Far from home: Hilo’s Kainoa Pe’a plays a big role as an emotional leader on and off the field

Special to The Hawaii Independent

By Steve Shaff

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona—Senior defensive lineman Kainoa Pe’a came to Flagstaff to better his life, but he has made Northern Arizona University better with his influence.

Pe’a played football at Hilo High School on Hawaii Island, where he was a three-year starter and team captain. He helped his team win the Big Island Interscholastic Federation title. But his opportunity to continue his career was limited to a walk-on chance at Northern Arizona University—a long way from home.

“I had no clue what I was getting myself into,” said Pe’a. “I didn’t know about Flagstaff or Arizona. It was my first time coming to the ‘mainland.’ I came for one goal—to better my life, my future, and have the chance to play college ball and meet new people.”

He has played since his first season, seeing action in nine games as a true freshman, developing into a solid contributor. Entering his senior season in 2009, he was expected to play a big role on the defense for the Lumberjacks until a wrist injury sidelined him for the season.

“To be out for a semester and be on the sideline, it was really hard watching the boys play,” said Pe’a.

Healthy in 2010, Pe’a has started both games this season, recording six tackles and a fumble recovery. He is coming off one of the best games of his career against Arizona State as the Lumberjacks opened Big Sky Conference play last weekend at Idaho State.

“He had an outstanding ball game against Arizona State and the kids really look to him as guy who can get the job done when the ball is snapped,” said assistant coach Bill Smith. “In the games of football, when you perform on the field, you have automatic credibility.”

While thriving on the field, Pe’a has been successful in bringing his culture with him to Arizona, helping to develop a team and enlighten a campus in the process. Pe’a has spoken the Hawaiian language since he was three-years-old.

“Not many people know there is a Hawaiian culture,” said Pe’a. “A lot of things have changed [over the years] with Asian, Portuguese, and Pilipino influence. We are starting to bring our culture and our language back. It is there but it is eventually growing up. I am one of the few guys who speak fluent Hawaiian, as well as my siblings and my grandmother that I speak to [in the language]. ... It is very important like every other culture. It is a small island with very little people and population. It is very important to evolve our culture. It is good to come here to the ‘mainland’ and play some ball and represent our culture and our people.”

Pe’a also represents with his appearance, specifically his long hair that drapes out of his helmet and down the back of his jersey.

“I started growing my hair during my freshman year in college,” Pe’a said. “For me it was a way to symbolize starting my college career. In the Hawaiian culture it means strength. It has the same meaning in the Polynesian, Samoan, and Tongan cultures. You see it a lot in the NFL and college sports. That is our identity.”

Head Coach Jerome Souers embraces that identity and the role of cultural influence on his team and program.

“Part of the experience in the NAU football family is celebrating and experiencing common culture,” said Souers, who is the only Native American head football coach in Division I. “We have guys on our team from different cultures and different walks of life. Opportunities to share in that are fun and helps break down the barriers in the differences in people.”

Pe’a, who comes from a musical family known in Hilo for their kalua pig, serves as one of the inspirational leaders in the pregame Haka dance performed by the team before each game.

“It is a war dance to get us ready mentally, physically and spiritually,” said Pe’a, who also plays several instruments including the ukulele. “It pumps us up including the fans and crowd. It is just a wonderful thing that we do.”

His Hawaiian influence extends beyond his teammates as an active member of the university’s HAPA Hawaiian Club, whose primary goal is promoting and educating students and Flagstaff’s community about the Hawaiian culture. He has helped recruit several of his teammates to perform at the annual Luau, one of the top events on campus each spring.

Pe’a, who is now on scholarship, feels fortunate for his experience, including his upcoming graduation this December with a degree in sociology with criminal justice minor.

For a man with musical and vocal talents, his play is doing the majority of his speaking on the field.

“It is phenomenal the role he has assumed,” said Smith. “For the bulk of his career he has been a reserved type of guy and still is not tremendously vocal. But boy is his performance speaking. He has done a great job. His confidence has multiplied almost daily.”

It is a confidence set in helping his team win a ring.

“It is very important just like for every other senior, the seniors on this team, before me and after me,” said Pe’a of the impact of his final season. “It is very important and I want to get a ring this year. That is the goal.”

If the Lumberjacks reach their goals, Pe’a will certainly be out front in the celebration.