The Kahuku football team is reeling again, but this time, the loss is greater than any game.
Word of the death of senior co-captain and linebacker Keoni Tafuna reached campus early yesterday morning. Coach Reggie Torres met with his players in the wrestling room. Everyone, including team moms and friends, was in shock.
"He was already training for college," Torres said. "This kind of stuff, nobody knows."
A source said that the 17-year-old Tafuna was found dead at a relative's home, where he had been staying since the family split up. Cause of death was asphyxia due to suicidal hanging, according to Honolulu medical examiner Pam Cadiente.
Kahuku was unbeaten (10-0) and ranked No. 1 in the state before being disqualified on Nov. 6 -- the day of the Oahu Interscholastic Association Division I championship game -- due to a clerical error made several years ago.
The team was uniquely close and mature, handling the crisis with composure and class. This Red Raiders team had a surplus of talent, success and humility.
Part of that was because of leaders like Tafuna.
"We were really good friends. This came up out of nowhere," said Christopher Thee, a fellow co-captain with Tafuna. "He was a really good friend to a lot of people in the community."
Tafuna was one of the players who made the trek into town on the day of Kahuku's last-ditch appeal to stay eligible for the OIA- and state-tournament playoffs. Tafuna and two other co-captains were turned away by the OIA at the door, but they seemed to handle the news best they could.
"People talked about setting up a second game with us and Saint Louis," Torres said. "A lot of guys had stopped training. He said, 'Coach, no sense playing unless we're at the top of our game,' " Torres recalled.
"He was a happy-go-lucky guy, a great student, a great athlete. He gave 100 percent in everything he did," Torres said. "When I saw him on Friday, it was all about college. We talked about a Polynesian all-star game coming up in California. He has family up there, so he wanted to help with that."
As of yesterday, there is nothing to show that his death was related to Kahuku's football crisis in recent weeks.
"There's no way he'd do that over a football game," Thee said. "There's no way we know why he did it."
Tafuna, Thee and other members of their church had spent Friday and Saturday preparing for a temple dedication late Saturday.
The team went to Tafuna's home in Laie, where he lived with an uncle, aunt and younger brother, after learning the news yesterday morning.
"We left school and went to their home to support the family," Thee said.
"They heard rumors and they went to the house. They broke down. They let it out," Torres said. "The question was, 'Why?' But it's not our place. We're not going to know."
Both of Tafuna's parents later flew in from off-island, Thee added. Tafuna also has two older brothers and an older sister, all out of high school.
Torres said the school has offered counseling to deal with the tragedy.