JJ expects 35K UH fans
» Just another adjustment for AhSoon
Hawaii football coach June Jones said Warrior Nation is bigger than people think -- and that its citizens will converge on the Superdome for the Sugar Bowl in vast numbers.
Hawaii (12-0) vs. Georgia (10-2)
» Jan. 1, 3:30 p.m.
» New Orleans
» TV: KHON Ch. 3
The Warriors were scheduled to leave for New Orleans today.
UH season-ticket holders surprised everyone, including the Hawaii athletic department, in their demand for tickets for the school's first BCS bowl game, against Georgia on Jan. 1 in New Orleans.
After the team's final practice here, Jones said he expects Warrior fans from around the country will bring the number of UH rooters to nearly half the Superdome's 72,003 capacity.
"I think there'll be close to 35,000 because of the mainland connections and everything else," Jones said.
"It's really snowballing. I've noticed the past couple years that people have been coming from all over to watch us (at road games). At Utah, San Jose, Vegas," Jones said. "It gives transplanted local people a chance to enjoy and reconnect."
Just another adjustment for AhSoon
When Keith AhSoon wasn't protecting Colt Brennan's blindside this year, he was helping him graduate.
Don't worry, it's not what you might think.
"I did a report on Keith for an ethnic studies class about where he came from," the Hawaii quarterback said. "He's a unique guy and it's amazing how well he's adapted. You feel like you could put him in the middle of New York and he'd survive."
There's no snow, no department stores at which to buy big screen TVs and no turkeys to cook for dinner. But, yes, Christmas is certainly celebrated in the village of Faleasao on the tiny American Samoan island of Ta'u, an 8-hour boat ride from the relative metropolis of Pago Pago.
Leafa AhSoon and the other 300 residents (most of whom are related) will exchange gifts with loved ones today. But mostly they will celebrate the spirit of the holiday, minus most of the commercial trappings.
AhSoon's only child, Keith, will travel away from her today, flying east to New Orleans. It might as well be a planet away, or maybe two.
Keith is the starting left tackle for UH, and Hawaii takes its 12-0 record into the Superdome on New Year's Day against favored Georgia.
More than 200 times as many people as there were on the island he grew up on will fill the Superdome when AhSoon lines up as Brennan's No. 1 bodyguard. And millions more will watch on TV.
As surreal as the Sugar Bowl is for long-suffering Hawaii fans, the experience for AhSoon will just be another in a series of culture shocks.
In the past two years alone, AhSoon and his teammates have counted among their 10 road stops the Deep South (Alabama), the Bay Area (San Jose State), Sin City (Las Vegas), and now The Big Easy.
Quite a hands-on education -- for anyone, let alone a guy from a remote outpost in the middle of the Pacific without the metropolitan aspect of Honolulu.
"Oh yeah, it's like a class, traveling and adjusting to new things," AhSoon said. "It's interesting how you see something on TV or in class, and all of a sudden you're there. Now we're going to be there at New Orleans and it's going to be crazy."
AhSoon's life has always been about adapting to new environments. Since he was a football prodigy, when he got to high school age he moved from Faleasao and lived with his aunt in Pago Pago. He starred at Tafuna High School in three sports, an agile, 6-foot-1 big man.
"What's amazing is he's got an unreal arm," Brennan said. "He could be a quarterback if you wanted a big 300-pound quarterback."
Former Warriors offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh went to American Samoa in 2003 specifically to recruit him, and that won a battle with BYU and Utah.
"After my junior year I went to their camps, and they sent me applications," AhSoon said. "But I never really paid attention. At the same time UH really came on. Cav's here, he's offering. Why not take it? It's closer to home."
Closer, but still different.
"People think Hawaii's relaxed," AhSoon said. "But it really isn't to me.
"It's always a step up where I have to adjust to how things are. When I moved from home to Pago Pago, a step up. There's rules, where it was real relaxed where I was. Then I moved to Hawaii, there's more rules you have to go by, then we go on the road to places like Las Vegas, and there's even more rules."
He grew up in a place where "all there is is your house."
"We don't have a hospital. If you're sick, you fly over to Pago Pago to see a doctor," he said. "If you're sick at night, you just have to wait and go the next day. If there's no plane you have to take a boat, and it's about an 8-hour ride."
Usually, a 16-seat, 2-engine plane makes a run each day.
How long is the airstrip?
AhSoon points to where he just completed practice with his teammates.
"A football field."
"I wouldn't say a grocery store, more like a little canteen. You can get little things like sodas," he said. "Usually go to Pago Pago to shop, go over there, bring it back on the boat. That's how it is."
There are two elementary schools and one high school, with about 10 or 12 students in each grade level, AhSoon said. One year after he was already at Tafuna, the high school fielded a football team.
It lasted one season.
AhSoon's cousin, Shaun Nua, went the same route as he did, from Faleasao to Tafuna to college football (BYU). And now Nua is in the NFL, a defensive end on the Buffalo Bills' practice squad.
"He's like my idol," AhSoon said.
They get to watch football on TV (always replays), "if you're lucky" a UH game," AhSoon said.
Mostly, life in Faleasao centers on the ocean and church. One brings life, the other hope.
"They just fish, and send it to Pago Pago," AhSoon said. "And the church is very important, and Christmas is the biggest holiday, like it is in most places."
Some people make inaccurate assumptions about AhSoon's home.
"They think Samoa is a whole different world. But everything you do here is the same, we just don't have as much," he said. "It's American Samoa, the same as here. We might not have as much material things, but we celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving. You're lucky if have turkey, but there's chickens everywhere. Shoot one and make it for Thanksgiving."
Keith and his mother, Leafa, don't get to spend many holidays together these days. She still sets up the artificial Christmas tree, the one they've had 15 years.
But the AhSoons reunite for New Year's. Leafa, who has seen Keith in just two UH games, will fly to New Orleans later this week for the Sugar Bowl.
And her only child said his future plans include eventually returning to her and Faleasao, where he hopes to make a difference for young people.
"There's nothing for the kids. I see so much talent there, but not very many opportunities," he said. "Someday I want to go back and work with them, maybe coaching. There's no place like home."