ANDREA SEABROOK, Host:
From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Trinity High School in Euless, Texas has one of the top football teams in the country. According to Sport Illustrated, it's number one. It's not exactly breaking news that Texas fields some of the nation's best high school football, but the Trinity Trojans are different. The backbone of this team, its offensive and defensive heart and soul, is Tongan. That's right, Tongans from the Pacific island of Tonga. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story.
WADE GOODWYN: It's Friday night in Texas, and all over the state, high school football stadiums are packed with hundreds of thousands of people celebrating one of their most important and historic tribal customs.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
GOODWYN: The rituals are precisely defined. There must be music and chanting. Sticks are twirled and thrown spinning into the night sky. The tribe's future, its strong young men and women, paint their faces and perform amazing feats of physical prowess for the pleasure and admiration of their people.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
GOODWYN: But when it is Trinity High School's warriors who are preparing for Friday night battle, there is now one additional tribal ritual.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SHOUTING AND CHANTING)
GOODWYN: Just before a kickoff, a massive Tongan offensive lineman, Isikeli Cocker, leads his fellow Tongans and the rest of his Trinity teammates in a haka. Isikeli moves around the field, gesturing in a primal, ancient way. His men affirm their readiness with chants and slaps to their legs and chest.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
GOODWYN: Watching the spectacle unfold in a north Texas suburban football stadium seems both surreal and somehow just fine, totally appropriate.
MIKE HARRIS: There's lots of people that are unfamiliar with what is the Tonga population and where are they from. Where is Tonga? Where are those islands?
GOODWYN: Mike Harris is the young principal of Trinity High School in Euless, a suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth, next to DFW Airport. Trinity is a big high school with a sprawling campus, 10th through 12th, and 2,200 students in those three grades.
HARRIS: Whenever we travel to other schools and other events, or people come here, you know, they're surprised to see our population.
GOODWYN: Once upon a time in the early 70s, a Tongan man who worked for American Airlines and his wife moved to Euless.
OFA FAIVA: The first Tongan couple that moved here to Euless is Halatono and Siupeli Netane.
GOODWYN: Ofa Faiva-Seile, a Tongan whose family moved to Euless when she was a teenager in the mid 80s, has been doing an oral history of the Tongan community in north Texas.
FAIVA: When they arrived here, they realized that the cost of living was inexpensive, plenty of jobs over at DFW Airport. Then they told their friends and their families and by word of mouth really.
GOODWYN: Seile's own story is informative. She was in the first wave of Tongans to arrive. Initially, the big brown girl was an outcast nobody knew was from Tonga.
FAIVA: I remember coming here and going to high school at North Richland Hills, where it was nothing but cowboys. So I felt very out of place, and I didn't have a lot of friends. You know, I wasn't approached a lot. But I moved to Trinity, and I'll tell you what, there was just a whole different atmosphere to Trinity High School.
GOODWYN: The word got out in the Tongan community. Trinity High School was a place where Tongans could be themselves. And the conservative Texans discovered that, surprisingly, they had a lot in common with the Tongans. For example, Tongans are intensely family and community-oriented, and Tongans also don't believe in sparing the rod.
FAIVA: The police here can pick up a kid and run him over to the house and say mom, dad, we caught him mouthing off or stealing or whatever, you know. Well, then, I hate to say it, but it's normal in our culture, you know, you get a butt-whipping. You know, your mom whips your butt, and then your daddy whips your butt, and then your uncle can come along and go whip your butt, too.
GOODWYN: That sort of accountability goes over big here. And this sports-happy Texas culture also heartily approves of the Tongans' tendency toward the physical. Trinity High School's head football coach, Steve Lineweaver, describes it in a very political way.
STEVE LINEWEAVER: I think we've been blessed with a diverse group that brings their own strengths to the program, predominantly Tongans that bring a passion for the game of football.
GOODWYN: A passion for hitting?
LINEWEAVER: Yes. They're very physical. A lot of them are very large.
GOODWYN: Large, and when they're in high school, fast, too. In the Trinity weight room, the team turns weight-training into a party. They face off in rows and lift and jerk heavy free weights above their heads, then drop them to the rubber floor like they're big and bad and don't they know it. Senior wide receiver Alex Jones says he loves him some Tongans.
ALEX JONES: We've got a lot of freaks of nature, really, that come and kick people's butts.
GOODWYN: Jones says he takes great pleasure watching the other teams' high-powered offense standing forlornly on the sidelines while Trinity grinds their defense into the dust, the game clock spinning like a merry-go-round.
JONES: A couple years ago, our entire offensive line outweighed the Washington Redskins' offensive line.
VAI SAPOI: Unidentified Man: That was a goal.
SAPOI: Good! That's what some of you guys got to learn! You've got to bring the hat!
GOODWYN: Senior defensive end Vai Sapoi says he wasn't always the smartest guy in the classroom. But from the fourth grade on, he worked his tail off so he could fulfill his boyhood dream, to play football for Trinity High.
SAPOI: Playing for Trinity, it's not just a sport to everybody, you know? Everyone takes it seriously. It's more like a career.
GOODWYN: On Friday night, the stands are packed. Midway through the first quarter, a Trinity running back bursts through the middle of his offensive line, cuts right, and explodes into the opponent's backfield, streaking down the sideline, the defensive safeties desperately giving chase. The opposing head coach smacks his clipboard against his leg in frustration as they finally push the Trojan runner out of bounds inside the 10. Everyone knew that play was coming. The problem is, how do you stop it? Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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