EULESS, Texas (Reuters) - Defensive lineman Moahengi Latu strikes an imposing figure, long hair swinging wildly as he belts out a battle cry.
“Get ready for war, let’s go!” Latu screams in his native Tongan language, as his teammates on the Trinity High School Trojans football team stamp their feet, raise their fists, stick out their tongues in a gesture of intimidation.
“Battle with all your might! Believe in each other! Fight on, warriors!” they cry out in Tongan. “Tau aki ho loto!”
They finish the ancient, rhythmic “haka” with a roar, just moments before their first game of the celebrated Texas high school football season.
It would be graceful, a thing of beauty, a little playful even, if it were not so savage.
In the packed stands at the district’s stadium near the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, the crowd is riveted as they watch the unveiling of this season’s haka — a centuries-old tribal war dance these young Texas suburbanites have made their own.
“I get tears in my eyes, I love the haka so much,” 17-year-old cheerleader co-captain Whitney Smith said. “It makes everybody in the crowd excited.”
In Texas, high school football players are heroes, and the gridiron on Friday night is as much a backdrop to life as is church on Sunday morning.
Some teams and players become legends, such as the much-celebrated Permian Basin program in west Texas that inspired the hit Friday Night Lights television series.
Now a new football story is emerging at this high school of 2,300 students. What some are calling a “Polynesian Pipeline” to this suburb has brought mass and enthusiasm to their championship football team, and with it, the team’s beloved new haka tradition.
“It prepares us for war,” said lineman Hafoka Olie.
The Trojans have won three division state championships in the six years the team has brought the haka to the football field. They have been featured in a Gatorade commercial, and their haka has been shown on national news and sports shows.
Euless, a town of about 52,000, has an unusual claim to fame: It is home to more Tongans per capita than any other city in the U.S., according to Euless officials. According to the 2010 census, some 1,101 — or 2.1 percent of the town’s population — are Pacific Islanders. Of them, 826 are Tongan.
By comparison, neighboring Bedford, Texas, claims a similar overall population, but fewer than 150 islanders.
Trinity had 92 Pacific Islanders among its student body last year. Nearby L.D. Bell High School, of similar size in the same district, had only 14.
That so-called Polynesian Pipeline from places such as Tonga, Hawaii, American Samoa and Guam, driven largely by airport jobs and family ties, has turned the city into something of an islanders’ enclave, with ukuleles in the school yard and Polynesian shops and churches.
By far the most notable trend: A giant football team.
“They’re huge!” exclaims Emily Sanders, 15, as she watched her Robert E. Lee High School football team get trounced by the Trojans last Friday by a whopping 30-7.
Islanders are a big-boned, thickly built people, and they are a “natural fit” for football, said Fotu Katoa, who was the first Tongan player at Trinity in 1982.
“The majority of us grow up playing rugby, and it’s an aggressive sport and a physical sport,” Katoa told Reuters.
Principal Mike Harris likes this term: “The wow factor.”
“Trinity wins some of their football games just by getting off the bus,” Harris said, quoting a local report on the team. “It certainly plays into our hand, no question about it.”
Katoa started a trend that Trinity Coach Steve Lineweaver said has “brought a special dimension to us, to our team.”
The Polynesian players make a considerable contribution to the team, no doubt. But some of the biggest and brightest stars on the team are not from the islands at all, and most, including Lineweaver, credit their success to an overall great team.
As offensive lineman Dillon Dillard says, “It’s not about race. It’s about unity.”
The haka has its role, too.
“It unites them and makes them one,” said Ofa Faiva-Siale, who heads the Tongan Youth Association, which strives to help Polynesian kids finish college. “They have to be one in order to be as dominating as they have been. The haka brought them together in a lot of ways.”
In the spring of 2005, students approached the school’s coaching staff with a YouTube video of the legendary New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team doing a haka and said they wanted to do one at their games.
That season, the team went on to win their first ever Texas 5A Division 1 State Championship.
“It was a magical year for us,” Lineweaver said.
Within a few years, the team had abandoned the Maori-tongued haka borrowed from the All-Blacks and, with the help of Tongan elders, penned their own.
At games, the banner slung across the stands reads, “Peace, love, haka.” Each year’s new haka unveiling is eagerly awaited. Even the cheerleaders, with their tiny wrists and peppy voices, perform the haka at cheer camp during the summer.
“It’s just part of Trinity now,” Katoa said. “If the haka is going to bring pride and emotions and everybody’s good wishes and excitement and energy, it’s a great thing. There’s no question. I love it.”
Editing by Greg McCune