Breiden Fehoko wasn’t wearing pads or a helmet the first time he rushed onto a football field in front of 50,000 screaming fans, and while his memory of that day is understandably vague, anybody who knows him well is positive he wasn’t nervous. If anything, he felt completely in his element.
Pretty wild for a 3-year-old, huh?
The youngest Fehoko grew up on the field in a slightly different manner than most Division I athletes. He started playing the game as soon as he possibly could — and earlier than most states legally allow — but he was first exposed to the game as a rambunctious little toddler done up in face paint to help his father put on halftime shows at the University of Hawaii.
Vili the Warrior, muscle bound and painted for war, whipped crowds large and small into a frenzy everywhere from Aloha Stadium in Oahu on a given Saturday to the New Orleans Superdome when the Rainbow Warriors made their unlikely run to the 2008 Sugar Bowl. Young Breiden was always close by, beating the ceremonial drums and soaking it all in every step of the way.
“I always told my kids this: when you’re in the spotlight, you own the show,” Vili Fehoko says. “I was this big huge guy who was face painted up, and my kids loved it. Every time I ran out, Breiden was right behind me. He always wanted to do the same thing I was doing.”
“While his dad did his thing, he’d hear 50,000 people cheering and he thinks it’s at him,” adds Linda Fehoko, the matriarch of the family. “He’s in the back doing his own show. It was hilarious.”
Breiden Fehoko grew up from a pint-sized fan favorite to a hulking, nationally-ranked recruit coming out of Farrington High School. He eventually signed with Texas Tech and became a day-one starter along the defensive line, rarely coming off the field for even a snap during two productive seasons in Lubbock.
But that’s when the man who’d literally grown up in front of adoring crowds decided to step away from them, at least temporarily. Fehoko transferred from Texas Tech to LSU, which meant taking an NCAA-mandated redshirt season away from competition.
A year in exile took plenty of getting used to, but the practical businessman inside Fehoko knew the ends would eventually justify the means. That doesn’t mean it was easy, but after a year of healing up and honing his craft, the life-long showman is ready to step into the spotlight of an even grander stage.
Baton Rouge, meet your newest star.
IT’S NO COINCIDENCE that Vili Fehoko and his warrior persona share the same name. He’s not like the anonymous students who put on a Mike the Tiger costume each fall. No way — he’s the original.
June Jones took over the Hawaii football program in 1999 and led the team to what was known at the Oahu Bowl at the time. Days before the game, Jones took his players to a performance at the local Polynesian Cultural Center. He was captivated by a large man performing on the drums, and in that instant he saw a way to integrate some local flair and culture into his program.
It started as a standalone halftime performance, but the public response to Vili the Warrior was overwhelming. The paying customers clamored for more, and university officials approached Vili about becoming a full-time part of the program. Doing so would require the family to move — and for all six to squeeze into a cozy one-bedroom apartment near campus — but the entire family encouraged Vili to follow his passion.
Full disclosure: some of the younger members of the Fehoko clan may have just wanted a chance to get in on the act.
“Breiden wasn’t even allowed on the field at first because of liability restrictions,” Linda recalls. “I had to check around, and the only way they allowed minors on the field was if they were entertaining for the halftime show. He wanted to go out on the field and was crying that he wanted to perform with his brothers and his dad. I didn’t even tell him what to do, but that was the way we exposed them all to the game of football, because we didn’t have the money to get in otherwise. We told them if they dressed up and entertained with dad they’d get to watch the game for free.”
“I loved it,” Breiden says. “I think just being out there, developing that persona, it’s one of the best things that my dad helped me do. So that was a good experience for me as a kid to go through that.”
Spend 10 minutes on the phone with Vili Fehoko and it becomes apparent where Breiden gets his outgoing nature from. The larger-than-life personality that spawned a beloved character bellows through the speaker phone. He retired now, but the program still reaches out every now and then to see if he wants to return for one more performance for old time’s sake.
Breiden plans to be a broadcaster whenever his playing days are done, and the makings of a good one are obvious in how unusually comfortable he comes across in interview sessions. Most players, especially newcomers, want to get in and out as quickly as possible while saying as little as possible. Earlier this spring Breiden spent an hour taking questions ranging from football to food. He’ll do well on TV.
“For the record, I’m better looking than him though,” Vili interjects.
“I’m sorry, all of my sons look like me,” Linda retorts. “That’s where he gets a lot of his humor from, his dad. And you know where the smarts come from; that’s his momma.”
As for his love of football, Breiden owes that — and his competitive nature — to growing up the youngest of four brothers.
YEARS BEFORE HE became the highest paid coordinator in college football, Dave Aranda was a position coach at Hawaii working football camps for high schoolers. A man now renowned for his attention to detail couldn’t take his eyes off the smallest player on the field during hitting drills.
“This kid would always come to our camps and you could tell he’d always sneak in with the older groups,” Aranda says. “They would crush him, man. He’d get whooped. At times he’d be in tears, but he always came back and he’d always call out the guy who whooped him in a one-on-one blocking drill or something like that. You notice that, man. You don’t forget that stuff.”
That kid was Breiden Fehoko.
A sixth grader at the time, all three of his older brothers were either working at or competing in the camps. Whitley, the oldest, had already secured a full scholarship at San Diego State. Sam, the second-oldest, would eventually become the first Hawaiian-born player to sign with a Texas school and enroll at Texas Tech. V.J. began his college career at Utah before following in Sam’s footsteps at Texas Tech.
Breiden always wanted to do as his brothers did, so hitting bags on the sideline while they participated in camp just wasn’t enough. At Breiden’s behest, Linda signed a waiver and fudged his age — he was a high school freshman, not a sixth grader, according to the paperwork — to allow her youngest son to get in there and mix it up with his brothers and the rest of the older kids.
“That day he got beat up. People ran him over, but he stood up and lined up again,” Vili says. “But all the coaches were like ‘Wow’ when he told them how old he really was. Every coach who was there remembers Breiden. They remember Breiden from that camp.”
One of those coaches stuck in Breiden’s memory, too. The defensive mastermind he plays for today.
“Coach Dave would also have that smile,” Breiden says. “I’d get roughed up, but those were my best memories. Coach Dave would tell me, ‘Hey, just keep going. You’re going to be really good one day.’ So that’s how we started to build a relationship.”
Aranda’s words proved prophetic as Fehoko bloomed into a five-star prospect during his prep career in Hawaii. He was an Under Armour All-American and an invitee to The Opening after racking up 16 sacks and 27 tackles-for-loss during his senior season.
He became a day-one starter at Texas Tech and started all 25 games of his career there on the defensive line, producing solid numbers for a defense that struggled mightily in the pass-happy Big 12.
Two more years of playing every down was right in front of him, but Fehoko couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more out there for him.
BREIDEN FEHOKO HAD already made up his mind that his best course of action was to transfer from Texas Tech, but always a believer in family first, he asked his parents and brothers to sit down for a family meeting to break the news. His parents, naturally, asked why. They supported their son in whatever he wanted to do, but they had to be sure he’d thought it through.
Turns out he’d done his homework and was already thinking multiple steps ahead.
“Breiden gave his all to Texas Tech,” Linda says. “He said, ‘Mom and Dad, it’s for development. I want to be able to put myself in the best position to get to the NFL in a few years’ time.’ He wanted to work on his technique and didn’t feel like he was making progress at Tech, and he’s a smart kid. He looks at things deeper. He’s got that funny side of him, but he’s pretty intellectual.”
“He didn’t want to be an undrafted free agent,” Vili adds.
Breiden initially hoped to wind up at USC or another West Coast school so his brothers could come watch him play, but his attention shifted eastward after a slew of Southeastern Conference schools came calling the day Texas Tech officially granted his release.
Few coaches were as persistent as LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who both recognized Fehoko’s talents and desperately needed to add beef to a roster short on experienced defensive linemen. Orgeron kept on Breiden until the Fehoko family made an official visit to Baton Rouge.
That’s when the famed recruiter closed the deal.
“We’ve got four sons, so this was our fifth time going through the recruiting process,” Linda says. “Vili and I, we can tell who pitches like a used car salesman and who is genuine. I won’t say we weren’t impressed with other places, but for our son, God and family are what governs his actions. He felt that at LSU. Every time he prayed about it the purple and gold came into his thoughts.”
There were a couple other practical factors into the decision to enroll at LSU. For one, Breiden never forgot what Aranda told him all those years ago, and the opportunity to play under him was enticing.
Also, since his primary directive was to improve his technique, he was drawn to the idea of spending what he viewed as a developmental year under the sage tutelage of Pete Jenkins. The two clicked instantly.
“I wanted to get the best development, and I thought there was no better way to do that than to play for a school that produces NFL defensive linemen,” Breiden says. “And not just development as a defensive lineman, but as a man off the field. I think LSU does a really good job and there’s no better conference to compete in than the SEC West.”
IT DIDN’T HIT Fehoko fully until the start of LSU strength and conditioning coordinator Tommy Moffitt’s summer workout program. Specifically, the first time he charged up the Mississippi River levy on the other side of River Road on a scorching summer afternoon.
“Those workouts are no joke, and I realized that I was going to have to wait until the next March to put the pads on for real again,” Fehoko says. “It was slow, but as soon as fall camp came around, everything went by pretty quick.”
In hindsight Fehoko appreciates the downtime that came from taking last spring off from contact. He’d played football pretty much year round since he was in middle school — not to mention perpetual roughhouse with his brothers years before that even — and gutted his way through nagging injuries to make all those starts at Texas Tech.
Moffitt and his staff also worked with him on exercises to make his body more flexible and agile as opposed to just strong, which he’d always been naturally.
“I played a lot of snaps my first two years in college. Not really injuries, but you get all these little kinks along the way,” Fehoko says. “It’s like getting your car an oil change every 5,000 miles. You’re going to need a rest every once in a while. Get a new alignment. That saved my body a lot. I’m healthy now.”
Recharged from the rare off time, Fehoko discovered the secret to making his year away from competition go by faster: attack each and every practice, workout or film session like it was a game.
His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Orgeron sang his praises throughout last season, often bemoaning the fact that one of the most dominant players on his roster was barred from any actual games.
Fehoko gave the coaches a taste of what will come in 2018 with his work on the scout team. Some multi-year starters would resent having to put on the opposing colors and play with the walk-ons or simply go through the motions when asked to do so. Fehoko embraced it.
Scout team defenders don’t mimic specific opposing players like a scout team receiver or quarterback does. They’re given a position or two from the opponent’s scheme and play it in as many different alignments as coaches expect to see come Saturday. Orgeron would point to a spot and simply tell Fehoko to go give ‘em hell.
Fehoko spent last fall playing everything from BYU’s nose tackle to a 6-technique in Alabama’s front to a 4-3 defensive end for Auburn or Ole Miss. And each week he spent as much time as possible picking Jenkins’ brain on the finer points of the specific technique to help fill in what he referred to as a “gap of knowledge.”
“As a high school recruit, every recruit thinks they’re the best thing since white on rice. And it’s funny I say that because I was one of those guys,” Fehoko says. “I thought I could go into college as a true freshman and play football, but football, once you get to the higher levels, it’s really a job more than anything. And if you want to get better at a job, you’ve got to practice every day. You’ve got to get better at the little things, and if not, you’ll get passed up.
“I started looking at guys in the NFL and asking ‘Why are they so successful? Why are they playing 10-year careers instead of the guys who’re playing for one or two years?’ It’s development. That’s a big part of why I came here.”
That added versatility of a season playing scout team may pay off doubly this season. Yes, his fundamental technique is leaps and bounds better than when he arrived, according to Orgeron, but he also got a head start on some of the new things LSU may do defensively this season.
You know who likes defensive linemen who can play in multiple fronts? A man they call The Professor.
Players say that Aranda already installed more than half of last season’s defensive playbook after the first week of spring thanks in part to an inordinate amount of returning underclassmen and a player-driven effort to watch practice film outside of Footballs Ops. They say it’s created an air of accountability when it comes to knowing the playbook.
Fehoko says he’s played every position on the defensive line in LSU’s base three-man line, and he allows Aranda the freedom to dial up two- or four-man fronts, too. That’s a big reason as to how he locked up a starting spot without playing an official down in purple and gold.
“He practiced like a starter last season, and now it’s his time,” Orgeron says. “It’s hard to practice here and not play, and although he practiced well, now it’s his time. He’s stepping up. He’s in great condition. I think he’s going to have a tremendous year.”
LIKE ALL WELL-TRAVELED linemen — and sports writers for that matter — Fehoko keeps a mental road map of his travels based solely on what each locale offers to eat.
Ask him about leaving Hawaii for Lubbock or what he enjoys about Baton Rouge and he’ll start rattling off the differences between Hawaiian barbecue versus Texas — hint: he prefers the island fare — or the jambalaya he devoured on his official visit to LSU.
“I knew I was going to love this place right then and there,” he says.
Naturally, he fits right in on a defensive line that famously tore through $150 of pizza watching BYU play its first game last fall. Rashard Lawrence and Fehoko, two starters and the most veteran members of the group, organized some team bonding in the form of a crawfish boil earlier this spring. The group has given Fehoko the nickname “Cool Breeze,” according to Lawrence.
Lawrence and Fehoko have struck up quite the friendship since meeting at the Under Armour All-American Game as high schoolers. LSU’s future starting defensive ends were introduced by Ed Alexander, who roomed with Fehoko at an Alabama skills camp the year before.
Every Sunday last fall the two would do a post-game debrief over chocolate chip pancakes and seafood omelets at Louie’s. Lately they’ve been going to another Louisiana institution for a meal on Sunday: Popeye’s.
“Four piece extra drumstick,” Lawrence laughs. “They already know what’s up when we come in.”
Fehoko also shares a weekly meal with an even older friend, albeit one from the opposite side of the ball. He and fellow Texas Tech transfer Johnathan Giles, who Fehoko once pitched to Orgeron as “the best receiver in the country,” used to have breakfast every Friday at the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in Lubbock.
“We’ve gone from getting donuts on Friday morning to going to Walk-On’s on Friday night for gumbo, crawfish and stuff like that,” Fehoko says. “It’s been good. I’m glad I got to become good friends with John before we even came here, and even if he didn’t come here, we’d still be close.
“Me and John got a lot closer last year than we both expected because we were both going through the same situation. We talk. Sometimes we’ll go for drives and talk about what we’re looking forward to most next year. It helped a lot because we were both going through the same thing and there for each other.”
Friendships new and old have aided with the transition to Louisiana life, but nobody can blame Fehoko for missing home from time to time — especially the food. He insists that nothing else compares and laughed at the apparently misguided notion that there’s nothing to eat there but spam.
Lucky for him, he’ll get a taste of the islands when Vili and Linda make the trek from their new home in Texas for the Spring Game on April 21. A home-cooked meal consisting of the most Hawaiian ingredients at their disposal will certainly be on the docket.
“The best food you’ll ever eat is in Hawaii. If you go to Hawaii you’re going to gain 20-30 pounds,” Breiden says. “You live on an island for all your life, so to go somewhere and start again new is tough, but at the same time you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do in this business. But I miss it. It’s home to me and the food is second to none.”
As far as he’s traveled into the mainland, “Cool Breeze” remains an old soul who will always carry that island spirit with him.
The practical future professional side of him knew a year spent honing his craft in anonymity was best for his career, and now the showman he was born to be is ready for his time to shine on an even grander stage this fall.