A Tongan migration has landed squarely in Baton Rouge.
Two LSU football players now represent the tiny Polynesian nation comprising 176 islands with a land area smaller than New Orleans.
Fehoko Fanaika became the first ever Tongan to suit up for the Tigers when he enrolled before the 2013 season. Sione Teuhema joined him this year as the second, and his younger brother, Maea Teuhema, will be the third when he arrives at LSU next summer.
It’s not a culture Louisianans know much about, but perhaps they will if this trend continues.
“I’m trying to start a little pipeline,” said Fanaika, whom his teammates refer to simply as “Hoko.” “[The coaches] ask me every now and then if I know any guys [that can play] and I give them some names…It’s really important to me. You never forget your roots.”
Fanaika’s parents emigrated from Tonga and settled in California. After starting his career at the College of San Mateo, Fanaika wanted something different. He found the polar opposite in Louisiana.
Once he arrived, he quickly piqued the interest of another Polynesian great in LSU history.
Kevin Mawae was a military brat with Hawaiian roots that eventually landed in Leesville, where his father was deployed at Fort Polk. Mawae went on to have one of the best careers for an LSU offensive lineman and became a mainstay around the program after his All-Pro NFL career finished in 2009.
Mawae now serves on the Polynesian Hall of Fame Committee and said he’s thrilled to see this influx of that heritage into LSU.
“It’s a great deal,” he said. “Athletically in the Polynesian culture, a lot of guys have success, but you don’t really see it here in the SEC because they’re usually out on the West Coast. But now there’s a migration, and it’s exciting to see for the Polynesian culture…
“I’m excited about the prospects of potentially having them in the Hall of Fame one day.”
Though he and Fanaika don’t share the exact same roots, Mawae helped acclimate him to his new home.
“It’s a very tight-knit family culture,” Mawae said. “They want to have their family around them. So for a kid to come from California all the way to Louisiana, it’s a tough thing for them. It’s a big challenge to do that, but it’s something we’ll hopefully start seeing more of.”
That sense of family is exactly what attracted the Teuhemas to LSU. The long-time Texas commits took a visit to Baton Rouge shortly before National Signing Day earlier this year. Fanaika served as their host, and Sione cited him as a big reason he felt comfortable coming to LSU.
“For Hoko to be Tongan and here at LSU, I thought that was cool,” Sione said. “He’s the first Tongan to ever play at LSU. He set something for me to follow.”
“They remind me a lot of me,” Fanaika said of the Teuhemas. “They play with a lot of Polynesians. It felt good for them to get away, but not too far. They wanted to go to a good school, and they committed once they found out I was here.”
Both Fanaika and Sione said their Tongan culture is extremely important to them, but neither really displays it to their teammates. Sione said he mostly keeps it on the “down-low,” and you aren’t going to find any videos of them engaged in the ritualistic dances of the island.
Much to the chagrin of Fanaika’s former roommate.
“He’s pretty secretive,” said fellow offensive lineman Evan Washington. “I’m trying to learn some of the dances, but he won’t teach me. I lived with him a whole year, and he didn’t even show me one…Maybe by the end of the season, he’ll teach me something.”
That secrecy doesn’t stem from shame though, more just the shy nature of these particular Tongans. But Mawae hopes to see more Polynesian influence in Louisiana and wants Fanaika and the Teuhemas to carry the flag.
“Hopefully they won’t keep it under wraps too much,” Mawae said. “It’s something they need to be proud of. It’s a heritage that oftentimes dies out because of those same factors. But hopefully they’ll be proud of it and share it with their teammates.”
LSU's Tongan Invasion
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