If it's Saturday, it's game day for a group of young football players in Kalihi. Teammates slowly stagger onto Kalakaua Field from all sides of the park and begin suiting up for the big game. Maroon helmets in one hand, yellow and red game gear in the other, players instinctively separate from their families to join their respective squads. Sporadic giggles emanate from an outside corner of the gym, claimed by the Kalihi Disciples as their personal dressing area.
For some, it is the game of the week, for others it is the game of the season. And, for a dedicated few, it may very well be the game of their lives.
"What day is it?" yells the coach.
"PAY DAY!" responds the team with an intensity that shatters the morning stillness.
The Kalihi Disciples are just one of eleven teams scattered across O`ahu that belong to the Pacific Big Boyz Football Conference, appropriately named because the league's rules do not incorporate a mandated weight limit. Each team consists of three divisions Intermediate, ages 10-11; Junior Varsity ages 12-13; and Varsity ages 14-15. Individual division rosters average 18 players amounting to approximately 700 youth athletes showing up for Spring practice, island-wide, Monday through Friday, January through May.
"They show up," says Pastor Muao Ava, the league's founder. "The Pacific Big Boyz provides the optimum venue for island kids to do what they love most, and that is to engage in a physical activity, put on a show for their families, and have fun with their friends."
Prior to the elimination of the weight requirement, an immeasurable number of players were prohibited from participating in their most beloved sport. The obvious irony is that the biggest kids were missing out on a sport that is specifically designed for you guessed it - big kids. A typical team roster lists several players weighing between 200 and 300 lbs., and height measurements in excess of six feet even at the Intermediate level!
"We've all heard the recent statistic that was reported on '60 Minutes.' Polynesian kids have a 56% greater chance of playing in the NFL than any other ethnicity," says Pastor Ava. "The Pacific Big Boyz Football Conference recently secured agreements from four additional teams in American Samoa. Our goal is to expand and align ourselves with as many Pacific athletic leagues as possible."
In each squad, there are at least a handful of legitimate attention-getters that would arouse childlike glee in high school and college coaches as if opening presents on Christmas morning. It becomes increasingly difficult to imagine that some of these big boys are playing contact football for the first time in their lives.
One particular 7th grader shares his frustration. "I've attended a lot of clinics and camps because I love football. So, I've got all these skills and fundamentals, but I couldn't make weight." At 13 years old, he also has the ideal body type for a football player - 6'1", 200 lbs., superior speed and strength. And his grade point average last school quarter was 3.7. When asked how he would be spending his after school hours if he weren't a Kalihi Disciple, he answers with a smile, "What else? Video games."
The principals of the league also emphasize academic excellence. Players and families are encouraged to pursue every opportunity for a quality education.
"We try to get our kids to be college-minded," says Yeoland Laulu, the team's Board President. "The most gifted and talented athlete goes nowhere unless he or she has the grades. A student athlete who scores points on the field is wasting a lot of time and effort unless those numbers are also on test scores."
Grades are monitored throughout the Spring season. Players with a Grade Point Average of 3.5 and above are acknowledged and celebrated at the conclusion of the season. However, the league endeavors to assist more student athletes in their studies throughout the school year.
"Sports only increase an athlete's chances of attending a good college but that opportunity vanishes if the academic component is absent," adds Laulu.
Naturally, when a group of fifty plus adolescents show up on the field every day, there's bound to be a compendium of incidents and experiences that eventually reach the ears of the coaches. The teams consist primarily of Pacific Islanders from high risk neighborhoods, many reside in single-parent households, and face ongoing hardships and challenges.
Jim Higgins has coached youth football for nearly twenty years and is currently the head coach of the Disciples' Junior Varsity squad.
"Each kid has a story. But, at the end of the day, it's not about defeat or heartache. It's about a kid's ability to be resilient enough to rise above adversity, to be greater than the challenge." The lessons learned on the field are few when compared to the lessons learned off the field. Higgins adds, "I used to wonder why I felt so exhilarated after a long practice at the end of a long work day. Then it dawned on me that the players were inspiring me more than I could ever inspire them, time after time, year after year."
It is more than fair to say that these kids are living real lives and are an accurate reflection of Hawaii's broader population. A curious visitor would encounter kids in the care of their grandparents or guardians, kids living below the poverty line, or kids with parents deployed to distant military posts across the globe. Anyone with a genuine interest in the daily activities of everyday Hawaii people, or wondering who people are voting for in the next election, or pondering over the hopes and dreams of today's youth should have a chat with a Kalihi Disciple.
A visitor would also be dazzled by a group of red-shirted volunteers whose only regret is that they don't have more to give. Their remarkable spirit of generosity is as contagious as their uninterrupted laughter. Even in a depressed economy, they manage to produce every team necessity given in abundance, given without reluctance.
Setu Taifane is the overall Team Manager for the Kalihi Disciples. "People sometimes understate the value of football, especially in Hawaii. In this league, we're able to bring together nearly 700 kids between the ages of 10 15 every day to basically have some fun for a few hours. And, while they're here, they have football practice."
Taifane further states that the football field is an opportunity for meaningful community impact. "It's so simple. If 700 kids are on the football field six days out of the week, that means there's 700 kids off the streets, 700 kids doing something positive with their time, 700 kids getting at least two hours of daily vigorous exercise, 700 kids learning about community service. It takes a whole community to raise a leader."
The Team Moms are also a powerful presence at Kalakaua Field and a spirited force to be reckoned with. "T" is the parent of an Intermediate Disciple and a life-long Kalihi resident. Affectionately referred to as the unofficial "Mayor of the One-Nine" (One-Nine refers to the last two numbers of the Kalihi zip code), "T" makes a mental note of missing players.
"They're all here today," she says while unfolding her chair. "Being at the field is the highlight of my day. There is a unique spirit here that brings everyone together. Sometimes, I don't even know if we won or lost because it doesn't really matter. We're just proud of them." "T" leaves to make the rounds and to tie up loose ends involving team logistics.
When she returns, "T" informs me that all three teams are going bowling tonight. "Fifty adolescent boys at a bowling alley on a Saturday night. It's gonna be wild! I can't wait!"
This scheduled outing puts a stamp on Mr. Taifane's earlier comment. He closes the interview by stating with certainty, "Football is peripheral, but it happens to be the best game in town. Thank goodness."
Playoffs for the Pacific Big Boyz Football Conference will kick-off this Saturday, April 17th, at Keehi Lagoon. There will lots to do for the whole family - food booths, arts & crafts, games, rides and some exciting football games.
To learn more about this league, please visit www.leaguelineup.com/bigboyz.