Christmas came a few weeks early this year for a group of Big Island youngsters.
The Leeward Steelers Mitey-Mite football team, made up of 22 players between the ages of 7 and 9, traveled to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla., for the Pop Warner Super Bowl earlier this month.
“The whole experience and atmosphere really felt like the Super Bowl,” Leeward Steelers head coach Wyatt Nahale said. “It was way beyond what I was expecting. Just awesome.”
The team convincingly won both of its games — 14-0 against the Wilmington Wildcats from Massachusetts and 20-0 against the Liberty Lake Lions from Washington.
“The boys played awesome,” Nahale said. “They represented the state of Hawaii so well, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better from them.”
The Leeward Steelers were among 16 of the most talented Mitey-Mite teams from around the U.S. participating in the tournament, giving the young football players a perspective of the game on a national level.
“It really opened up their eyes,” Nahale said. “They are hungry to go back and I’m happy to see that drive in them. It’s great to see them striving for their goals.”
The Mitey-Mite division had been excluded from the annual Pop Warner national championships until 2011. The Steelers are the first Mitey-Mite team to represent Hawaii at the Super Bowl.
Nahale’s squad finished its third consecutive undefeated season before being selected to represent the Wescon region — composed of Arizona, Hawaii, Southern California and Southern Nevada.
“To be among the best teams in the nation and for us to do as well as we did — I shouldn’t say I’m surprised — but it really showed how hard the kids worked, not only this season but in every year leading up to this,” Nahale said.
The trip was not all business though. After a successful day on the gridiron it was time to have fun, and the Steelers celebrated the wins in the only appropriate way — by going to Disney World.
Nahale and his small army of chaperones and assistants tried to squeeze as many fun activities as possible into the trip. A highlight was a massive “tailgate” party held at the Wide World of Sports Complex. There, all the Mitey-Mite teams gathered for an all-you-can-eat ice cream party and team dance-off. Even Mickey and Minnie Mouse made an appearance.
“The whole event was top-notch,” Nahale said. “The kids were treated great. Anything they could have wanted or even imagined was available to them.”
After a whirlwind of a trip, it was time for the Big Island boys to come home, but not without one final surprise.
As the young athletes stepped onto the tarmac at Kona International Airport and through the doors leading to baggage claim, the team was greeted by dozens of family, friends and fans.
“I have never been a part of something like that,” Nahale said. “To walk off the plane and see people chanting for the kids and waving signs was incredible. It is something I will never forget.”
The head coach was quick to credit the kids — he started coaching some of them before they could tie their own cleats — for always playing hard on the field, showing a fierce commitment to the sport and striving to be their best on and off the field.
Nahale also stressed his gratitude to the Big Island community for supporting the team. The Steelers raised nearly $56,000 in just more than two months to make the trip.
“We all really appreciate everyone who has helped us to make all of this possible,” Nahale said. “We did things all year from selling lunch plates to washing cars and I’m thankful for everyone who came out, supported us, and made this incredible trip possible.”