LUBBOCK, Texas -- One of Lubbock’s most popular families walked around the Jones AT&T Stadium field in April like they’d been there forever. But this was their first time back in almost three years.
The leaders of the Fehoko clan, Vili and Linda, passed out prizes from stuffed-full bags: Hand-woven headbands made of coconut leaves -- from their culture’s “tree of life” -- for each and every Texas Tech player after the spring game. Then fans started lining to snag one of the more than 150 headpieces, even offering to pay.
You can’t put a price on what the Fehokos were bringing back to Lubbock that day.
Their son Sam Fehoko, a Mike Leach-era linebacker known for his fiery spirit and game day war paint, had made the family from Honolulu a fan favorite. Now they’re back, and they’ll be Lubbock regulars for the next few years.
Sam's brother, V.J. Fehoko, transferred from Utah for his senior year and will start at Will linebacker for Tech. And their youngest brother, Breiden Fehoko, is an ESPN 300 recruit who recently signed financial aid papers to officially join the Red Raiders in January.
“The people around here welcome you with open arms, just like the people of Hawaii do,” Sam Fehoko said. “It’s amazing to me. That’s why I came here. I love the city of Lubbock, and I know the city loves the Fehokos.”
For Sam, a homecoming was overdue. He left the program early in his senior season of 2011, during ex-coach Tommy Tuberville’s first year, and tried to make it in the NFL. After two years away, he returned to Tech last fall to finish his undergrad degree.
“From the time I set foot back here in Lubbock, it was amazing,” he said. “With Coach Kliff Kingsbury here, he knows exactly how to relate to people. He’s such a people person. You feel this energy come off of him. I was watching the team and watching the culture and this new Texas Tech brand. I fell in love with it again. I fell in love with Texas Tech.”
V.J. took notice. He won’t discuss why he left Utah, but he hadn’t forgotten about Tech. He’d given a silent commitment to Leach during his recruitment in 2009 but had to change plans upon the coach’s firing.
“Coming back was kind of destiny, in a way,” V.J. Fehoko said. “It’s sort of full circle.”
When he joined Sam in Lubbock this January, V.J. asked his brother for a crash course on Big 12 defense. The Pac-12 prepared him for high-speed offenses, but he’s still learned plenty in the past eight months. Like Sam, he quickly took a liking to the Red Raiders’ new leader.
“My goodness, man, Kliff Kingsbury, you can quote me on this: Best head coach in college football,” V.J. said. “He’s sort of like an older brother to you.”
For Kingsbury, who’s adopted “Family Over Everything” as one of his program’s mottos, embracing the Fehokos and welcoming them back made too much sense.
"That’s been a great relationship,” Kingsbury said. “Their entire family, through and through, are big-time Red Raiders, obviously. They bring a lot of passion, a lot of energy to the football field.”
He’s seen that trademark passion in Sam, who’s working with program again as an off-field defensive intern, as well as in V.J., a backup for the Utes last year who’s already making Texas Tech’s defense better.
“Every day he's yelling, screaming, hopping around and excited to be out there,” Kingsbury said. “That's contagious to his teammates.”
What made Tech a natural fit for this family from 3,500 miles away? Sam says the seclusion of Lubbock out in West Texas -- “almost like you’re on an island, you know?” -- suits their dedication. No distractions, he says. Just football and school. That was enough to sway their youngest brother.
And if you ask the elder Fehoko brothers, the best is yet to come. Breiden, a defensive tackle at Farrington High in Honolulu, is ranked No. 56 in the ESPN 300 and committed soon after attending Tech’s spring game.
The 6-foot-2, 285-pound lineman already maxes out a 45 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and 585 pounds on squats. After growing up in the shadow of three brothers, he’s developed into a freak athlete -- Sam calls him a “rare breed,” V.J. says he’s a “whole ‘nother species” -- with a deep admiration for what his family has started.
“Tradition meant a lot to me. Carrying on a legacy meant a lot to me,” Fehoko said of his recruitment. "To have the Fehoko name as a household name in Lubbock, it only makes sense to continue it. Why go somewhere else? People there, with that West Texas hospitality, they took us in and treated us like their own.”
When Breiden made his commitment on April 14, his future head coach took to Twitter to celebrate. Now that Breiden has signed financial aid papers, Tech coaches can call, text and even visit as much as they want. He’s in the family.
“Whenever Kliff comes to Hawaii, I’ll be taking him out for surf lessons,” Breiden said. “Whatever he wants to do. Maybe a Hawaiian luau. You know, he’s single, he’ll probably want to go see all the Hula girls over here.”
Another tradition they’re bringing back: The Haka. In 2010, the three brothers and their father led a Maori war dance before the spring game. Vili and Breiden did another rendition at this year’s game and should be back for more this season.
The ritual, meant to invoke a warrior's spirit, isn't just an expression of the Fehoko family's culture. For the brothers, it's also a tribute to the parents who got them this far.
“We were raised tough," V.J. said. "We had six members of our family and we grew up in a one-bedroom house. Mom worked two jobs. Dad, with his health, was unemployed at times. We grew up in the struggle.
"We looked at each other and told each other we were going to make it out for our parents.”
For a family that didn’t come from much, the Fehokos can’t wait to bring a whole lot back to Texas Tech.