Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018 | 2 a.m.
With violent chest pounding and foot stomping, players hissing and spitting water into the air, and unleashing hair-raising Polynesian war cries, the Liberty High football team’s pregame Haka ritual is so intimidating, the Clark County School District forces them to face away from their opponent while performing.
The Haka is a traditional war dance in Māori culture in New Zealand and originally performed by Māori warriors before a battle to proclaim their strength and prowess to intimidate the opposition.
The Liberty football team, which typically has a large number of players of Polynesian descent, began performing the pre-game dance 11 seasons ago. It quickly became a program tradition, and coaches say it helps unify the team.
Liberty this weekend will host the Polynesian Football Classic, which features four games with eight teams from six states, including national power IMG Academy, which will face Liberty on Friday.
The pregame Haka will undoubtedly take center stage.
“To me the Haka is about family,” Liberty lineman Jeremiah Taiese said. “Most of us here were raised together, and if you weren’t, we’re welcoming you to the family. It doesn’t matter what race you are or where you’re from. At the end of the day, this brings us together as one.”
One player leads the dance, standing in front while the rest of the team kneels. The leader screams a few verses in Samoan that roughly translate to, “Brothers, we come together for war. We’ll fight fiercely. Don’t be afraid.”
When he commands the team to rise, the players jump to their feet and perform the war dance in perfect unison.
“The dance means a lot to me,” junior lineman A.J. Maluia said. “If you’re not ready to fight on the football field, then you can’t be playing with us. Liberty is full of different cultures, and what we do is put them all together and fight for something that we love.”
Before each season, the players have to learn that year’s Haka. The dance remains similar but changes slightly each season to keep it fresh. Maluaia and Taiese help lead in teaching the new dance and words to teammates.
“A few years ago, I took a trip to Samoa,” Maluaia said. “I lived there for a year because my parents wanted me to learn the culture. Out of all the kids here, not a lot of them have been back home and don’t really know the words or the tradition, so it’s up to the ones that do to teach everyone.”
The lesson starts with an explanation of the dance’s origins and meanings, followed by players repeating the words until they learn them, and finally the mastery of the dance. The Haka is also often performed in Māori culture to acknowledge achievements, and at occasions like weddings, and even funerals.
Liberty coach Rich Muraco said he can determine with 100 percent accuracy how well his team will perform on a given night based on the energy they bring for the Haka.
Maluaia said he’s played on teams growing up that didn’t perform the Haka before games, and nothing gets him more ready to play. The dance is so intimidating that Muraco has been warned by officials that his team must turn away from their opponent while performing or they will be assessed a 15-yard taunting penalty before the game even begins.
“You can feel the intensity in the Haka,” the coach said. “If the intensity is there, we are ready to play and you can feel it.”
Liberty won just 10 games in its initial five years as a school after opening in 2003. It won a school-record four games the first season it performed the dance. And in the nine seasons since, Liberty has gone 95-23 with eight regional championships and three state title game appearances.
It has more to do with the talent on the field than the pregame ritual, but if it helps the Patriots build team unity and prepare for the game, it can’t hurt.
“It’s good to introduce new cultures and learn new things to people,” Maluaia said. “Some of these kids aren’t Polynesian, but it’s us bringing the culture to them so we can all be one. The Haka is about putting all of our minds together to prepare for war.”