A pipeline from the Pacific Island kingdom of Tonga has delivered a Polynesian influence to this town’s churches, markets and championship football team, which won state titles in 2005 and 2007 among Texas’ largest schools. Players of Tongan descent have brought imposing size, strength and toughness to the Trojans — and the need for a roster with phonetic spellings for the announcers.
“That would stop the cursing,” said Ofa Faiva-Siale, projects manager for the Euless Parks and Community Services Department.
Students at Trinity speak 53 languages, and the flags of 31 nations hang in the school’s entrance. The proximity of Euless to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which is located partly within the city limits, has brought a remarkable diversity to this town of 54,000.
Thirteen of the 24 Trinity players who have made all-state since the 1980s, and 16 members of the current roster, are of Tongan descent.
“When you think of Texas high school football, you think of country kids, farm kids; you don’t expect to see players from the South Pacific,” said Sioeli Pauni, who has two sons on the Trinity team.
The parents of many players work at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport as baggage handlers and food-service employees, facilitating affordable travel on special family occasions. Others are self-employed as landscapers, carpenters and masons. Meanwhile, their sons are resolute linemen and linebackers, who weigh from 200 to 333 pounds and find in football a brisk physical exertion similar to the Tongan national sport of rugby.
Each time he knocks a defensive lineman on his back, Uatakini Cocker, a 6-foot-2, 297-pound offensive tackle, screams: “Mate ma’a Tonga,” meaning, “I will die for Tonga.” Later, the playful Cocker said, he often has to explain his heritage to opposing players and fans in this typical postgame conversation:
“Are you Mexican?”
“O.K., because you would be a very big Mexican.”
The presence of 3,000 to 4,000 Tongans here has lent an unmistakable touch of Polynesia to Euless and Trinity High. The Hawaiian Market advertises kava root used for a traditional drink. A nonprofit organization called Voice of Tonga addresses concerns about immigration, culture, language and health, and broadcasts a program, including Trinity football highlights, on local cable television.
The Free Church of Tonga, the Tongan First United Methodist Church and the First Tongan Assembly of God Church — three of nine Tongan-affiliated churches in the area — sit on or near South Main Street. A Catholic chaplain, who is Tongan, visits several times a year from San Francisco, but must work his schedule around football season, said Faiva-Siale.
“I’ll call and say: ‘Don’t come this weekend; we’re in playoffs. Only two or three people will show up,’ ” Faiva-Siale said.
Half of Trinity’s 2,189 students in grades 10 through 12 are white, with a roughly equal mix of black and Hispanics and about 275 Asians and Pacific Islanders. This year’s football team is represented by at least eight nations, from Laos to Rwanda. Nine of the 22 starters are Tongans.
“It makes you a better person, learning to accept different people,” said Dontrayevous Robinson, Trinity’s star running back, who is African-American.
Trinity has a Polynesian Club, and Polynesian students frequently join the choir and participate in the arts. Often, they are chosen homecoming king and queen, coaches said. Ukulele music wafts through the school courtyard at lunchtime and between classes. Occasionally, someone wears a traditional lava-lava sarong. Before and after each football game, Tongan players lead a ceremonial team war dance called a haka.
About 10 Polynesian players from Trinity (5-0) are now playing college football.
“I think they set the tone for the whole school,” said Susan Kaufman, who coaches women’s volleyball. “They are self-confident. Their culture is taught to respect authority. They are very big on family and see the team as an extension of the family. They are nonmaterialistic, which means at Trinity, you can be who you are, no matter what your background is. You can have pink hair or a mullet or be a Goth. Whoever you want.”
Euless is also viewed as a haven from gang violence that some Tongans encounter in places like California and Utah, said Fotu Katoa, who was the first Tongan football player at Trinity High and is now Utah’s director of Pacific Islander Affairs. Sione Moeakiola, a Trinity linebacker who was born in Long Beach, Calif., spoke of simple freedoms here, like being able to place a television near a window without risking gunshots fired into the living room.
Katoa said: “Euless is thought of as a safe place where you play football and go to school and work and people have an opportunity to make something of themselves. They fit in and are accepted.”
When the 6-2, 210-pound Katoa first arrived in Euless, early in 1982, a coach spotted him near the trophy case at Trinity and asked if he needed help. “I’m looking for someplace to play football,” Katoa said. The football coach asked where he was from. When he said Tonga, it drew a blank.
“It’s four hours past Hawaii,” Katoa said. A fierce linebacker, he would soon become known as the Hawaiian Punch.
“The first time he hit somebody in spring practice, I knew we had something,” said Steve Lineweaver, then an assistant and now the head coach at Trinity. “He would yell, ‘I love this Texas football.’ ”
Katoa’s younger brother, Sammy, became an all-state linebacker. If the Katoas’ heritage was unfamiliar, their football skill was not. Undoubtedly, their athletic success helped engender the general acceptance of Tongans, said Faiva-Siale of the city parks department, who attended Trinity with the Katoa brothers.
City officials have patiently assisted Tongan residents acclimate to a new culture, Faiva-Siale said. Compromises have been reached to accommodate large family gatherings at funeral rituals that last for days. And the city has promoted alternatives to the slaughtering of pigs at home for open-pit cooking. A mobile health unit helps to provide free flu shots and medical checkups.
“They have been very understanding of the huge adjustment it takes for many people,” Faiva-Siale said, adding that the city has also provided police escorts for Trinity’s football team and signs for fans to wave at games.
Before each game, L. T. Tuipulotu or Cocker, the offensive tackle, leads the Trojans in a haka dance, performing a version of a ritual associated with the Maori people of New Zealand and popularized by New Zealand’s national rugby team. As the team trainer blows a conch shell, the Trinity players crouch and pound their chests and thighs and stomp and shout the preamble to a long-ago battle: “Ka Mate! Ka Mate! (I may die! I may die!)
“Ka ora! Ka ora! (I may live! I may live!)
“He Tehine te tangata puhuru huru (Behold the hairy man)
“Kane ti mai faka la titi te ra! (Who will lead us to victory and make the sun shine!)
“A hupane, A hupane (Up the ladder, up the ladder)
“A hupane, Kapa, Riti te ra! (To the top, the sun will shine in victory!)”
Elikena Fieilo, a 200-pound linebacker and perhaps Trinity’s best player, said the haka was meant to “ignite the breath” of competition. Opponents are not always welcoming. Earlier this season, a rival school band started playing the national anthem during the haka. Others have mocked the dance, but at their peril.
In 2007, Permian High of Odessa, Tex., defeated Trinity, 30-3, during the regular season. When they met again in the playoffs, Permian fans carried signs suggesting the haka was no more threatening than the hula.
“That got us fired up,” Cocker said.Trinity won the rematch, 38-14, on the way to a state championship.