Fehoko brings his mana to Steelers
Veteran nose tackle a traditionalist in life and work
By Dale Lolley  Jul 02, 2023

Family and tradition means everything to the Fehoko family.

And the family tradition for the Fehoko family is to entertain and play football.

More often than not, those two things are intertwined.

For the family patriarch, Vili Fehoko, that has led him down a path that saw him have a tryout for the CFL and then play some semi-pro football when he was younger.

But once the children started to come for Vili and Linda Fehoko – in the form of four boys, Whitely, Sam, Vili, Jr., and Breiden – family and tradition took on a whole new meaning.

Vili Fehoko, who now lives with Linda in Houston, began working as a performer at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu in their home state of Hawaii.

As luck – and good fortune – would have it, football came knocking once again when June Jones took over as the head coach at the University of Hawaii in 1999.

Early in his tenure, Jones and the Rainbow Warriors were playing in a bowl game in their home state and both teams visited the Polynesian Cultural Center as part of the week's activities.

Vili Fehoko, one of the featured entertainers, put on a show that had both teams buzzing.

"I came out and I played those drums. I had about 10 of them. I just rocked the place upside down," Vili recalled. "Both teams went crazy. I made the place go crazy. June Jones saw that for the first time and he told one of his coordinators, 'I want that guy to be part of my program.' Long story short, people said I became the mascot. A mascot is like a student. I became like a guy who came in and got the crowd started at the stadium.

"I would come in and do the opening and at halftime and then I left. People would be like, 'Hey, we're winning in the first half and we lost the second half. The drummer left. How can we get him to stay.' We sat down and worked out a contract. Hawaii is the Warriors. Since then, I stuck with that name, Vili the Warrior."

Vili the Warrior became a mainstay for the Rainbow Warriors. And he incorporated his four sons – well, at least three of them – into his show each game at Aloha Stadium.

Whitely, Sam and V.J., would get the crowds going at the games and keep them pumped up by playing the Polynesian drums and performing the Haka, a traditional Maori war dance of which the different cultures of the island all have their own twist.

The Fehoko's youngest son, Breiden, who is six years younger than V.J., didn't partake in the activities at first.

But as the Fehoko brothers went off to play college football, Whitely at San Diego State, Sam at Texas Tech and V.J. at Utah and then also Texas Tech, only Breiden was left at home.

"I started with my three older boys, playing the drums and making the fans go crazy. Breiden was too young to be on the field. He had to sit in the baseball dugout. He would paint himself up. He cried. He wanted to come out and join the team," Vili said.

In 2003 when Hawaii was hosting Alabama – yes, that happened – Breiden surprised his father.

The seven-year-old jumped out onto the field during the game, which was nationally televised on ESPN, and took over the family tradition – unbeknownst to his father.

"I was so pumped up. The crowd was going crazy. I went to the other end zone and I heard a roar on the other sideline," Vili said. "People were going crazy. I looked up on the big screen and I see Breiden. He just ran on the field. I went out dressed as a warrior. My wife would dress Breiden the same way. Man, the fans just went crazy, both the Alabama and the UH fans. From then on, we couldn't stop Breiden from coming onto the field. They wanted Breiden to come out all the time. Every time I ran out, Breiden would run out with me."

A star was born. Hawaii rallied by outscoring the Crimson Tide 21-8 in the fourth quarter for a 37-29 win and there was no way Breiden Fehoko wasn't going to be on the field performing with his father from that point on.

Fast-forward 20 years and Breiden Fehoko is still performing on the football field, albeit in a different fashion.

Signed in free agency by the Steelers as a free agent after spending the past three seasons with the Chargers, Breiden Fehoko is no longer that skinny seven-year-old who jumped onto the field with his father to perform. Now, he's a 6-foot-3, 300-pound nose tackle.

Much like being a Polynesian performer is a very specialized skill set, so too is being a nose tackle in today's NFL.

"It's kind of like the fullback position. You don't know you need it until you need it," Breiden said of playing nose tackle. "I think it's a fallen art. I think everybody just recruits tackles. When you throw 'nose' in front of the tackle, everybody just thinks bigger bodied and wide-type. Vince Wilfork or Casey Hampton. The general embodiment of the nose tackle is that they don't run the ball between the tackles, from B-gap to B-gap, you want to make sure the lanes are technically blocked.

"I take a lot of pride in that. I take a lot of pride making sure they don't run between the tackles. I take a lot of pride in getting my hands on the center and making sure he doesn't climb to the linebackers."

But, as he said, many teams just don't use a nose tackle any longer, which has been both good and bad news for Fehoko in his young career.

Breiden initially signed with Texas Tech coming out of Farrington High School in Honolulu, turning down numerous other offers. He eventually transferred to LSU, where the 26-year-old won a national championship at LSU as a run-stuffing specialist in 2020. He went undrafted, signing with the Chargers. He bounced back and forth from the team's active roster and practice squad the past three seasons, appearing in 19 games and making four starts.

With Tyson Alualu headed to free agency, the Steelers had a need for another nose tackle to add to the mix on their defensive line.

One of the first people to reach out to Fehoko when he signed with the Steelers was, in fact, Alualu was one of the first people to reach out to him when he signed.

Alualu had played against Fehoko's older brothers and had occasionally reached out to him in the past. Now, he was reaching out to welcome him as a potential replacement.

"He's been a huge mentor of mine. Whenever I was in college, he would reach out. 'Hey, this is Tyson. If you ever need anything, here's my number.' When I signed here, he reached out to me, 'Hey if you want to come over and have a barbeque or whatever. I'm here,'" Fehoko said. "I think it's very full circle. He's one of those guys I watched in his early days at Cal. And then when he was drafted at Jacksonville. In his high school days at St. Louis, he played against my brother who was an offensive lineman. They always went against each other.

"Tyson was a guy who was very humble, a man of few words. But he played his heart out and left everything out there. I only hope to be half the player he was here. That's very big shoes to fill."

Big shoes, indeed.

If it sounds like Fehoko is a student of the game and appreciates those who came before him, it's because that's exactly who he is.

When he was young, he and his brothers would collect football cards. They would quiz each other about the players backgrounds and stats.

"I'm a sports junkie. I love sports in general, but football is my passion. I love it," he said. "Me and my brother always collected football cards as a kid. Last summer, we went back home to Hawaii and in our old storage, I had six totes filled with cards. All types. We would always test each other on where this guy went to college or what this stat was. This game has brought me so much joy, took me to highs and lows, taken me to places I would never imagine."

That included, through his father, getting to meet many of the players who were on the front of those football cards.

Vili Fehoko also would perform at the Pro Bowl when it was held in Hawaii. Breiden would go with him and meet many of the sport's greats.

"Breiden is an old soul. He's old-school. You talk with Breiden about football, he'll just go," Vili said. "Breiden would talk about Reggie White, Mean Joe (Greene), guys like that. He studied all these people, all these players. When they would do the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Breiden would get to meet guys like Barry Sanders, Reggie White, Jerry Rice, all these guys. It was a blessing. He got to meet all these great players. I'm so super-happy he's with the Steelers. He's got to go do work. I'm just excited for him to be with the Steelers."

It's all about appreciating the tradition. And the Fehoko family is all about tradition.

Part of that tradition is performing the Haka.

The dance is performed to welcome distinguished guests, to acknowledge great achievements, occasions or funerals.

For the Fehoko family, it is a way to celebrate their Polynesian culture.

"The Haka is you calling upon your ancestors, the people that died. When you perform the Haka, a lot of people say, 'You don't smile enough.' You're doing the Haka because you're going to do battle, to go to war," Vili said. "To perform the Haka in the old days, the main warriors would lie all these other warriors on the ground and you walked on their back and test their weakness. Any weakness and the other warriors would club them to death. … It's really to see if you're ready to go to battle. When you perform the Haka, you stick your tongue out at the end to show that you're ready to do battle. You're coming to, I don't want to use the word kill, but that's what you're doing.

"When my boys went to college, a lot of people loved the Haka. It pumped everybody up. They asked my boys if they could teach the Haka. Of course they could teach the Haka. But the Haka is mystic. You're asking for the spirit. It's not just a dance. It means something. You feel like you're asking for the spirit to come and you're being possessed by the spirit when you ask for it. When you do the Haka, your eyes are open. People see an angry person doing. You're asking for the spirit to go to battle with you.

"That's what I taught my boys at a young age when you do the Haka. You have to ask for it. To me, I look at it this way, when I did the Haka at LSU, I give my blessing to the ground. I tell my boys, everywhere you go and do the Haka, you're laying a blessing on that ground. It's a lot of meaning to us as Polynesians. People are like, 'Do the Haka. Do the Haka.' You have to bring it with that spirit that you ask for. That's what the Haka is to us. It's not just a dance. It comes with a lot of mana, power."

And energy.

When the Steelers report to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe later this month for training camp, Breiden Fehoko would love to show his new teammates the Haka. He'd like to teach them about his culture.

But performing the traditional dance comes with a great expenditure of energy. So, he'll have to pick his spot.

"That's the plan. They just have to catch me on a day off," Breiden said. "The Haka is such a traditional war cry. I do it with so much passion and energy. We call in mana. It's the life force within you. But before practice? Knowing how long the practices are and how hard we grind? No. You're going to have to catch me on a day off."

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