For three years, Kia‘i Keone was a Kamehameha Warrior.
Varsity football. Junior varsity basketball. As of mid-July, he was still a Warrior. Today, he is in Lehi, Utah, playing quarterback for Skyridge High School. The senior recently joined the team after making the move in late July. When video footage from a Falcons intrasquad game surfaced on social media Sunday morning, there was Keone, rolling out of the pocket under duress to make a deep throw near the sideline for a long touchdown.
For most viewers, it was head-scratching time.
“Yeah, definitely. Some (college) coaches have already been texting me. Two of them. They’re confused,” Keone said by phone on Sunday morning. “I got here two weeks ago. We had to make a fast decision.”
While states across the nation mull the possibility of pushing high school football to the winter or spring — Hawaii is among seven states that have already postponed higher-risk sports like football — Utah is playing this fall as scheduled.
“When I heard it, we weren’t really thinking to do it. We thought it was a cool idea that they did. It was a lot of guys in the community saying that there was a very high chance of Hawaii moving football to the spring and Utah going full steam into their (fall) season,” Keone said. “Based on what people in the community were telling us, we were pretty sure it wasn’t going to happen.”
As of Wednesday, football, cross country, girls volleyball and competitive cheer in Hawaii were postponed to January or later by the HHSAA.
Keone started at quarterback for Kamehameha as a junior last fall, splitting time with classmate Jonah Yuen. In the final three games last year, Yuen played and produced more. The question marks about football season in Hawaii, though, played a big role in Keone’s move to the mainland. With a 4.0 grade-point average, he is a classic scholar-athlete.
“I’m happy for him,” Kamehameha Coach Abu Ma’afala said.
It was in mid-July, three weeks ago, when his father, Maka, heard something intriguing.
“We were just training for this upcoming season in Hawaii. I was at Bryant Moniz’s house training. My uncle (Lonn Kalama), I train with his kids. He told my dad that they were planning on sending his kids to a school in Utah just because of how Hawaii was up in the air for this season,” Keone said.
At the time, football season was scheduled to begin in mid-August. The effect of COVID-19 in the islands was beginning to uptick.
“It was something interesting maybe that we could look at. Utah’s a place that we come to visit kind of often, I’d say maybe once every two years. We have some houses there,” Keone noted.
A week later, there was a family meeting. Opinions for and against a move, especially for a young man moving thousands of miles without family. Then Keone decided. A day later, he was on a plane to Utah.
“I was thinking about it, and the night I decided to go, I texted Coach Abu and the other coaches I know, Coach (Brian) Ah Yat, and all my teammates,” he said. “The week that it unfolded was the fastest in my life. I didn’t know until the night before I flew out.”
His father, mother (Tamsin) and extended family had a sit down.
“We had our family all over to our house and everyone gave their input. It came down to me and I decided right there that I would go. Some of them said it’s risky, it hasn’t been done, and I was apprehensive. I could’ve waited, that’s true. All the schools in Hawaii going to distance learning and events being cancelled, I felt like I wouldn’t be missing that much with school.”
He arrived at Skyridge in time for the first mandatory practice.
“We actually have our first game before school starts (on Aug. 18),” Keone said.
Skyridge is a state powerhouse and lost in the Utah 5A state final last year. The team is in the highest classification, 6A, this season.
“They have two other quarterbacks on the roster. They’ve been practicing with the team for awhile now. They know the playbook well. I have some things to learn about the playbook. It’s pretty sophisticated. Every day I’m getting more reps. Hopefully, I’ll have an opportunity to play.”
It is, by far, the biggest decision and lifestyle change in his young life, but there is no second-guessing.
“I wouldn’t say I have regrets. I missed my friends and family and everybody in Hawaii, but I couldn’t turn back,” said Keone, whose first practice with Skyridge was on July 27.
An auntie, Ho‘olu Carvalho, accompanied him on the flight over and stayed for a week. A close family friend, Aaron Ichimura, is hosting Keone.
“I’m staying with my Uncle Aaron. He’s my dad’s close friend from school (Kamehameha). They’ve known each other since kindergarten. They have an extra room. A lot of times when we visited (Utah), he let us stay in his house. He’s excited that we made this move. He’s just happy to help,” Keone said.
After attending an all-Hawaiian school for years, he’s getting used to his new environment.
“My teammates were welcoming, more than I thought they would. They’re really helpful,” Keone said. “The No. 1 question they ask is, ‘Do you surf?’ I don’t stand-up surf, I body board.”
The town of Lehi, he added, is a little bit like home. Keone’s family lives in Pacific Palisades, which is part of Pearl City.
“It’s kind of similar to Pearl City, just a regular suburban neighborhood,” he said.
The biggest factor may have been Kamehameha’s willingness to allow Keone to transfer back from Utah at the end of the fall semester.
“It’s unprecedented times, so unprecedented things will happen. The school is allowing me leave for a semester. It was hard. We were emailing back and forth for three to four days. If they had said no (to an exemption), I wouldn’t have come (to Utah). I would rather make some senior memories with my teammates,” Keone said.
More than a decade ago, a Utah student transferred to the islands and played one sport in two seasons. April Atuaia played basketball during the winter at Orem, then transferred to Kahuku and played during the spring. It was, at the time, perfectly allowable. The rule has changed since. The chances of Keone playing football twice as a senior are nil.
“I already went over this with my family. I think I’m fine if I can’t play with Kamehameha (in the spring). It’s just a decision I have to live by. I still want to help out and be around my teammates,” he said.
Keone also sees an influx of transfers coming to Utah.
“A lot of these states, Washington, California, Nevada, postponed football to the spring, so a lot of players are moving to Utah. Someone told me Utah is going to stop transfers from coming in. I’m not 100% sure about it,” he said. “Our trainer told me this is the most amount of transfers she’s seen come to Utah.”
Keone also knows more football players in Hawaii who plan to move.
“I know two people for sure who’s making the move to Utah. They’re younger players, but they’re good,” he said.
For Keone, a ripple effect of transferring is exposure. He has been in contact with coaches from Southern Utah, Weber State and Dixie State, all in Utah.
“I messaged them that I’m coming up (to Utah) and a lot of them wanted to see me in person,” said Keone, who also has interest from Minnesota State, Bates College, Pacific and Whitworth.
He has his uncle’s help. He also made new friends with another transplanted Hawaii family.
“There’s a family here from Mililani that moved here two years ago. Their son (Tigan Alaimo) graduated from Skyridge last year. One of the coaches on the team told us about the family. We connected and they’re helping me out a lot with rides and just settling in with some food,” Keone said. “And a Hawaiian environment.”
Moving away during high school isn’t what Keone ever envisioned.
“I’d say my advice is just think about it, have conversations with your family, see what they think. Make sure you have your ducks lined up in a row,” he said. “Go in with your whole heart. You can’t have any regrets.”