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A Tongan War Dance
Enlivens Football
In Euless, Texas

High-School Players' Ritual
Jazzes Local Polynesians;
Everybody Does the Haka
By J. LYNN LUNSFORD
November 16, 2006; Page A1

BEDFORD, Texas -- For as long as anybody can remember, the stereotypical Texas high-school football player has been the saddle-tough son of the West Texas prairie.

So imagine a recent evening when the Odessa Permian Panthers, whose historic dominance of Texas football inspired the book, movie and TV series "Friday Night Lights," looked across the field and saw the rival Trinity Trojans doing a Polynesian war dance.

At the sound of a tone blown over a large conch shell, 17-year-old senior defensive tackle Alex Kautai threw off his helmet, freeing a mane of curly black hair. He shouted several sentences in a foreign tongue and waved his arms as 93 visibly agitated teammates gathered behind him on the sidelines.

[Photo]
Alex Kautai of the Trinity Trojans does the haka dance in Bedford, Texas. Watch video of the dance.

On cue, they dropped into a wide, crouching stance and began the ritual known as the haka. "Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Ka Ora!" (We're going to die! We're going to die! We're going to live!), they chanted in unison as the fans went wild. For the next 60 seconds, the players acted out an ancient battle in which a big hairy man saves the life of a Maori chieftain.

With each phrase, the players slapped their thighs, arms or chests. They stomped back and forth, symbolically thrusting and jabbing at the enemy. At the end of the dance, Mr. Kautai jumped in the air and landed on one foot, his right fist in the air and his tongue lolling out of his mouth as he sneered fiercely.

Few other high-school teams could pull off that routine without looking silly. But at Trinity, the war dance embraces the culture of a growing population of immigrants from the island kingdom of Tonga, in the southwest Pacific east of Fiji. An estimated 4,000 people of Tongan descent live in Trinity's hometown of Euless, a city of 52,900 whose boundaries include about 2,800 acres of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Tongan community leaders say that most of the Pacific Islanders were drawn to the area over the past 20 years by jobs at the airport, where many of them work as baggage handlers or service employees. For those with airline jobs, company flight privileges have made it easier for them to fly home regularly.

Most of the 24 players of Tongan descent on the Trinity football team weigh between 250 and 308 pounds and stand at least 6 feet tall. Besides that, they are quick, so the combination makes Trinity an intimidating force on any high-school field. The Tongan players helped transform Trinity into a Texas football powerhouse.

WALL STREET JOURNAL VIDEO
 
[Video]
See video of a Trinity High School war dance that embraces Tonga culture. (1:51)

Last year, Trinity won the Class 5A Division 1 state football championship. It went undefeated in this year's regular season and administered an old-fashioned 40-14 whupping to the Permian Panthers. Trinity begins the first round of state playoffs Friday night against nearby Arlington Martin High School.

"We do the haka to ignite the breath of competition. It means that I've got your back and you've got mine," said Mr. Kautai, who stopped shaving and let his hair grow long this season to make himself look even more intimidating than he already does at 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds. He likes to splash water on his face and hair before the haka so it will fly off in a mist as he performs the movements.

Trinity first performed the haka two years ago after one of the Tongan players saw a video on the Internet of New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team doing the war dance before one of its games. The haka is more than 200 years old and originated with New Zealand's Maori people. Since then, it has been adopted by a number of Polynesian cultures, including that of Tonga.

[The Trinity Trojans do the haka dance before a home game in Bedford, Texas.]
The Trinity Trojans do the haka dance before a home game in Bedford, Texas.

Several of the players, including Mr. Kautai's 19-year-old brother, Richie, went to a nearby park to work on the moves without attracting unwanted attention. Practice was rained out a couple of weeks later, so they persuaded Coach Steve Lineweaver to let them teach the dance to the rest of the team. "When we all dropped into the crouch for the first time and did those first steps, it made the hair stand up on everybody's arms," Richie Kautai recalls.

After consulting with local Tongan community leaders, Mr. Lineweaver agreed to let the team demonstrate the haka at a dinner for the football boosters. "I can't even wrap my West Texas tongue around some of the words, but every boy on that team has made it a point to learn it," Mr. Lineweaver said.

The team first performed the haka for fans at the beginning of the 2005 season. Concerned about seeming to taunt opponents unfairly, the coach restricted the haka performance to the sidelines at the end of the field where most Trinity students sit.

It was an instant hit. Today, the stands closest to where the team performs the chant are full an hour before kickoff. An eerie silence falls over the stadium as soon as the tone is sounded on the conch shell as fans strain to hear the haka leader urging on the team.

Fans wave haka signs and wear black "Got Haka?" T-shirts. Rather than race to the parking lot to beat the crowd at the end of the game, hundreds of people routinely wait 20 minutes or more for the team to do the haka one more time.

The team has performed the haka at elementary-school assemblies in order to fire up the children before state-mandated tests. It has performed for the City Council. Before last year's championship game, one fifth-grade class learned the haka and performed it to cheer on their newfound heroes. "It's amazing that a little chant has that much power," said Trinity principal Andy Cargile, a lanky Texan who is quick to point out that he sometimes wears a printed Polynesian skirt known as a lava-lava around the school.

One convert is Charlotte Swords, a 1979 graduate of Trinity's local archrival, Lawrence D. Bell High School in nearby Hurst. "I had five brothers and sisters, and we all grew up in a house where Trinity was the enemy," she said. Today, Ms. Swords's daughter Jennifer is a senior in Trinity's band "and I'm screaming at the top of my lungs every time those guys do the haka."

Ilaiasi Ofa, executive director of the Voice of Tonga, the organization that serves as a local advocate for Tongan immigrants, said the haka has become a source of pride for a community that hasn't always been sure of its place in Texas. Shortly after the team first began performing it, Mr. Ofa showed a videotape of it to a group of older Tongan residents. Their attention immediately gravitated to the white players standing in the front row, performing the war dance alongside their Tongan teammates.

"I had two older men with tears in their eyes tell me afterward, 'After seeing that, we know that our future generations will be accepted here,' " Mr. Ofa said.

Although he thought at first that the haka was a passing fad that would last just one season, Mr. Lineweaver says he wouldn't dream of trying to discontinue it. "Little first-graders are learning how to do the haka before they learn to block and tackle," he said. "If I tried to stop it now, I'm afraid I'd get run out of town."

Write to J. Lynn Lunsford at lynn.lunsford@wsj.com

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