San Jose, CA

Celebrating Polynesian reverence through football this weekend

Vic Aquino

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Polynesian players of the San Jose State football team.Photo byVic Aquino

There are still people, who are not of Polynesian descent, who correlate one or two things of South Pacific Islanders: loyal servitude and warrior aggression (luckily, we’ll not dive into the larger topic of their stolen sovereignty).

Both characteristics ring loud and true among a few other key traits underlying San Jose State and the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors who face-off as rival football teams this Saturday at CEFCU Stadium.

But limiting two characteristics onto a multi-dimensional people with its own cultural diversity is way too broad a generalization.

“My Hawaiian culture means everything to me,” said standout Spartan quarterback Chevan Cordeiro and former Rainbow Warrior. “The way my mom and dad raised me played a big part in my life and it’s the reason I’m the person I am today - God first, then family is my motto and that’s what I stick with.”

Cordeiro’s convictions brought him to San Jose after the debacle of former Hawaii head coach Todd Graham

Cordeiro’s unfortunate departure also sowed the seeds to a new beginning for Hawaii football that more quickly exposed the erosion of its cultural foundation. So much so, it reached the highest levels of government in Hawaii and ultimately helped lead to the perfect head coach match with former pro quarterback, legendary Rainbow Warrior and the Island’s favorite son, Timmy Chang. 

Cordeiro’s decision ignited a way to fight the system to recognize what went wrong all the way up the ranks beyond Graham. The reverberation of such a public shakeup would not have happened as it did otherwise.

“When coach Timmy was at Nevada, we talked after every game. He’s my guy and I feel like they have the right guy for the job at Hawaii and I feel he will do well,” said Cordeiro. “My former teammates and brothers at Hawaii love it there and love football again just like how coach Brennan helped me love football again at San Jose State.” 

There’s so much more about Cordeiro that might go beyond a sports-head-only audience who simply thought he gave up and went to the enemy. It can be difficult to understand the level of courage to leave where your heart belongs and being alone because of your convictions and beliefs. Most people can’t do it.

Overall, it was an example of the sad underbelly and long-sordid history of the islands, but things are better all around because of what Cordeiro did, inadvertently or not.

What football symbolizes to a people

If you’re lucky enough to have such deep faith, family and passion instilled into you, football can be icing on the cake in the bigger picture.

“It’s definitely motivated me 100% -  everything about being a Polynesian in terms of culture and traditions is a blessing and my parents have tried their best to pass that all on,” said star SJSU defensive end Viliami Fehoko. “And even the scripture readings, my parents emphasized when we were growing up that we learn about our culture and history to always know who we are and where we came from.”

It can be said at the root of every culture are these pillars of humanity, but the way the Polynesian people exemplify the full depth and breadth of life is like no other.

“Football and our culture blend together in terms of the physicality, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, teamwork and family,” said San Jose State defensive line coach Joe Seumalo. “We are all of a tight knit family that is very faithful to God and respect for our elders.”

For the Rainbow Warriors, it makes complete sense that same infinite loyalty to family, strength and warrior pride all intertwine between real life and football and the culture that was gone is now back.

“In terms of football, I think everyone has a warrior mentality because that’s what the game demands, not just because we’re South Pacific Islanders,” said Seumalo. “The game demands physicality and it brings out the warrior in everybody.”

You could also literally interchange Chang with Brennan and find his Spartan program with the same Poly roots, but on the mainland, of course, the options and opportunities can be vastly different in a diverse Silicon Valley.

In contrast, living and experiencing Hawaii, or “the Rock” as it can be affectionately known, is every much as beautiful as it can be socio-economically challenging (which again, stems back in Hawaiian history to what disintegrated their society in the first place and is still firmly there).

“Some may say football is more important for those stuck on the Rock because football could be a ticket out,” said SJSU football analyst Lyle Moevao. “You have so much more opportunities here after football, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same goal to make it to the next level, representing your family and getting a college degree.”

“Everything that you get out of football is exactly the way our culture is in terms of family and staying together. It’s just a natural fit,” added Seumalo.

For San Jose State, the culture that Brennan instilled is also born of family and brotherhood. 

“When I first started coaching at Woodside High School, we had a lot of Polynesian kids on the team and I’d drive them home from practice and pick them up,” said Brennan. “I really got pulled into their families and their community.”

Brennan pretty much lives by the same Aloha spirit and philosophy. You see it, hear it and feel it from current and past Spartan players, including Brennan’s own family. Brennan also made his college coaching start with the Rainbow Warriors 20 years ago (where he first met Seumalo).

“When we were first here at San Jose State, culture was a big part of us and when I came back, it wasn’t,” said Brennan. “As much as for good football, I was looking to immediately build an inclusive culture of family and loving your brother and working and standing together.”

“There’s a really unique part of their world that places such a high value on family, brotherhood and community that I really respect.”

“And I knew players from that community were really going to nurture that,” Brennan added. “Since day one, it’s been a big part of our thought process and it has been tremendously impactful getting San Jose State football in a better place.”

It all starts to make sense - that same culture is embedded all throughout San Jose State athletics now. 

“I felt it as soon as I came on my visit,” said Fehoko. “Nose guard Sailosi Latu took me under his wing when I got here and made an impression on me as a Poly here. It all encouraged me to become another Polynesian player to ball out like him.”

Cordeiro included, “When I committed to San Jose, at least 20 players came to me when I was in the building to put leis on me - it was fun and funny. They treated me like family on the very first day and I felt that family culture right away and they’re my brothers and I’ll do anything for them.”

“There is that sense of comfort when you’re with another Polynesian because there’s not a whole lot of us out there,” added Moevao. “Except in a football environment, there’s more of us per capita. We just gravitate to each other and our connection is that much more stronger beyond football.”

Beyond football

If you’re lucky enough to have spent time in Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii or any of the South Pacific islands, you can get a taste of their culture from their unmatched hospitality. If you’re lucky enough to feel the devotion from them as family, then you know you’ve felt treasure.

And if you’re lucky enough to attend the Spartans vs. Rainbow Warrior game in San Jose this weekend; for a few hours, you’ll see and feel all of the above before, during and after the game. 

They’ll enjoy each others’ company, battle like sporting enemies and love and have fun with each other long after the game. 

“I’ve known Timmy since he was a little boy,” said Seumalo on Chang. “His dad was our basketball coach at Radford High School and he used to be the ball boy. So, I’ve known Timmy forevah. He’ll be fine and he’ll get his team going for sure. He’s got the whole state behind him. He’s a great kid, a great husband and a great friend, but unfortunately, we’re going to beat him Saturday.”  

As Chang has the challenges of a new coach re-establishing the rightful culture of a football program, it’s clear he’s going to do things right.

“With the adversity my guys faced this season and how they responded, they will always remember that and that’s what I love about this team,” said Chang in his post game interview last week. “The X’s and O’s and the plays come and go, but the bonds with your braddahs is forever - that’s what it’s always about.”

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A 50+ year San Jose-native focusing on social awareness, social good, social impact and the hidden gems and treasures of the area. Freelance journalist & sports contributor to SB Nation & SF 49ers (@VicD_SJ on Twitter).

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