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In Lahaina, where thousands of homes have been destroyed by wildfire, football offers a sense of comfort and optimism


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    LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Fans decked in red streamed into the Lahainaluna High School football stadium, snacking on nachos and venison chili, bopping to the high school band’s rendition of “Sweet Caroline,” and exchanging long hugs with neighbors and classmates.

    It was homecoming, and for many of the fans, coaches and the players themselves, being back at the stadium was the closest thing to feeling at home since the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century leveled their town.

    “I don’t know if I can put into words how much it means to Lahaina,” said offensive lineman Morgan “Bula” Montgomery, who has lived in three different hotels with his family since their apartment building burned down. “Just looking in the stands, you see all the old-timers coming out, all the alumni and even the little kids — just all kind of excited, waiting for that first snap.”

    Classes resumed last week at Lahainaluna High and at the two other public schools that survived the Aug. 8 fire, and on Saturday night, Lahainaluna’s varsity and junior varsity football teams played their first home games, both therapeutic wins, giving the community a glimmer of hope amid a tragedy that claimed at least 99 lives.

    Tickets for homecoming at the 3,000-person-capacity stadium sold out in seven minutes, said Principal Richard Carosso -- an indication of how badly the community needed it.

    Perched on a hillside, the school gets its name from its location overlooking historic Lahaina: “Luna” means “above” in Hawaiian.

    Before the fire, fans at the stadium could see the lights twinkling from the neighborhoods down below. Now, once the sun goes down, there is darkness.

    As Mary-Ann Kobatake arrived at the stadium to cheer on her son, No. 33 James Lukela-Kobatake, she refused to look toward the devastated town, where her own home was among the 2,200 buildings that burned.

    “I no like look over there,” she said in Hawaii Pidgin, spoken by many in the crowd.

    But being back on campus was comforting for the 1993 Lahainaluna graduate: “We still have a place we can come home to,” she said.

    It was for Heather Filikitonga, too. A 2001 graduate and mother of a JV player, she could see the gutted remains of her apartment building from the stands.

    “If they can get on the field and find some normalcy in their life,” she said of the players, “then I can do the same.”

    Similar to high school football in other American small towns, Lahainaluna’s powerhouse program is a source of pride. It won four state titles from 2016-2019. It’s an equalizer for kids from diverse backgrounds and something to do in a coastal town where country-reggae blares from lifted pickup trucks.

    “Young boys dream about one day wearing the red and white and representing Lahainaluna,” said Keith Amemiya, a Honolulu bank executive who is spearheading the Luna Strong fundraising campaign for the 450 student-athletes and coaches whose homes were destroyed.

    Tevainui Loft, a 17-year-old tight end and linebacker, grew up watching Lahainaluna football in the stands overlooking his hometown. The games were always packed. “I remember going in sixth grade — best times of my life,” he said.

    A few days before donning his No. 9 uniform in the homecoming game, he reflected on the new view from the field.

    “I’ve been at practice the last couple days, just looking on the side like on water breaks, just looking at Lahaina — all just gone,” he said. “It’s so weird to me that it’s all gone.”

    His mother’s home burned, but his father’s home away from the burn zone survived. He aspires to play Division I college football, and he was heartbroken at the possibility of the season being canceled. “If there wasn’t a season, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself,” he said.

    Amemiya knows the Lahainaluna football program well, having attended many parties hosted by coaches over the years and having been in charge of Hawaii high school sports from 1998 to 2010. He pushed the coaches not to cancel the season.

    “If they somehow could have a football season, it would serve as an inspiration and a rallying point for the entire community,” he said. “In times of tragedy, sports can have a healing effect, not only for the community but the players and coaches as well."

    After the fire, “football was the furthest thing from my mind,” said Garret Tihada, one of the coaches, a 1987 Lahainaluna graduate. The home he grew up in burned down.

    But a few days later he got a call from Amemiya. Tihada started to talking to players, fellow coaches and community members: “They were saying, ‘We need football back. We need something to look forward to.’”

    The teams soon resumed practices, first in a gym in Kahului and later at a park in Kihei, the community about 45 minutes away where high school students attended classes during Lahainaluna’s closure.

    Bula Montgomery, the offensive lineman, said it's been tough seeing his mom, Tamara Montgomery, navigate the fire’s destruction on her own with four kids. His father died in 2019 of a brain aneurysm at 41. But knowing that most of his teammates face similar circumstances has helped: “It doesn’t feel like I’m alone in this.”

    Bula is unsure of his plans after high school. He’d like to play football or wrestle in college. He’s considering the University of Hawaii’s offer of full scholarships to every Lahainaluna senior.

    Before the game, the Rev. Ai Hironaka looked out from the stands into the ruins of the town.

    “The players will fill the ‘puka’ of the heart, he said, using a Hawaiian word for “hole.”

    Watching the junior varsity team beat Baldwin High School 16-10 and then his son's varsity team win 28-7 helped Hironaka forget for several hours about losing his home and the Japanese Buddhist temple where he was the resident minister.

    After the homecoming court’s halftime presentation, freshman princess Precious Pante joined her friends in a spirited student section, wearing her lavender gown and tiara.

    “We’ve all been through a hard time,” she said. “I feel like we needed this.”

    After the game, the varsity team held hands in a darkened locker room and sang the alma mater in Hawaiian. One of the verses describes Lahaina as the “leading star of the Pacific,” an “ever-burning torch which cannot be extinguished by the fierce winds” the area is known for.

    Coach Dean Rickard, a 1982 Lahainaluna graduate, saw hope in how resilient the players have been.

    “They represent the community well,” he said. “The lights will return and everything will be much brighter from that point on.”

    ___

    Freelance photographer Mengshin Lin contributed to this report.

    Sources


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