Wildfires devastated the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina. In the aftermath, its high school football team played on, finding solace in an improbable season.
December 5, 2023 at 7:00 a.m. EST
He waved at a yellow bus, which had ferried a group 0f locals up the only road to the school, past the Hawaii Army National Guard checkpoints keeping gawkers out of the charred neighborhoods, past the handmade signs that read “Lahaina is Not For Sale,” past the memorials for those who died Aug. 8.
Just four months after a fire destroyed most of Lahaina, killing at least 115, displacing thousands and decimating Hawaii’s first capital city, the town is still grieving and fractured. Locals are divided over their leaders’ institutional failures. They have fought to stop the threat of unsolicited offers from outside realtors trying to snap up land where homes burned down, and they are torn over the role of tourism in the region’s future. But a key piece of the town’s soul endures: Lahainaluna High School football.
Despite questions about whether they would be able to field a team — more than half the players and coaches lost their homes in the fires, and some, including their coach, lost loved ones — the Lunas continued their proud, winning history this fall and chased another championship.
As the sun went down on that October Saturday evening and the Lunas took the field, Dean followed and tried not to glance at his hometown below. One of his friends stopped him and pointed. “It kind of looks different,” he told Dean, who nodded. The lights used to glisten below the field during the games. Now the gray and black of the land vanished in the dark.
“Yes, we just have to get used to this,” the coach replied.
Before kickoff, the Lunas walked to midfield, removed their helmets and placed them at their feet. They held hands and began to sing their alma mater.
Dean sang this song when he played here. His son sang it after him. He believes his grandchildren will one day sing it as Lunas. He felt chills on his skin as his players sang the second verse in Hawaiian.
Oh, Lahaina, Lahainaluna nani (beauty),
The leading star of the Pacific
The ever burning torch which cannot be
Extinguished by the fierce winds of Kaua‘ula
At about 2 a.m. on Aug. 8, Dean woke to violent winds slamming against his home. The power was out. In all of his years living in Lahaina, he had never heard gusts howl like this — the locals called it Kaua’ula — and as the sun came up, his daughter had texted to tell him a fire had been contained on the outskirts of town.
Dean and his wife had lived in their home, a wooden two-story with four bedrooms and balconies overlooking the Pacific, for decades. His parents still lived in his childhood home in the same subdivision. His brother lived next door. His daughter was two doors down, and his son was about a minute’s walk up the road. The family would gather for cookouts every chance they could during the fall. Dean would play with his grandkids and catch everyone up on how the Lunas were doing. During the holidays, Virginia Dofa — known as Virgie — Dean’s mother-in-law and the matriarch of the family, would come over and cook Filipino dishes.
A 36-year veteran of the Maui police department who had risen through the ranks to captain before his retirement in 2021, Dean had steeled himself for mornings like this. He had worked everything from narcotics to murder investigations, but some of the most unpredictable days on the job were those when fire threatened the town. In 2018, as a fire blew down the mountains and bore down on the edge of town, torching part of the track around the Lunas’ field, Dean scrambled to activate all of his officers to evacuate the senior home Virgie was living in. Soon other neighborhoods followed. No Lahaina citizens died.
Five years later, there was little warning of what was coming. There were no sirens or alerts. Dean sent a message to his players: “Practice canceled,” he wrote, then watched the smoke thicken by the hour. Dean roamed his neighborhood and helped older folks pack up their cars to leave.
By 4 p.m., Dean’s daughter had called to tell his wife, Stephanie, that she was leaving with her children. “Good!” Dean said when Stephanie told him, and before long, cell service was down. Dean decided he and his wife should leave, too. He didn’t know where all of his players were, or his own family, for that matter. He wondered about his parents down the street and Virgie at the retirement home up the hill.
Embers crackled in the gray sky, and soon the home below Dean’s was in flames. He packed up his wife and granddaughter, Kaiani, whom he was babysitting, in his black Silverado. Stephanie kept asking him if the police were going to evacuate her mother’s nursing home. “I’m sure they did,” Dean told her.
He could see the fire had already crossed the street leading out of the neighborhood. Dean knew of an old, fenced-off service road behind his house, which led to a water-power station and eventually to the interstate. When they reached the highway, they joined a long line of cars parked along the road. One of Dean’s nephews was driving an ATV up and down the column, looking for his family. Dean hopped on and drove back and forth, eventually locating his siblings, children and parents. They stood by the side of the road for more than hour, watching their town burn.
A few miles from the highway, near the ocean, one of Dean’s assistant coaches, Joey Tihada, inched his Ford F-150 forward in gridlocked traffic. His son, Kaulana, a senior running back for the Lunas, was right ahead of him, steering the family’s old Scion even though he didn’t have his driver’s license. Their vehicles came to a complete stop. Cars were frantically honking. Electrical poles and debris were scattered across the road. Joey got out of the truck and ran up to the Scion and knocked on the window.
“If traffic doesn’t move in the next 15 minutes, we’re going to the beach,” he told Kaulana. They could hang out by the water, and if the flames surrounded them, they would jump in the ocean.
For 15 minutes, they waited. Joey waved for Kaulana to turn around, and together they wove through side roads before reaching the water. Kaulana hopped into the truck with his father and their two dogs, the air conditioning blasting while smoke danced off the windows. They looked back into town. It was a plume of black fog.
Joey desperately turned the knob on his radio dial, trying to pick up news. Nothing. They were about a mile from their home, and Joey decided to walk back to see if the flames had reached it. He told Kaulana to stay in the truck with the dogs.
“Be safe, Dad,” Kaulana said.
With each step, the smoke grew thicker. Joey’s Lahainaluna football T-shirt was covered in ash. He took it off and wrapped it around his mouth so he could breathe. As he got closer, he wished he had grabbed the state championship rings out of the top drawer in his bedroom.
Lahainaluna football is a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Most of the boys’ fathers played for the school, and more than a dozen of the team’s coaches suited up for the Lunas. Former players coach the youth programs in town, using the same playbook as the varsity team. Once boys hit sixth grade, many begin weight training at the high school.
Built in 1831, Lahainaluna High School is thought to be the one of the oldest high schools west of the Mississippi. The roads on the sprawling campus are lined with palm trees, and chickens roam the grounds outside Hale Pa’i, a white coral and timber building that housed Hawaii’s first printing press and sits near the Lunas’ locker room. Above the stadium is a 30-foot rock “L” formation; every year since 1904, students have climbed to the top of 2,000-foot peak carrying 50-pound bags of lime to repaint the stone. They clear weeds and clean up the site.
In 1981, when Joey was still too young to play for the Lunas, he was a water boy for a championship team coached by his uncle and captained by Dean. Later, Joey played running back for the school, and he taught his three boys how to play the position for the Lunas. His oldest, Justice, was a captain for the 2016 state championship team. His middle son, Josh, still holds numerous state records. Kaulana, once a water boy like his father and brothers, is a standout and team leader. Joey’s rings were heirlooms he wanted his boys to pass on to their children.
But Joey couldn’t get to the house through the smoke. His wife was raised in this house, and like Dean, his family had settled near one another. Joey’s childhood home was just a block away. Now it was all burning to the ground. A firetruck was patrolling the streets and stopped where Joey was walking. The driver yelled over the intercom: “Coach! What are you doing?”
It was one of Joey’s former players. He climbed into the truck and made it back to the beach, to his son and his dogs.
“It looks like the fire is going to catch our house,” Joey told Kaulana. They stared in silence from the parking lot as the orange glow grew brighter. The ocean waves crashed against the beach in the dark. Kaulana fell asleep, and Joey, still in shock, dozed off beside him.
Three days later, the fire still was not fully contained, and the entire area remained without cellphone service. Dean headed to a Wal-Mart in a nearby town to find clothes and supplies. He had barely slept the night before, staying up until 4 a.m. replaying the day of the fire in his head. He had not eaten much and had lost weight. Inside the store, he was in a fog until he noticed two of his seniors, linebacker Ikaika Gonzales and quarterback Noa Gordon, looking at fishing gear. Dean approached and asked them how their families were doing. Then one of them asked him, “Coach, are we going to play or not going to play?”
“You guys want to?” Dean replied. Of course they wanted to play, they told him with the fishing poles in their hands, because they had nothing else to do.
Dean left the store rejuvenated. Gonzales and Gordon started to reach out to teammates, who were scattered in temporary houses and hotels across the island. More than half of the team and over a dozen coaches had lost their homes. Some had lost loved ones. Dean grappled with questions: Was holding a season even logistically possible? The campus and stadium had been spared, but the school wouldn’t be able to reopen for weeks because of road closures and air quality concerns.
Now Dean thought: Was it insensitive to think about football? More than 30 of Dean’s family members were living at his brother’s house on the other side of the island. Most days, they would wake up after agonizing nights and just stare at one another. And Virgie was still missing; it would be a couple weeks before Dean’s family learned she’d been among those who had died.
Dean tried to ward off depression by helping unload and sort volunteer donations being delivered to his brother’s house. His own home had somehow been spared, but in the coming months he would move into a temporary apartment across the island. His days were now dominated by phone calls with insurance adjusters, because his parents, brother, sister, son and daughter had all lost their homes. When he wasn’t doing that, he was telling the friends who didn’t have insurance on their torched homes not to sell to outsiders who were looking to capitalize.
“It’s tearing me up inside,” he said. “But I’m just trying to maintain my sense of control for my family’s needs.”
Several days after Dean ran into his players, Joey Tihada called him. He told Dean he had lost his house, but he was ready to coach if everyone else was in. More than anything, he wanted his son to have a senior season.
Joey had decided to take some time off from his job at FedEx. His wife, Sheri, was living on the other side of the island, working around the clock for Hawaii Electric and making trips to meet Joey and Kaulana whenever she could. One weekend, they visited the remains of their house. It was still smoldering. Joey sat on the sidewalk in disbelief. Kaulana walked past the ruins of his bedroom and began to cry.
“Are you okay?” Joey asked, and Kaulana nodded. He stayed away from the house after that. All he wanted to do was play football.
“It gave us more reason to play with our hearts for our community,” Kaulana said.
A couple of weeks later, a humanitarian agency found two of Joey’s state championship rings in the cinders of the home. One was mangled and melted. He thought maybe this Lunas team, with his son leading, could win another one this season. The Lunas were soon back on the field at a nearby high school, practicing for the first time with just over 40 players, preparing for a shortened five-game season. They wouldn’t be able to return home for their first game until late October, but Dean called the team together to deliver an important message.
“It doesn’t matter what you do this season; you’ve already won,” he told them.
The Lunas were 3-0 heading into their homecoming week. On the night before the game, the visiting school, Baldwin High, traveled across the island to practice on the Lunas’ field. Some parents didn’t want their kids to be traumatized by what they saw down below in Lahaina before they played an actual game. There were counselors available. The Lunas waited for their opponents to leave before they practiced themselves. A few of the coaches could hear some of the Baldwin players humming a song before they left.
“We will shut them up tomorrow night,” Dean said. As a player, Dean had been known for his nastiness and skill as an offensive lineman; at 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, he could bench-press 490 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds. His college coach called him the best guard who had ever played for him. All these years later, he still carried that edge.
It rubbed off on some of his players. His starting center, Morgan “Bula” Montgomery, had broken his hand during a game earlier in the season and was thought to be out of the lineup; within a few days, he had found a doctor across the island who cleared him and gave him a club cast so he could play.
“When you put on the red jersey, you’re not playing for yourself at that point,” Morgan said. “You’re playing for the guys that came before you, the guys that are going to come after you.”
On the morning of the fire, Morgan had slept late. When he woke, his mother and siblings were sitting in their apartment’s living room in the dark because the power had gone out. They all decided to play cards. Soon their smoke detector began to beep, and they could hear propane tanks exploding nearby. Morgan rushed into his room and threw clothes into a bag. He didn’t think the building would burn, so he didn’t grab the urn holding the ashes of his father, who had died four years earlier. “I wish I would have,” he said, and for the next few months, his single mom held the family together as they moved from one Red Cross hotel to another across the island. It would sometimes take hours to get to weightlifting sessions or practices, but it was worth it. They were the only people who knew what he was going through.
Senior running back James Lukela-Kobatake had lost the home that had housed 10 generations of his family. The walls were full of memories: his grandfather’s leather motorcycle vest, pictures of his parents dancing hula, marker drawings by a young James. The house was on the beach and outfitted with a sea wall to protect it from other natural disasters, but not fire.
Throughout the morning of the fire, the family boarded up windows. The smoke grew closer and closer. “We never thought the fire would reach [the house],” James said, but when the flames began to engulf neighbors’ homes, the family decided to leave. James’s father grabbed some guns and documents. James packed clothes into his Toyota 4Runner, and the vehicle crawled along the interstate to escape. The family later learned that another of their properties, a building on Front Street that James was to someday inherit, had also burned down.
For the next month, James refused to turn on his cellphone so he could be fully present with his grieving family, prompting some in town to believe he had gone missing. He only began responding to messages when the football season was revived.
“To be around my friends I grew up with, football is more than just a sport that we all love now,” he said. “It’s like we have the town on our back now. It’s the only thing we look forward to.”
After their final practice before the homecoming game, a bus picked the players up from their stadium and took them to a local resort that was spared in the fire. There was a dinner waiting in a banquet room; Morgan and James both smiled as a group of locals cheered while they walked through the lobby. Dean grabbed a microphone near the front of the room to address everyone.
“All we ask of these kids is that they serve as a beacon of hope for our entire community,” he said, with his team standing behind him. “And they’re doing that.”
The Lunas’ homecoming game sold out in just 15 minutes, and thousands of fans mingled inside the pastel-colored cinder block stadium close to kickoff, some wearing red and black T-shirts stamped with the slogan: “From the Fire and the Ashes We Will Rise Again.”
A generator hummed near the entrance, powering a concessions stand serving venison chili. Some cheerleaders put on makeup in the corner of the track, and the homecoming royalty gathered by the bleachers. Up above the press box, a team manager set up a new camera to film the game because all of the Lunas’ video equipment had been lost when an assistant coach’s house burned down. Dean’s grandchildren played catch near the locker room doors. “There’s Lahaina’s next generation,” he proudly beamed to an assistant coach nearby.
After the Lunas finished singing their alma mater, they dominated Baldwin in a 28-7 win. The team runs a powerful mix of the Wing-T and option offense, and Morgan and the rest of the offensive line bulldozed big running lanes. Kaulana ran for three touchdowns, and even though he couldn’t play because of a leg injury he’d suffered earlier in the season, James helped on the sideline, wiping the rain off players’ arms with a towel.
In a few weeks, their season would end on this field in the final seconds of a playoff game after Kaulana was stopped just short of the goal line. The Lunas would lose by one point. But they would always have their homecoming night. After the game was over, the parents served a homemade dinner. Before they ate, players returned to the locker room and turned off the lights to sing the alma mater one more time. Then they lined up and held out their bowls as Joey and Sheri dished pork and watercress soup.
Dean waited on the field to hold his grandbaby for photos and visit with friends he hadn’t seen since before the fire. Baldwin’s coach came over to congratulate him. “Good job, neighbor!” he said to Dean, because now the men lived next door to one another 25 miles from here, across the island. Dean looked around at how many locals were still inside the stadium. They didn’t want to leave. He wished those family members who were no longer with him could be there. He thought of Virgie and how she smiled when he told her about his team.
Dean’s homecoming weekend would also include his first night back in his house in Lahaina. Because it was in the impact zone but had not burned, the town had permitted him and others to go back. For weeks, Dean had worked on the structure; he had the roof repaired and professional cleaners work in the house, but it was still eerie. Plywood boards covered up the neighborhoods that had burned around his house, and the odor of ash was difficult to shake.
As Dean and his family drove toward home, they stopped at the National Guard checkpoint outside their neighborhood. One of the soldiers recognized Dean as the Lunas’ coach. “Did we win?” he asked.
“We won!” Dean said with a laugh, and before he was waved through, he told the guard he would be back. He had to return to the school for a late night. The uniforms still had to be washed, and film needed to be studied.
But first Dean pulled into his driveway and helped his granddaughter into the house. His nephew and grandson, future Lunas, were staying the night too. He told his wife to keep the windows closed and the air conditioning off. He didn’t want ash to seep in.
“Good night. I’ll see you in the morning,” he whispered to them all as they climbed into their beds. Then he locked up the house, turned the Silverado on, and made his way back up the hill.