Vainikolo Brothers Are Face of Sabers’ Football
By Rodney S. Yap
Long before they were permitted to put on the pads, the Vainikolo boys — Alexander Fonokimoana and Leka Atunaisa — learned the value of faith, family and football.
With the help of their six older brothers, Moana and Leka, embraced the trilogy growing up at 959 South Kihei Road.
“I remember there was nothing but rugs and rocks outside,” Moana recalled. “That’s where I remember my bothers all coming outside and playing football.”
Except Sundays, of course, which was reserved for worshipping at the Free Church of Tonga in Makawao, where their conviction to Christianity in their native Tongan swelled with pride.
“That’s what really got us hungry to play football, because we had to wait and wait, while our friends were playing Pop Warner for the Kihei Dolphins, we couldn’t play because of our religious beliefs and that only made us more driven and more hungry.”
“That’s where football started for us. That was the best house ever,” said Leka. “I have the best memories growing up there.”
“If you passed by that house on South Kihei Road, its really a rugged house,” Moana noted. “It started with our bothers, but we learned the game of football on rugs and rocks. We had a goal line and one guy would be crying and one guy would be celebrating.”
The Vainikolos, both Alexander No. 21 and Atunaisa No. 71, as they are referred to on Maui High School’s official Maui Interscholastic League roster, have come a long way in a short time, playing hard knocks football now with the MIL’s Division I champion Sabers.
“That’s when we started getting them ready was when they were in the 1st or 2nd grade and they were whacking each other right there on South Kihei Road on the rug and rocks. And I remember Moana was always getting his butt whooped,” said older brother Kamaloni, who also happens to be the boys defensive line coach and a former Utah State defensemen.
“Eventually Moana had to learn technique, and I’d tell him technique is what will get you there. So he’s come a long ways and now they are sort of equal. Moana is phenomenal in the weight room, very explosive and it translates onto the field, too. Leka is not as explosive, but looks can be deceiving because on the field he’s a handful.”
At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds and 6-foot, 225, respectively, Atunaisa and Alexander are arguably the MIL’s most fierce defensive duels.
The senior pair are on Oahu with the rest of the Maui High School (7-2) football team, preparing to play sixth-ranked Farrington (8-2) in first-round action of the First Hawaiian Bank Division I state football tournament Friday at Aloha Stadium.
The 4:30 p.m. game can be seen live on OC16 and heard live on ESPN 900AM with Barry Helle.
As far as Maui High head coach David Bui is concern, the Vainikolo’s contributions to the Saber football program goes far beyond X’s and O’s.
“They are the face of the program,” said Bui, who began building a new football culture at the Kahului school with players like the Vainikolos four years ago. “They had a choice to go to a different school and they made the choice to come here and help us build. They could see the steady progress every year, but just to be here to win the MIL and make it to states, that is a huge reward and payoff for them. That’s why when I get interviewed, I always say that I am very happy for them, that’s because a lot of these kids had the choice to go somewhere else and they decided to be loyal, stay in district, and come and help us build a program here.”
In addition to winning its first MIL championship since 2000, Maui High is also making its first state tournament appearance in 13 years.
“Weather we win it or not and make it to states, to me in the long run, for them, they are better off just because they had the courage to do great things. But we’re just happy that we did do it and we got it done.”
The Sabers’ stout defense is one of the key reasons for Maui High’s success, limiting opponents to 166.3 yards per game.
“I can’t say it was just them. We tell everybody on our defense that when you are in there, you are not just in there to be in there — make a play. Everybody’s out there to make a play and we’ve had a lot of them make plays. Nathan Vierra has broken up some great passes this year, Justin Cravalho has had some interceptions, Tyson Takabayashi coming down and filling holes from his safety position, and then our front eight are just all over the place.
“I think having them (Vainikolos) there though is important, they are the vocal leaders of our team. We’re trying to build a program were the coaches are not slave owners. We want the boys leading the team we want them to be the inspiration. It’s gotten to the point where my coaches and I are just setting back most of the time and these two are the ones coaching up the kids and a lot of times the stuff they say are the stuff that we say. So in a way they are extensions of our coaching staff those two boys.”
“It’s a real blessing and everything happens for a reason,” Atunaisa said. “We came here because we wanted to impact Maui High.”
Since their arrival on campus, the Vainikolo’s trilogy of faith, family and football is being practiced and preached daily.
“It’s the one thing a Saber football player has to value. . . . Everyday we have a call after practice: faith, family, football on three! 1-2-3 faith, family, football,” said Alexander, who primarily plays on the defensive line with his brother, but hopes to earn a football scholarship as a linebacker, where he wowed college coaches at three summer camps, including the NIKE Combine Camp in Oakland.
“We all know it all starts with the man above, that’s faith; family, we look at each other like we’re all brothers and then there’s our family at home; football, we understand that football is not an easy sport and we have to take it seriously. It’s a sport that should not be underestimated and that’s our drive.”