Professionals represent Polynesian culture on and off the field

Written by: 
Emmalee Smith & Brooklyn Redd

The fifth anniversary of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame (PFHF) honored and received five professional Polynesian football players, who represented the class of 2018 at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) on Jan. 20.

Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Bob Apisa, Manu Tuiasosopo, Kimo von Oelhoffen, and the late Herman “Buddy” Pi’ikei Clarke were inducted this year, with pro and college football players Juju Smith and Hercules Mataafa represented as well. Buddy Clarke’s son Herman Pi’ikei Clarke was invited to accept the honor on behalf of his father.

“The Polynesian Cultural Center is honored to be the home of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame,” said Alfred Grace, the president and CEO of the PCC. “These are not just talented players, but also wonderful, caring citizens who, through their passion and commitment to the sport and community, set an outstanding example for our Polynesian youth to emulate.”

The event started as PCC performers blew into a pu, a triton conch shell, followed by an ancient-style hula dance called the hula kahiko. As the dancers performed, six Polynesians stood in the back dressed as warriors representing the six island villages at the PCC: Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Fiji.

The event was conducted by NBC News Anchor Vai Sikahema, the first Tongan to ever play for the National Football League. He said this was the fifth year of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame taking place in the PCC.

Sikahema introduced Grace who gave a brief introduction of the event. In regards to those who were being inducted this year, he said, “I just want you to know that literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of people will pass through this Polynesian Football Hall of Fame this year alone. Many of them will be young Polynesian boys who learning of you and your legacy you have given them will be nurtured, cultivated, and they will be committed to pursue their goals with passion and commitment. They will see as they read about you the boy that they are now and the man that they can become.”

The hall of fame is a memorial with displays of several Polynesian pro-football players with pictures, plaques and descriptions of their achievements. Sikahema explained the importance of having a place to honor the players.

“I was fixated at looking over across the field staring at Manu because I couldn’t believe I was on the same field as this man. That’s the legacy left behind when we grow up watching these men. If we don’t remember, if we don’t honor them, and if we don’t have their plaques here for kids to come through and remember them, then they will be forgotten through time, and we don’t want that to happen.”

After a brief introduction of each player, a press conference took place allowing audience members to ask questions.

Hercules Mataafa, the Polynesian college football player of the year and representative for Washington State University, responded to a

question about how his family influenced his life. He responded, “My family was very supportive of me when I was in Kamehameha High School. … They don’t always get a lot of recognition, but they were able to fund me to go to camps and while I got recruited. … Without my family, I wouldn’t be here today.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Polynesian pro-football player of the year and representative of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said, “My last name is Schuster, That’s from my step-father. I took his name as soon as I could change it when I was 18 years old.

“He was there since I was 4 years old. I really don’t know much about the black side of me, so for me this means a lot.” He explained his family helped keep him humble, and to this day they’ve continued helping him. He said he wouldn’t be here without them.

McKenzie Milton, a Hawaiian local who attended Mililani High School and quarterback for the University of Central Florida Knights, expressed his gratitude to the Hawaiian islands and especially the town of Mililani.

He said, “Just getting texts and phone calls after games when people got up at 7 a.m. to watch the game and stuff like that is unbelievable.

“I know anybody from the islands that represents the culture carries it on their shoulders with pride, and I do the same. I’m just very grateful to be here today with these great men–Juju and Hercules.

They’re doing their thing and it’s unbelievable. I’m just very blessed to be here.”

Mahake Kemoeatu said, “Kahuku has always been a sanctuary for us Polynesians to come to from overseas. … It was a blessing to be here and play for Kahuku High School.”

After the event, the audience and football players gathered inside the Hawaiian Theater to hear from the 2018 inductees.

Each inductee individually expressed their gratitude towards friends, family, and sponsors, each being introduced with a short film of their playing careers and the narrator explained what made each player unique from the others.

In the video introducing Kemoeatu, the narrator said, “Mahake is so tough he makes Ray Lewis blush. … His story, so deeply personal, he’ll make a grown man cry.” It further explained how in 2014, he donated his kidney to his brother Chris, who was also a former NFL player.

Kemoeatu accepted his award in a traditional Tongan way as he took off his shoes, sat on a woven lauhala mat, and expressed his gratitude. After a moment of silence, he said, “I want to first thank God for being there and being part of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. I want to thank King Kamehameha for the land he has conquered. I want to thank the Polynesian Cultural Center for making this possible.”

As his voice started to crack, he continued, “Please allow me to take off my shoes and get on my knees and sit on the floor and pay my

respects to my elders, my ancestors, to my mom and my dad. Please give me a chance to pay my respects to you all, because without you I would not be here. Thank you Polynesian Cultural Center for making an investment in our children. Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, you have planted the seed for our children to continue the tradition and keeping the culture alive.”

Looking at all the players, von Oelhoffen said, “I see pride. I see culture. I see strength.”

He continued, “I was fortunate to grow up in Molokai, Hawaii. I was surrounded by compassion my whole life.” He said growing up with the people there is what made up his heart. “My path came from the people, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Apisa said, “I know that I owe this to my people of Hawaii. Thank you so much for the honor. I’m grateful. Thank you so much for being there for me.”

Herman Clark said he was thankful for all of the recognition for his dad nearly 30 years after his passing. He told a story about his dad in college when his dad swam for the college team but wasn’t part of the team.

He said one time the coach came up to him for a competition and said, “‘Clark, my lead man is sick. I need you to replace him.’” Herman said, “Now you know this would never ever happen today, but in the magical time of the 1950s, all things were possible.”

When the presentation ended and each player gave a short speech, audience members were invited to participate in a signing event. Each player, including the two players of the year, signed a poster with their signature next to each of their faces.

The entire event ended with each one of the players and their families participating in the canoe show performed daily at the PCC. The players sat in two large canoes, waving to audience members as Lehi Falepapalangi, the official spokesperson for the PCC, introduced each member.

 

The Inductees

According to a press release from the PFHF, Buddy Clark was of Hawaiian ancestry and chairman of the Aloha Stadium Authority. He brought his team from the NFL Pro Bowl to Hawaii. Buddy died in 1989.

According to Sikahema, Kemoeatu graduated from Kahuku High School and played on the Super Bowl XLVII champion team the Baltimore Ravens, and also with the Washington Redskins, and the Carolina Panthers.

Manu Tuiasosopo is of Samoan ancestry. He won and played for the San Francisco 49ers during the Super Bowl XIX. He also was a team member of the Seattle Seahawks.

Tuiasosopo thanked his supporters and five children, who he described as being successful athletes.

Kimo von Oelhoffen of Hawaiian ancestry, played for the winning team during the Super Bowl XL, the Pittsburg Steelers. According to the PFHOF, “von Oelhoffen’s NFL career also included stints with the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, and Philadelphia Eagles.”

Contributor inductee, Bob Apisa of Samoan ancestry, was described as an “All-American and two-time national championship team member of the Michigan State Spartans. His achievements in the game helped pave the way for future Polynesian players.”

The 2017 Polynesian Pro-Football Player of the Year JuJu Smith-Schuster, of Samoan ancestry, is currently a receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. According to PFHOF, “Smith-Schuster helped lead the team to a 13-3 record in 2017 regular season play. He is the youngest player in NFL history to amass 1,000-plus all-purpose yards in a single season and set a franchise record for most receiving yards by a rookie player.”

The 2017 Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Hercules Mataafa, of Samoan ancestry, was “a junior at Washington State University in 2017 and named Associated Press Pac-12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He was also included on the Walter Camp, Sports Illustrated, TheAthletic.com, Football Writers Association of America, and Associated Press All-American teams.”

The Hall of Fame building is located in the PCC’s Guest Orientation Center near the Hukilau Marketplace. It is open to the public during regular PCC hours and is free.

 
Date Published: 
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Last Edited: 
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

NOTE: This article's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Feb. 2018 print issue.