(Here’s the full version of today’s story on the death of Kahuku senior linebacker and co-captain Keoni Tafuna. A shorter version ran in today’s Star-Advertiser.)
The Kahuku High School football team is reeling again, but this time, the loss is greater than any game.
Word of the death of senior co-captain and linebacker George “Keoni” Tafuna reached campus early yesterday morning. Coach Reggie Torres met with his players in the wrestling room. Everyone, including team moms and friends, was in shock.
“He was already training for college,” Torres said. “This kind of stuff, nobody knows.”
A source told the Star-Advertiser that Tafuna was found dead at a relative’s home, where he had been staying since the family split up.
Cause of death was asphyxia due to suicidal hanging, Chief Medical Examiner Pam Cadiente told the Star-Advertiser yesterday afternoon.
Kahuku was unbeaten (10-0) and ranked No. 1 in the state before being disqualified on Nov. 6 — the day of the Oahu Interscholastic Association Division I championship game — due to a clerical error made several years ago.
The team was uniquely close and mature, handling the crisis with composure and class. This Red Raiders had a surplus of talent, success and humility that made them a favorite with fans and foes alike.
Part of that was because of leaders like Tafuna.
“We were really good friends. This came up out of nowhere,” said Christopher Thee, a fellow co-captain with Tafuna. “He was a really good friend to a lot of people in the community.”
Tafuna was one of the players who made the trek into town on the day of Kahuku’s last-ditch appeal to stay eligible for the OIA and state-tournament playoffs. Tafuna and two other co-captains were turned away by the OIA at the door, but they seemed to handle the news best they could.
“People talked about setting up a second game with us and Saint Louis,” Torres said. “A lot of guys had stopped training. He said, ‘Coach, no sense playing unless we’re at the top of our game,’ ” Torres recalled.
As of yesterday, there is nothing to show that his death was related to Kahuku’s football crisis in recent weeks.
“As of last week, he was fine,” Torres said.
One of his best friends, Thee, dismissed any notion that football was involved with the tragedy.
“There’s no way he’d do that over a football game,” Thee said. “There’s no way we know why he did it.”
Tafuna, Thee and other members of their church had spent Friday and Saturday preparing for a temple dedication late Saturday.
The team went to Tafuna’s home in Laie, where he lived with an uncle, aunt and younger brother, after learning the news yesterday morning.
“We left school and went to their home to support the family,” Thee said.
“They heard rumors and they went to the house. They broke down. They let it out,” Torres said. “The question was, ‘Why?’ But it’s not our place. We’re not going to know.”
Both of Tafuna’s parents later flew in from off-island, Thee added.
Torres said the school has offered counseling to deal with the tragedy.
Thee hopes the community gets behind Tafuna’s ohana.
“I hope everyone supports his little brother, his auntie, his uncle,” Thee said. “Nobody knows why. All you can do is help out and pray for the family.”
Tafuna, a very good student, had seventh period free each day and often stopped in to visit with Torres, who also coaches judo and wrestling, at the wrestling room.
“He was a happy-go-lucky guy, a great student, a great athlete. He gave 100 percent in everything he did,” Torres said. “When I saw him on Friday, it was all about college. We talked about a Polynesian all-star game coming up in California. He has family up there so he wanted to help with that.”
Tafuna talked with Torres about off-field life.
“His uncle was a great mentor to him. He said he got a lot of good guidance from him and his auntie,” Torres added. “He was like my second son. All my players are like my sons, but especially Keoni with his dad out of the picture. He had it together. That’s the crazy part. He had a good head on his shoulders.”
Torres said he’ll try to remember the good times more than anything.
“If we dwell on it, we’ll have nothing but sleepless nights. You can only do so much.”
In a video interview with Hawaii Prep World on Nov. 6, a few hours after Kahuku’s appeal was rejected by the OIA, Tafuna praised his coach.
“He did everything he could have,” Tafuna said. “He gave it his all for this program. If there was anything we needed, he was there. Food, we didn’t pay for any food, but he always made sure there was food for us before games, after the games. He made sure we were on time, that we did well in school and made sure we were good. He’s like another dad, another father for us.”
Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser