The trip to the Golden State is becoming an adventure for the training group known as the Trench Dawgz.
The football showcase set for Mar. 16 against Winner Circle Athletics was already much-needed good news for TD’s small tribe of trench men. Their numbers grew with tryouts to fill out the squad to 35 or 40 players. The daily workouts never stopped, and as scholarship offers to players old and new have risen, so has the Dawgz’ cache.
One of the new additions, Sione Tavo Motuapuaka of Mililani, landed his fourth offer in less than a week on Wednesday. Hawaii is the newest university on the list for the 6-foot-5, 280-pound junior.
For the Dawgz, the grind is everything with or without the glitz of social media and TV cameras. They just happen to thrive on the sand, the streets and what Coach Whitley Fehoko calls, the “Iron Church.”
“When the pandemic hit, that’s when the Trench Dawgz started growing. It’s crazy,” he said.
In an era where fingertips are stuck on smart phones and teenagers are often more interested in video games than online class, Fehoko and his assistant coaches haven’t compromised. His family knows where he is if he’s not working and not at home. The Dawgz are practically his second family, to the point that he will feed them sometimes after workouts. That’s nearly a $300 bill at the closest L&L Hawaiian Barbecue to feed his hungry linemen.
He doesn’t regret a thing. While elite prospects like Kaeo Akana of Roosevelt and Tevarua Tafiti of Punahou have double-digit Division I offers, others like Jackie Johnson III and Motuapuaka have patiently waited and worked through the grind. Connecting players with prospective college coaches is easier said than done. Fehoko, a former San Diego State offensive lineman, speaks their language and has their trust. Johnson eventually committed to Lawrence Tech. Motuapuaka was largely off the radar until he joined the Dawgz.
Kaimuki junior quarterback Jayden Maiava has offers from Auburn, North Carolina and Tennessee, plus an offer from UNLV in early February. He joined the Dawgz for workouts in the winter, which left their coaches wondering about the possibilities.
“If I hadn’t stuck with our Dawgz, where would Jackie and Tavo have fallen,” Fehoko said. “Jayden, there’s so many coaches asking for film.”
The COVID-19 pandemic utterly destroyed any semblance of 11-on-11 tackle football in the islands. In the year that has passed since the first lockdown began, all high school leagues cancelled football. The same happened in states like California and Nevada, though California opened up for prep football last week, and approved indoor prep sports on Wednesday.
With the cancellation of what would have been a postponed football spring season by the private-school Interscholastic League of Honolulu, each program is now responsible for its own liability. Exhibition games are likely on the way, as they were on a limited basis with basketball and soccer. For a small number of players, it was a choice between the exhibition games, possibly between split-squads, or competing against some of Southern California’s top recruits.
“We have two (private-school) seniors on our roster with a change to pursue their dreams,” Fehoko said.
The sour situation for high school football may open the door for more growth in club football. Fehoko envisions a tournament on Oahu involving clubs from across the state after the showcase with Winner Circle Athletics.
“The more clubs, the better. Look at the lives we’re changing with the Trench Dawgz. Coach Mose Tuia (of MBC), that’s who we’ve been scrimmaging. Samson (Anguay) wants to start a club team,” Fehoko said.
At some point, high school players will get more game film and more offers through Pylon tournaments and events like the PTP College Football Showcase in Utah that drew dozens of Hawaii prospects.
The NCAA’s blackout period was recently extended to April, which means college recruiters cannot have prospects visit campuses. Meanwhile, the Trench Dawgz continue working each day, rain or shine, while turning away some of the players who had their high school seasons stymied by the pandemic.
“I’m not surprised. I seen it coming. I knew that they were dragging it out only to cancel it,” Fehoko said. “They knew exactly what they were doing. It’s too late for the seniors and the juniors getting ready for senior year. How much longer could they do this? I’ve had guys hit me up from ILH teams and it’s too late. We’ve got jerseys printed, flights booked.”
For the three dozen or so Dawgz on their way to Southern California in two weeks, the strangest of times is getting more surreal.
“A production company, ‘All That’s Good’ is going to cover us. Their cinematographers are from NFL Films,” Fehoko said. “I signed a contract with them (on Saturday). After making our documentary, they’ll pitch it to NFL Films.”
Netflix is already involved with coverage of Winner Circle Athletics football.
“They want to do a story of how players are making it out of the pandemic. I had to do litigation with contracts. A lot of these kids who had nothing will be broadcasted on national TV. Kaeo, Poncho (Laloulu), Jayden and possibly Tavo,” Fehoko said. “(NFL Films) is going to come back here for six months following the Trench Dawgz, doing a docu-series.”
It’s certainly a heck of a story worthy of air time. Not many teams, let alone one that was simply a small group of dedicated trench men, have flourished during the past 12 months.
“It’s kind of like God’s timing lining it up,” Fehoko said, noting support from the community.
Pacific Air Cargo, he said, is helping the Dawgz with transport of their gear.
“An extra bag is $50, $60. Coolers, balls, pop-up tents, they’re going to send those up and bring it back for free. So many people have been reaching out and it’s a blessing. It’s crazy,” Fehoko said. “I don’t have any money, but I’m rich in everything else.”
The team had a kalua pig fundraiser last weekend.
“I had to tell them that we have to fundraise for the uniforms, $5,000,” Fehoko said. “I’m just letting God work. There’s still kids out there who need help. I’m just grateful that everything worked out. The parents, the coaches, the kids, it’s such a great team effort that’s making this happen.”
It’s enough support that Fehoko can almost focus on what really drives him: competition.
“Winner Circle better watch out. We’re coming for them. They’ve been posting (on social media), ‘Hawaii, you’re on the clock.’ I want our everything right now. I can’t wait until game day out there. Let’s get the 808 in there,” he said.