The haka is a powerful ritual.
The movements, the words, the occasion—all of it has deep-rooted cultural significance that goes far beyond an intimidating pregame dance.
For many LSU fans, last October was the first time they’d ever seen the haka performed in person. But the origins of the Maori ceremony go as far back as the late 18th century. The sun god, Tama-nui-te-ra, had a son named Tane-rore, who the Polynesians saw represented through the quivering appearance of the islands’ air on hot days.
Those visions provided the foundation for the movements that eventually became part of the haka. Traditionally, it was performed as a celebration of life or a greeting when two parties met. Over the years, it evolved to become a war chant performed prior to facing an opponent on the battlefield.
Breiden Fehoko remembers first learning about the haka as early as the age of 4. His father, Vili Fehoko, taught it to Breiden and his two brothers, Sam and V.J., at a young age, ingraining in them its importance to their family’s history.
“Learning the haka at a young age, I think, is instilled in not just my culture, but every culture throughout the Polynesian islands,” Breiden says. “You look at kids that are going to school in New Zealand or kids in Tonga or Samoa—they’re doing it at a young age in their schools. If there’s a farewell, if there’s a funeral, if there’s a wedding, if they welcome new students—they [do it] with the haka. It’s really big in the Polynesian culture.”
Vili is from Honolulu, Hawaii, and all of his sons were born there. He worked at a Polynesian cultural center for more than 20 years before spending 14 years as “Vili the Warrior,” an entertainer for the University of Hawaii at Manoa, regularly performing the haka at athletic events.
Many variations of the haka exist today, but Vili was raised on what he calls the “original” haka, known as the “Ka Mate.”
The tradition was passed on to his family from one of the high chiefs from New Zealand, and it’s an act the Fehokos cherish each time it’s performed.
“When we do the haka, you ask for that spirit to persist and come inside of you,” Vili says. “You’ve got to have that in you. You see a lot of people today do the haka and just go with the motion. But when you do the haka, you have to come from inside. The haka prepares a young man to go to battle for war victory. You don’t smile. You look them in the eyes, and you give everything you have to show you appreciate them.”
That passion was palpable last October when the Fehoko family first caught the nation’s attention by breaking into the haka prior to LSU’s meeting with Georgia.
After taking part in the traditional Tiger Walk down Victory Hill, Breiden approached his family near the locker room as he always does before heading into battle. His father had performed the haka for him prior to games in the past. But something was different this time.
“When he did it, I kind of expected it, because when somebody else does it for you, it’s like a gift,” Breiden says. “I was just going to stand there and watch them do it, which is normal because they’re sending me off with the haka, the gift. But when I see them do it, I’m ready to go. So I started doing it, and my blood was pumping. I couldn’t just stand there and watch them do it. There was so much energy there, and everyone was going crazy. I don’t even need to watch the video. I can remember everything so explicitly.”
The video Breiden references—captured by 225 and reshared by major networks including ESPN—ultimately garnered more than 12 million views and counting on social media. It reached an international audience, including other proud Polynesians.
To this day, Breiden still calls that haka “one of the best moments” of his football career. The Tigers, who went into the game as a seven-point underdog, went on to dominate the fifth-ranked Bulldogs, 36-16. Thousands of fans stormed the field in celebration that day.
“Everything leading up to that Georgia game, and then playing the game, and then after the game, it kind of felt like a dream, because you only see it on TV or in movies,” Breiden says. “When you’re actually going through it, you’re like, ‘Man, we just beat the number five team in the nation.’ I’ve never been a part of something where people rushed the field. That was such a great day in Baton Rouge. I hope and pray this year we can bring more of those opportunities to Baton Rouge and for the fans and the community, because they deserve it.”
Should Breiden build off his successful 2018 season, there could certainly be more special moments in store. The former Texas Tech transfer earned a starting role in his first eligible season at LSU, racking up 16 tackles and one and a half sacks before suffering a bicep injury in that Georgia game. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive lineman toughed it out at the time, but he wound up missing five of the final six contests because of the injury.
“I was a little sad that I didn’t get to play a whole year. You know, it’s tough being bit by the injury bug,” Breiden says. “But, I mean, it’s football. It’s life. Things happen. I think the biggest thing for us is just continuing to grow that depth and the development of our D-line room every day.”
There’s plenty to be excited about on this LSU talented defense, with some big games on the horizon.
And if big games call for big moments, look for the Fehokos to bring out more haka rituals this fall.
“Every time we do the haka at LSU, we show our appreciation for the program and for Coach O and for Breiden and his teammates and the coaching staff and the fans,” Vili says. “We bring that in what we call the ‘mana’—the power. We bring the mana, and we want people to feel that mana, to feel that power that we’re doing it for LSU.”
This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of 225 Magazine.
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