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Football has a Polynesian flavor at Liberty High

Updated November 2, 2022 - 3:09 pm

It was Senior Night at Liberty High, and the ones who play football for the Patriots began lining up behind the inflatable football helmet in the end zone more than an hour before kickoff.

Liberty High has a lot of senior football players.

Up in the press box, Rich Muraco, who has been a Liberty football coach since the day the school opened its doors in 2003, read from biographies he had prepared on each.

Most were of Polynesian descent and had long names with myriad vowels and accent marks. But Muraco breezed right through them, until he got to No. 78, one of his big interior linemen.

He tried to pronounce the young man’s name several times before giving up — something his teams would never consider doing.

“Also known as Wesley,” Muraco finally stammered.

Like most of the seniors who emerged from the inflatable helmet and into a phalanx of underclassmen and cheerleaders, Wesley Sauvao was sporting an ornamental headdress and a garland lei made of flowers and chocolate bars.

Muraco told the big crowd that he was accompanied by the uncle who introduced him to football. And by his mother and father and “the rest of the village.”

Virtually every senior the Patriots coach introduced was escorted by a village, which is what makes Liberty unique among Southern Nevada high school teams.

That, and the fact that on a November night in 2019, the Patriots became the first public school team from around here to beat Bishop Gorman in 115 tries.

MaxPreps ranked the Patriots’ stunning upset No. 9 on its list of all-time greatest high school football games.

Football coaches talk ad nauseum about “changing the culture” of their programs. None has done it quite so literally as Muraco.

Island warriors

After Liberty beat Desert Pines 16-7 on Senior Night, a big man with a friendly smile who has been at Liberty for nearly as long as Muraco began to talk about how football players with ties to American Samoa (and other island nations) had been helping teams change their cultures.

“There’s a lot of articles out there about the discipline of our Polynesian people, our respect for elders, youth football, any football,” Nua Agatonu said about the “Braddahood’s” impact on the game that began around World War II.

Plantation managers and church elders on Hawaii’s North Shore saw sport as a way to unite workers and worshippers, and major colleges and NFL teams soon began to populate their rosters with Polynesian players such as Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu, Vai Sikahema and Jack Thompson, aka “The Throwin’ Samoan,” once the most prolific passer in NCAA history at Washington State.

Kai Nacua was the first Liberty grad to play in the NFL. Nacua was a product of Coach Nua’s Island Warriors, the youth football program he started in Henderson after relocating to the Valley.

“At that time a lot of Polynesian people were moving from Hawaii to Las Vegas in search of a better life,” Agatonu said. “They heard about the Island Warriors and just migrated to where we were. That’s how we got a lot of our people coming into the Liberty community.”

As Liberty’s longtime truancy officer, it is the responsibility of Coach Nua — who punctuates most thoughts by saying “yeah, yeah, yeah” — to make sure all those former Island Warriors make it to practice on time.

“No, no, no,” he said, correcting an inquisitor with another engaging smile and a subtle wag of his index finger. “They’ve got to go to class first.”

The Village returns

Emilio Fernandez, the school’s founding principal, was walking the sidelines on Senior Night, which also marked the 20-year anniversary of Liberty football. So was Derek Bellow, the current principal. And Nacua, who played for the 49ers and five other NFL teams; and Isaiah Jefferson, who played at Southern California; and Germie Bernard, who has just started his career as a freshman wide receiver at Michigan State.

His college team was off on Senior Night weekend so Bernard hopped on a plane to Las Vegas to applaud many of his teammates from last season.

All were part of that village thing Muraco spoke about on the public address system.

“Since Day One, Liberty has been all about family,” Fernandez said. “I haven’t missed more than a handful of games since I retired in 2005.”

Added Bellow, who got so close to the action that it appeared Patriots quarterback Tyrese Smith might try to throw him a pass: “A lot of times that word family gets thrown around loosely. But especially in the Polynesian culture, they mean it. You’ll have brothers come through here, uncles, cousins. A lot of times the dads and the uncles coach, and they’re all in for Liberty.”

Bernard was all in for the Liberty team that beat Bishop Gorman and a couple that didn’t, including last year’s team that lost 35-14 despite one of his better efforts.

“They’re definitely my brothers,” he said of the Polynesian players who comprise roughly 60 percent of Liberty’s roster. “They’re into the game, and they get you into the game.”

Another interested bystander recalled the early days of the program when the Patriots had few Polynesian players. And even fewer victories.

“We stumbled upon a little bit of luck when a lot of our Pacific Islander community was moving into town — let’s embrace the culture, let’s embrace the family, and it really turned out well for us,” said Lou Markouzis, Liberty’s first — and only other head football coach — besides Muraco.

“We only had one or two at first, but we realized a lot of the parents who were living here had kids that were 2, 3, 4 years old — you see them all behind me,” Markouzis said of the throng of former Patriots who had returned for Senior Night. “They were little kids back when we opened.”

Grappling with success

A lot of people aren’t aware that Markouzis’ successor had a connection to Polynesian culture long before the two thought building a program around the Pacific Islanders might be a way for a public school to become more competitive against Bishop Gorman.

Muraco — sometimes referred to as “Uncle Rock” by his players — said his grandfather’s brother was stationed in Pearl Harbor during the war and married a Polynesian girl. They had a child — Don Muraco — who twice held the World Wrestling Federation’s Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship.

But Muraco is quick to credit Markouzis for having the vision, and to assistant head coach Nua for providing the building blocks.

“I was (Markouzis’) right-hand man, and I remember sitting in the weight room after one (losing) season and asking ‘What are we going to do to get to be like Las Vegas or Del Sol or Palo Verde?’ — those were the really good teams (at the time),” Muraco said.

By integrating Polynesian players and the Island Warrior mentality, Liberty went from 0-9, 2-8, 3-6, 4-6, 1-8 and 4-5 to having its first winning season (8-4) in 2009 — Muraco’s first as head coach.

By the time Liberty upset Bishop Gorman and won the 2019 state title, Muraco also had adopted a garland lei as part of his coaching attire and had become intoxicated by the aroma of a pig being roasted on a spit during the pregame luau in the parking lot.

(Liberty eventually had to switch to food trucks inside the stadium offering Spam musubi and other island fare when the health department got wind of the luaus.)

If the Patriots beat Arbor View in the Southern Region semifinals Friday night, they will most likely earn another showdown against Bishop Gorman for the right to represent Las Vegas in the 5A state championship game in Carson City.

“We lost to them 84-8, and the next year it was 35-14 and then 42-28 and then we beat them,” Muraco said of being the heavy underdog should his team face the Gaels again. “It was a progression. I’ve always said I don’t blame people who want to send their kids to Gorman — it’s a great school, great education, networking … they do all the right things from a football standpoint, and we want to emulate them.

“But if you can’t afford to go to Gorman, we want to be the public (school of) choice. Come to Liberty, and we’ll do all the things they are doing.”

Muraco wants parents to know that by the time their island warriors are ready to play football at the next level (42 of his former players have gone on to play for NCAA Power Five schools), he will have learned to pronounce their names.

Or at least try several times to say them on Senior Night.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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