Apaiata Tuihalamaka took the field before a UA football game in 2009 and, together with teammate Lolomana Mikaele, began dancing.
The two Wildcats stomped, thumped their chests and chanted.
This haka dance was a celebration of their Polynesian heritage, a dance that has lived on — in different forms — in the succeeding seven seasons, even surviving a coaching switch from Mike Stoops to Rich Rodriguez.
The Wildcats’ connection to the islands — and, more specifically, Polynesian players — goes back much longer.
Dick Tomey’s football teams always had a handful of dynamic islanders on their rosters, the byproduct of the coach’s connections to Hawaii.
Tuihalamaka came to Arizona a four-star linebacker recruit under Stoops, and signed with the Wildcats alongside his cousin Vuna, also a four-star linebacker. They were a part of a 2007 recruiting class that included the No. 1 prospect in Hawaii, Kaniela Tuipolutu, and three other Polynesian recruits.
The Tuihalamakas’ love for all things Arizona paid two years later when Sione, Apaiata’s younger brother, signed with the UA.
“I wanted to go somewhere I felt comfortable,” Sione said after signing. “Family was big.”
Next season’s haka won’t be quite the celebration it used to be. The Wildcats are expected to start just one Polynesian player, offensive lineman Michael Eletise. The program has struggled to recruit the island since 2011, when Stoops was fired and defensive line coach Joe Salave’a — a native of American Samoa who now recruits the islands for Oregon — was allowed to leave.
That may be changing. The Wildcats hosted the first-ever Polynesian College Showcase over the weekend. Players of Polynesian descent traveled from as far away as Hawaii and New Jersey to work out in front of college coaches. Rodriguez hosted a camp that included coaches from Fresno State, Fordham, Illinois and BYU.
BYU currently lists 36 Polynesian players on its roster; Arizona has four.
So what happened?
A history with Hawaii
Recruiting the islands comes with a challenge — notably, distance.
That never bothered Tomey, who spent nearly 10 years coaching at Hawaii before he was hired by Arizona in 1987. Tomey’s teams at Hawaii and the UA included 120 Polynesian players, according to Sports Illustrated.
Quarterback George Malauulu was one of the players who helped establish the Polynesian culture when he was recruited to Arizona in the early 1990s. He played 36 games in Tomey’s option offense between 1989-92.
“Slowly but surely, (Polynesian players) started coming in,” he said. “Just knowing we had a stake in the Desert Swarm era and made it a special time.”
In 1997, Malauulu — a native of Carson, California, who is of Polynesian descent — helped establish the AIGA Foundation. The nonprofit group helps players with Polynesian ethnic backgrounds land scholarships. The foundation has helped players like Marcus Mariota, Juju Smith-Schuster and Anu Solomon get noticed.
Malauulu’s relationship with the UA’s current staff was distant. He and Rodriguez had met in passing but had never worked together.
“If he were to look at me, he’d probably say who’s this guy?” Malauulu said. “I’m just Joe Nobody.”
Malauulu did know graduate assistant Davy Gnodle, however; the two worked with Rodriguez to establish the camp. Gnodle is the only UA staffer with Polynesian ties. He hails from California but has relatives in Samoa and American Samoa.
Arizona had an easier time recruiting the islands under Tomey. Former UA assistants Duane Akina, Larry Mac Duff, Dave Fagg and Sam Papalii all coached at Hawaii, and developed relationships with high school coaches on the islands and in Polynesian-heavy communities in California. Those connections helped the Wildcats land players like Brandon Manumaleuna, Pulu Poumele, Van Tuinei, Steven Grace and Manuia Savea.
Stoops employed coaches Mike Tuiasosopo, Robert Anae and Salave’a. They helped the Wildcats land, among others, Aiulua Fanene from American Samoa and Sani Fuimaono from Hawaii. Willie Tuitama, Taimi Tutogi and the tackling Tuihalamakas, all from California, committed to the Cats. So did Keola Antolin, who grew up in Las Vegas.
The Wildcats made inroads in Hawaii, too. Stoops said in 2011 that the UA had “a great chance to own that part of the country.”
But Stoops was fired that season. The UA replaced him with Rodriguez, who had never coached in the West before and didn’t have any coaching connections to the Polynesian community. Rodriguez kept Anae on staff, but he left after one season for a job at BYU.
Salave’a went to Washington State, leaving earlier this off-season for Oregon. He promptly flipped defensive lineman Austin Faoliu from UA to the Ducks, and secured a commitment from linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia, a former UA target.
“I was hoping Joe would come back to Bear Down red and blue, but Oregon stole him,” Malauulu said. “I was like, ‘Come on, Joe!’”
Arizona’s current roster has just four players of Polynesian descent — redshirt freshmen Eletise and Kahi Neves, junior college transfer Sione Taufamahema and true freshman Anthony Pandy. None has played a collegiate snap. Freddie Tagaloa finished his UA career without making a large impact on the offensive line. Derrick Turituri and Anthony Fotu were kicked off the team. Solomon transferred to Baylor, and Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea transferred home to Hawaii.
“After Coach Tomey, the philosophy of recruiting took it in that direction,” Malauulu said. “But everyone has their own mindset of what they’re going to do and how they’re going to go about doing this.”
Exposure, attention both key at camp
Arizona’s camp bodes well for the Wildcats, and — this is where Malauulu’s foundation comes in — helps those players aching for exposure.
Stephen Barber Jr. of Honolulu’s Punahou High School holds offers from just Hawaii and Navy despite being the top-rated quarterback in Hawaii. Barber spent Thursday at a camp in San Diego, then promptly made the trek to Tucson for Arizona’s camp.
He called it “a lot of fun.”
“Especially coming up here and just seeing how I stack up against the mainland competition, getting some exposure that I don’t really get on the island,” he said.
Arizona “looked how (college) looks in movies,” Barber added.
Denaylan Fuimaono is a three-star safety from Carson, California, who holds offers from Washington State, Utah State and Navy, among others. Arizona has shown interest, too.
Fuimaono is aware of the history of Polynesian standouts at all of those schools, including Arizona. When camp ended Saturday, the UA had offered scholarships to quarterback DJ Uiagaleilei of Bellflower, California, and wide receiver Puka Nacu from Orem, Utah.
“That’s something big, that’s something Polynesians care about,” Fuimaono said. “We can’t forget about that, where we came from and our roots. That’s something we carry around with us — we have to.”