Hawaii's home opener against Stanford a respite from wildfire tragedy

Aug. 31, 2023 As Karsyn Pupunu fought back tears at his locker stall, his Hawaii teammates gathered around him and prayed for his family. News reports were rippling through social media about a Maui wildfire that had destroyed Pupunu’s hometown of Lahaina.

Within hours, Pupunu would learn the unthinkable: His aunt, uncle and two cousins were among the 100-plus people killed. Such tragedy brought new meaning to coach Timmy Chang’s near-daily reminders that the Rainbow Warriors “play for all eight islands. ” With hundreds of people still missing in Maui, the Hawaii football team has the ultimate motivation: bring joy to a state in desperate need of it.

Last weekend, after a 4,331-mile flight from Honolulu to Nashville, the Warriors shocked the nation by almost upsetting Vanderbilt. That inspired performance only strengthened Hawaii’s belief that it can win its home opener Friday night against Stanford. Never mind that the Cardinal, which saw 12 starters transfer out after a second straight 3-9 season, are widely expected to finish toward the bottom of the Pac-12.

By toppling a Power 5 program with national brand recognition, the Warriors would speed up their rebuild and make Hawaii proud. Few would be happier about that than the Warriors’ half dozen Bay Area natives, almost all of whom attended Stanford games as kids. Over the past 3½ weeks, as videos and photos of Lahaina burning went viral, Hawaii’s NorCal transplants were devastated — not just for Pupunu and their other teammates from Maui, but for the entire state.

The Warriors’ Bay Area recruits signed with Hawaii largely for the chance to play football and study a short drive from white-sand beaches. Since arriving on campus, their appreciation for the state has extended to friendly locals and a distinct culture. Chang, a former record-setting quarterback for the Warriors, was hired in January 2022 to stabilize a dysfunctional program.

In addition to bringing back Hawaii’s famed run-and-shoot offense and bolstering in-state recruitment, he has ensured that all his players and assistants understand what makes Hawaii special: the history, the dancing, the community-centered lifestyle. On Aug. 12, just a few days after the fast-moving fires devastated Lahaina and its surrounding communities, the Warriors organized a donation drive to help Maui relief efforts.

James Milovale — a junior offensive lineman from Seaside (Monterey County) — scoured his apartment for items to give away. “I found four blankets,” he said. “That’s all I could really supply at the time.

Hopefully they help some people sleep at night because I know a lot of folks are homeless right now. ” Like many Bay Area natives, Brandon Shah — a freshman defensive back from Livermore — considers Maui one of his favorite places to visit. Two summers ago, while on vacation with his family, he enjoyed a relaxing stroll on Lahaina’s Front Street.

When Shah first saw pictures this month of the ashen remains of those shops and restaurants, he felt queasy. Then he heard Kimo Holo Holt-Mossman, a junior defensive back from southeast of Lahaina, share stories about loved ones fleeing the fire. At least all his relatives evacuated safely.

After Pupunu learned that four of his close family members were killed in the fire, he flew home to Maui for the weekend. Reality sank in for Pupunu when he toured his childhood streets. Everything — family homes, his old elementary school, his favorite food spots — was gone.

“We’ve just been really trying to be there for Karsyn,” said Demarii Blanks, a senior linebacker from Belmont. “This team is like a big family, and we rally together when one of our guys is going through a hard time. ” Pupunu is just one of thousands of Hawaiians whose life changed on that windy day in early August.

With recovery efforts ongoing, and the full extent of the damage still unknown, Maui needs something — anything — to cheer. Therein lies the Warriors’ primary responsibility. Picked to finish 10th in the 12-team Mountain West, they understand how much a resurgent season would mean to a state with one Division I school and no pro franchises.

Chang rarely lets a team meeting pass without reiterating the importance of giving Hawaii a much-needed diversion. In case players forget what they’re playing for, they need only look at the Maui decal on the back of their helmets or their “Maui Strong” warmup shirts. There are also social media messages from across the world voicing support for a Warriors program that went 3-10 last year in Chang’s first season.

A slew of teams, including the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Wildcats, are raising money for Maui. Wednesday, St. Mary’s and Hawaii jointly announced that their men’s basketball teams will face each other in an exhibition game in Honolulu on Oct.

20 to benefit relief efforts. “The outpouring of support for us locally, as well as globally and nationally, is a true testament to our people here,” Chang said. “But always, always, always, we’re looking to represent the state.

And at this time, especially Maui. ” Added Stanford coach Troy Taylor: “We feel for them over there. … Your heart breaks hearing stories about players losing loved ones and homes.

Compared to all that, football feels very small. ” That might be true, but few things have the unifying power of football. On Friday evening, a capacity crowd at the Clarence T.

C. Ching Athletics Complex will stand shoulder to shoulder in silence, pausing for a moment as it reflects on the wildfires that ravaged one of Hawaii’s most historic towns. Then kickoff will arrive.

And, if only for a few hours, a grieving state can focus on something a bit lighter: beating Stanford. “You want to win every game you play,” said Justin Sinclair, a junior defensive back from East Palo Alto. “But ever since the fires, we want to win more than ever.

It just means more. ” .

Connor Letourneau
Filed 09.01.2023

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