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Why Do Steelers Love Hawaiian, Polynesian Players?

The 2024 Pittsburgh Steelers might be Hawaii’s team. Here’s how a deep culture of football makes those players cultural matches to the Steelers.

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Pittsburgh Steelers NT Breiden Fehoko
Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Breiden Fehoko at OTAs on May, 28, 2024. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

HONOLULU — High school football differs in some regions of the United States. For some, Friday nights become religious experiences that stop everything else once the Fall comes around. In other states, the environment around local high school football might be more low-key. But what happens when an entire island looks forward to those nights in the Fall? Hawaiian high school football carries a following and traditions unlike anything else in the United States. The Pittsburgh Steelers have five islanders on their team, and it helped shape their identities from a young age.

“You think about how crazy Texas high school football is? Hawaii high school football is just like that. Everything shuts down, and the entire community comes to those games. It’s a community event every Friday,” defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko said.

Three of the Steelers’ Hawaii natives played at the same high school. Roman Wilson, Nick Herbig, and Nate Herbig all hail from the Saint Louis School. Past Steelers players like Tyson Alualu and Chris Fuamatu-Maʻafala played there, too. Fehoko suited up for Farrington. Meanwhile, Isaac Seumalo did not play high school football in the islands but grew up around it since his dad coached it in Hawaii.

Seumalo has seen the way football is embraced in Hawaii from the perspective of a coach’s son. So, why is there a vibrant culture around football? Seumalo thinks it has to do with the Polynesian culture echoing throughout the islands and the people’s mentality throughout the Polynesian community, spreading itself to create that unique environment.

Pittsburgh Steelers guard Isaac Seumalo

Pittsburgh Steelers guard Isaac Seumalo during OTAs on May 21, 2024.

“You think of the Polynesian people; they were born with a warrior’s mentality,” Seumalo said. “That’s why I think you see it translated into football. I didn’t go to high school in Hawaii; I went to high school in Oregon, but I saw it when I was young, and I have a lot of family and friends over there. It’s a big way for everyone to get out in the community. Especially in places like American Samoa. It’s huge out there. It’s in the blood.”

How deep does it go? By playing at the Saint Louis School, Wilson had the chance to play against Kahuku High School, located on the windward side of Oahu. They did not play Kahuku at their home stadium, but they did clash with the Red Raiders at Aloha Stadium for the HHSAA Open Division State Championship.

Wilson remembers vividly experiencing ‘The Red Sea,’ which refers to the Kaipahua Kura haka that the Kahuku football team and crowd do simultaneously. At that game, Wilson looked up at 60,000 fans at Aloha Stadium, and on the left side of the stadium, a sea of red was performing this haka before the game stunned him. It’s like nothing else in United States high school football, and the players notice it.

I asked Fehoko about it, and he smiled at me and told me to ‘watch the video’ and be amazed at this tradition. It is something I have never seen before, certainly at the high school level, and it ups the ante for any game against a team like Kahuku.

“I remember facing Kahuku, and I never got to play them at their stadium, but at Aloha Stadium, there had to be 60,000 people there for a high school game,” Wilson recalled. “You looked at our sides. We had a nice crowd, but there were spots open. But then you look to their side; they call it the Red Sea. There was just red everywhere. It was incredible. They do the haka, and fans do the haka while the team does it. It’s unreal. You get nothing like that anywhere else. That’s Hawaii high school football to me.”

Many of the teams had Division-I talent. Paired with a raucous support system from around the island, all of the Steelers players who played in Hawaii agreed that it created an environment where everything felt big time. Fehoko would go on to play in the SEC, Nate Herbig played in the Pac-12, while Nick Herbig and Wilson headed to the Big Ten.

With all of those local rivalries and big-time feel games across the island in high school, those players from Hawaii had an in that many other players did not have. They knew what it was like to play in big games with the spotlight on them throughout the week—not much changed from high school to college for their benefit.

Coming from such a small community with football as a centerpiece in the culture, it gave players pride and emphasis on every game throughout their high school careers. Football acted to distract from off-the-field situations, especially for Fehoko, who grew up in a low-income area of Kalihi.

Steelers Breiden Fehoko

Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Breiden Fehoko at OTAs on May 28, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

“Hawaii is such a small island. So, everyone knows everybody there. You take so much pride in the team you played for the city you live in, and the last name that you wear on the back of your jersey,” Fehoko said. “Growing up, there was not much room for error. I would say a low-income town (Kalihi). We didn’t have a lot growing up, and football was always a way out. That was not just for me and my family, but many others I knew and played with.”

A brotherhood has formed among NFL players who played football in Hawaii. Especially in light of last year’s events in Lahaina on the island of Maui, where wildfires devastated the town, players from Hawaii have banded together closer than ever before. The five Steelers players, in particular, remain incredibly close to one another to provide support for programs back home and for one another in the NFL brotherhood.

“Absolutely, man, we’re all close,” Nick Herbig said. “When you come from a place like Hawaii in the middle of the ocean, you are attracted to guys that get you and understand where you are from. We don’t really got much out there. We all are out here living this dream together as one. It’s awesome.”

To get noticed by college teams on the mainland, Hawaii high schoolers must fly to the mainland to attend camps. NFL players have talked about holding one in Hawaii, though that has yet to come to fruition. But that is a unique challenge that Hawaii high schoolers face.

The islands’ isolation creates that bond, especially with the enthusiasm of fandoms around O’ahu. And these unique surroundings lend themselves to these players growing up quickly. By the time they reach college and then to the NFL, they are already prepared by their surroundings in Hawaii.

Pittsburgh Steelers Roman Wilson

ittsburgh Steelers WR Roman Wilson at the team’s first day of OTAs, May 21, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

“It’s a different world on a Friday night,” Fehoko said. “There’s one road that goes around the whole island, so if you’re going to the North Shore to play Kahuku or into town to play Saint Louis to coming to Kalihi to play Farrington, where I’m from, there’s just this long traffic. Everyone has the signs out of the back of their trucks, and everybody knows where you’re playing and who you are playing. It’s one of the best feelings. Man, it’s intimate and pure. The love the game, especially with no professional team, Hawaii high school football is a godsend for everyone. I’ve never felt anything else like it.”

Now, five of those players don the Black and Gold for the Steelers in Pittsburgh. An odd journey? Sure. But when the high school conditions lend themselves to such a pure love for football and create lifers, it is not surprising that the Steelers and Mike Tomlin are drawn to the islands when they acquire players.