With his hair filling the Friday night sky like an orange and black ball of flames, Nipomo’s Ely-Jah Pu’a stood at midfield, surrounded by his teammates, and stared right into the eyes of the players from Twentynine Palms High School. The Nipomo players beat their thighs, scowled and chanted in unison.
“Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!”
The Twentynine Palms players looked on, not really sure what to make of the scene.
What they were witnessing was Nipomo’s version of the haka “Ka mate”: a war cry and intimidation dance with a history longer than Pu’a’s hair.
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There are many haka’s, but Nipomo draws from a version that is believed to have originated in New Zealand around 1820, a product of Ngati Toa tribal chief Te Rauparaha. In modern times, the haka has been made famous by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby union team, which uses it as a way to intimidate opposing teams before each match.
“When you are going into battle with your brothers, you have your brothers next to you, and you are basically saying we are not afraid of you, we are willing to go down,” Pu’a said of what the haka means to him.
The story behind its adoption by the Nipomo High football team starts with Ely-Jah’s younger brother Ely’az and his youth football team, which was composed of mostly Polynesian players, including Lompoc’s star running back and the Pu’a’s cousin, Toa Taua.
“One day my dad was looking up videos, and I was wondering what it was and it was the haka,” said Ely’az, a 10th grader and member of Nipomo’s junior varsity team. “The next day in practice we all just took a break and learned the haka. It was pretty cool.”
“I was like, ‘That’s pretty cool. Maybe I should bring this to the high school,’ ” Ely-Jah said. “Last year I wanted to do it too, but I couldn’t really get everyone on board. This year, everyone kept saying ‘Hey, we should do the haka,’ and I said ‘OK, if you guys are willing to learn it.’ ”
The team embraced the haka and Pu’a’s Polynesian heritage, but it wasn’t easy at first.
“Learning the words, that was the most difficult part,” teammate and fellow offensive lineman Noah Gibbons said. “The first day we started practicing it, (Ely-Jah) asked, ‘Do you want me to just say the words?’ ”
The team worked on the movements and the words during Thursday practices. Sometimes during lunch, the team would sneak away to practice the moves.
“Ely-Jah wrote the words up on the whiteboard in the locker room, so we were looking at it every day when we were changing,” Gibbons said. “A week later we got it down.”
“It didn’t take that long. They actually really wanted to learn it,” Ely-Jah said.
Nipomo started doing the haka before each game, starting with Morro Bay, the first game of the league schedule. Since then, Nipomo’s record is 5-1. The team’s only loss came against Mission Prep on a night when Nipomo wasn’t able to perform the ritual because the Senior Night ceremonies ran too long.
When the Titans are able to perform the dance, many teams don’t know what hit them.
“They are just like ‘whoa’. Their eyes open,” Ely-Jah said.
Others fire back, like the Templeton football team last month.
“The Templeton players just started yelling and hooting and hollering,” Ely-Jah said. “They wanted a dog fight. They saw that we were ready, and they were ready to play. It was crazy.”
The Nipomo players agree that it helps them get fired up for the game, but Ely-Jah said the tradition is about more than that.
“It’s not just about intimidation,” Ely-Jah said. “It’s also about who’s going to step up. Who is going to stand with us.”
Against Twentynine Palms, Nipomo pulled off a dramatic, walk-off win in the quarterfinals, so expect Ely-Jah to be front and center again Saturday at 6 p.m. when Nipomo takes on Linfield Christian in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs.
As the team approaches Saturday’s game as the underdog again, it will again draw from the spirit of the haka.
“We are not afraid,” Ely-Jah said. “If we go down, we are going to go down fighting.”