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Diverse team in a diverse city

POSTED: January 10, 2008 5:03 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS — They stroll proudly along Bourbon Street, managing to stand out in a city where just about anyone can blend in.

Like fish out of water — or, in this case, a football team away from its island — they know people tend to stare and point fingers when they see giant men with hair flowing halfway down their backs, colorful sarongs wrapped around their waists, exotic tattoos adorning their arms.

No problem for unbeaten Hawaii.

Team Diversity is perfectly comfortable in its own skin.

"That’s something that’s part of us. Growing up, that’s our culture," said Michael Lafaele, a defensive lineman for the Warriors. "We just want to share it with everybody else."

Not surprisingly, given that Hawaii sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, some 2,400 miles from its closest opponent, the Warriors are a potpourri of cultures and traditions, somehow meshing together to form one heck of a football team.

Many of them are natives, growing up on islands with idyllic names such as Oahu and Kauai. Even more come from the mainland, adventurous sorts lured to paradise from big cities and small towns, from one coast (close-as-you-can-get California) to the other (Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland are all represented).

But the Warriors don’t just look east at recruiting time. Three starting linemen hail from American Samoa, which has probably never been on anyone else’s recruiting radar. The roster even includes a redshirt freshman from Australia.

It will all be on display Tuesday night, when the Warriors (12-0) meet traditional powerhouse Georgia (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl.

"We’re probably the most diverse team you’ll ever see," said offensive lineman Hercules Satele, who’s from Long Beach, Calif. "When you see us on Tuesday, you’ll see hair coming out from under our helmets, every sort of tattoo you’ll ever see, all different shapes and sizes on the football field.

"It’s very different for everybody else, but for us, it’s just natural. We don’t look at each other and say like, ‘Oh, you’re from a different place.’ We just treat each other the same."

Junior linebacker Solomon Elimimian, the team’s leading tackler, came to Hawaii from South Central Los Angeles. He didn’t fit in right away.

"A big culture shock," he conceded. "I struggled my first year with it. I kind of wanted to go home."

But Elimimian quickly adapted after being embraced by teammates.

"Most teams have black and white. We have all different ethnicities," he said. "That’s been a strength. Right now, we don’t look at color, skin or background. We just look at it as he’s a part of us."

Polynesian is the overriding theme of the team, of course, which is why you’ll sometimes hear star quarterback Colt Brennan, another Californian, barking out signals in Samoan.

"If you have never been to Hawaii before, the first thing you realize is that the Hawaiian people have a different way about things," said Brennan, who took classes to learn the language. "It’s a culture that doesn’t care what your skin color is, what language you speak, or where you are from."

Some players take the field after using Sharpies to decorate their faces with intricate designs, a kind of war paint. Before every game, the team performs a traditional battle dance known as the ha’a, which has been known to rub opponents the wrong way.

"We’re not trying to scare them or instill any fear in them," said Lafaele, who grew up on Oahu. "It’s just a way for us to get ready for battle."

Every summer, the veterans on the team make sure the youngsters know how to perform the dance. It doesn’t matter if you’re Polynesian or not — everyone is invited to join.

"It’s just to show that we have no fear," Lafaele said. "It’s getting ready for war. It’s pretty exciting."

During a session with the media, the 302-pound lineman strolled into a hotel ballroom with his long hair tied back and a dark green lavalava wrapped around his massive waist. Similar to a sarong, his traditional Polynesian attire commemorated the school’s first outright Western Athletic Conference title.

Lafaele has enjoyed his first trip to New Orleans, another part of America that embraces its uniqueness.

"It’s a culture shock for me, and I’m pretty sure it is for the people down here to see us with our lavalavas and long hair," he said. "It’s different, totally different. It’s been a good experience for me."

Out on the streets, the Georgia players have run into their opponents several times. Like everyone else, the Bulldogs are intrigued by the island attire and traditions.

"That’s their culture, and I respect that," safety Kelin Johnson said. "I’ve never been exposed to it before. It’s awesome to see someone out of their surroundings and having fun. That’s what it’s all about."

Maybe their isolation brings them closer together. Maybe it’s the Polynesian culture. Whatever the case, Hawaii has managed to forge a close-knit team from a patchwork of backgrounds and personalities.

Everyone is welcomed, even those with troublesome resumes. Brennan was kicked out of Colorado in 2004 after being convicted of charges stemming from his actions in a coed’s room. Receiver Davone Bess was convicted of possession of stolen goods before landing with the Warriors.

"It just comes natural," Satele said. "People came to me with open arms, inviting me to their houses and out to dinners.

"That’s the way it is any time a new person comes in. People just take you in."



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