experienced this commitment first hand.

Having no other connection to the school than the on-field battles against Siuaki Livai and the Kahuku players he brought to University of Utah camps, Leslie applied for the job because of the former players he met.

“There is so much pride here, and this Red Raiders for life stuff is real. They love this school,” says Leslie, whose eyes moisten and voice cracks when talking about his players.

“It’s a great place. It really is about the community. It’s the passion of these people here and I love them for it.”

Red Raider for life? No doubt.

The school recently finished putting the names of all its

First Team All State players going back to the 1940s in the locker room. That’s 247 in all.