But can it go a giant step beyond? Can a high school football team -- and one that doesn't win very often -- help rejuvenate what was not long ago a dying language and culture? Can it help save a people's heritage?
That's what we have here at Kula Kaiapuni 'O Anuenue, the Hawaiian language immersion school nestled in Palolo Valley, fittingly, an area used by previous generations to grow large taro crops. About 100 high school students and more in the lower grades attend this public school, learning their lessons in Hawaiian.
The football team has 23 players, and around 20 are available for tonight's game against Waialua.
They were 1-8 last year, and Radford pounded them 35-0 last week. About 50 people were on the Anuenue side of the stands for that one. But this little band is the most important football team in the state. I hate to use the word "important" in any sports story, but that's what they are, whether they realize it or not.
UNIHINA -- TRANSLATIONSome of the Hawaiian words the Anuenue football players and coaches use on the playing field:
» 'A'apo -- wingback or slotback
Courtesy of Kealoha Wengler
A couple of days later, the father of a Damien player called disc jockey Billy V on 105 KINE and spoke of what Na Koa coach Kealoha Wengler describes as his team's "protocols" -- Anuenue communicates in Hawaiian during games. The man also spoke of the Anuenue oli, or chant -- a rough translation of which includes thanking the opponents for sharing the field of competition that day. The man said his son asked him why he did not send him to a school to learn Hawaiian. He replied that he would learn the language with him.
"I cried when I heard (the call) the first time," Wengler says. "I called my wife and she cried, and she's not Hawaiian. The word was getting out there, we were accomplishing our mission."
The story of the little school where teachers and students speak Hawaiian spread and spurred many to learn the language of their ancestors.
"I was super proud," lineman Kamea Kahiapo says. "We got to show how we use the Hawaiian language to help the culture live on."
TEACHER AND assistant football coach Laiana Wong and two Anuenue players stand outside of the lo'i, and chant. Tradition dictates they do this before entering the irrigated taro patch. Then they work, for agriculture is as much a part of Hawaiian culture as the language. The taro, bananas, kukui and nioi (chili) they eventually harvest will be used to feed the school at a luau. This, too, is part of their education, says Wong, an Anuenue graduate who played football at Roosevelt (no Na Koa team yet) and the University of Hawaii.
"It all applies," says Wong. "If you don't have a strong foundation of culture, what you put on it later will be weak. We hope they understand the bigger values of ohana, aloha and mahalo."
WENGLER IS the great-grandson of famed scholar Mary Kawena Pukui, whose work includes the Hawaiian Dictionary. He is a former Kalani High football player. Love for the Hawaiian language is in his blood, and he knows all about being the underdog in football.
He has worked at Anuenue since 1999, when it graduated its first senior class of six.
"I've seen tremendous growth here. We didn't have spirit and school pride. Now there's support, pep rallies. Win or lose, there's pride," he says.
In 2007, Anuenue had its best season, going 4-5 with just 16 players.
"Our small team represents the Hawaiian race, a minority. We're small and other teams are big, but we will continue to battle. When they go out into the community, that's how it is, too," says Wengler. "We don't emphasize winning games. Language and culture come first; that's our main goal."
THINGS DID not go well for Na Koa last Saturday at Radford. It was somewhat predictable, as Anuenue came off the biggest win in its football history, a 26-20 thriller at Kamehameha-Maui the week before.
"Radford's good, but I don't think they're 35 points better than us," Wong says. "We hurt ourselves."
The players agree and vow to address it.
"We kind of got big-headed. Maybe we needed that to happen for us to notice our mistakes. Nothing's just going to be given to us," says the coach's son, Makamea Otani-Wengler, a junior offensive lineman and linebacker.
At least one Radford coach came away impressed.
"I'm very proud of being Hawaiian, and being able to watch them grow as a program has been inspiring," says Rams assistant David Hallums. "They play with so much heart and passion, but most importantly, class. My hat goes off to their administration and coaches."
PRINCIPAL CHARLES Naumu says about 80 percent of graduates go on to college. But many who start kindergarten or first grade at Anuenue end up finishing elsewhere, as all subjects are taught in Hawaiian from third grade on.
"The challenging part is staying in and finishing. Roughly 50 percent do so," he says. "Figuratively, they're carrying two book bags, Hawaiian and English."
The football team may have its first Division I college prospect in junior defensive end 'Imaikalani Keama. He's 6-feet-1 and 232 pounds and very athletic, and he also contributes at tight end and kicker.
Mostly, though, this is a bunch of underdogs on an important mission that has little to do with wins and losses.
"Our team is small, and so is the Hawaiian community. But when we work together we can be much stronger," Kahiapo says.
Coach Wengler gets right to the point.
"Without language, there is no race."