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October 29, 2011

New and old traditions at RES

After two consecutive weeks on the road, Utah (3-4, 0-4) is very much looking forward to returning to Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday as they look to snatch their first Pac-12 win over Oregon State. In an unfamiliar position, the Utes especially look forward to getting some love and support from their home crowd, and in particular, The MUSS.

"We're excited to go home, in front of our crowd Saturday. It feels longer than two weeks," said Utah corner Conroy Black.

Whether gimmicky, or not, the now annual blackout game brings a different energy and feel to Rice-Eccles Stadium and has become a tradition the Utes, and their fans have begun to look forward to.

"The blackout is good. It's just something different and people seem to have fun with it," said Tony Bergstrom. "We don't pay too much attention to what the crowd's doing but this seems to kind of pump up the crowd a little bit extra, and we always feed off of that. For the players, the black uniforms always kind of do the same for us, so it's a fun week."

The pre-game anticipation of what the Utes' black uniforms might look like has become another part of the mystique surrounding the blackout game, and this year will be no different. In fact, anticipation may be greater considering the splash that Under Armour has made this season with their unique, and even controversial Maryland uniforms.

What most fans won't see Saturday is the Utes' pre-game ritual Samoan war chant, as it is done very early in the warm-up process. Unlike most schools around the country who do a similar chant, including rival BYU, their homage to the Polynesian heritage of roughly one-third of the Utah roster flies under-the-radar, and is not done for the benefit of television, or even fans.

There are several different types of war chants, the most common of which is the Haka, as performed by BYU. The Haka is of Polynesian descent, but is specific to New Zealand's Maori people, rather than a specifically Tongan, or Samoan type of chant.

The trendy Haka has been a staple of New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team and has been performed by them, and other rugby teams worldwide for decades. Of late, the chant has caught on with dozens of high school and college football programs adopting the tradition and pre-game ritual.

Though the University of Utah has been doing it since the Ron McBride era, when researching the ritual, the Utes aren't listed among the teams that perform it; the direct result of when they choose to do it amidst their other pre-game warm up activities. Long before the fans are in their seats, or cameras are rolling is when the Utes do what is actually called a Mili, versus the Haka.

While the Haka is derived from the Maori, the Utes' Mili is a uniquely Samoan war chant, which was performed prior to battle by Samoan tribes. While the chant has many different meanings attributed to it, it is said to be both a challenge to the opposition, as well as a form of intimidation and way to ask for, or draw power from a higher being prior to battle.

Unlike the Haka, the Mili features a singular leader, or caller who cries out the chant, drawing a response from the group, accompanied by clapping, stomping or other arm movements at designated times. How a player comes to be designated as the caller or leader remains unclear.

When asked about the process, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake indicated that the players designate or decide who they think should have the honor, while Chad Kauha'aha'a suggested it came from coaches.

However it came about, former jack-of-all-trades Ute, Neli A'asa had been the designated caller for the Utes during his tenure on the team. The honor has been handed down to sophomore Samoan offensive lineman Jeremiah Tofaeono.

"I feel proud to be the one doing it. It took me a long time to get it down, but Neli [A'asa] really helped me out with it, and made sure I had it down," Tofaeono said. "To be Samoan, and have the team do a Samoan chant and get to be the one who leads it, is a big thing for me. I try to get into it to make sure the guys kind of follow that. It's kind of like the better we do [the chant], the more fired up we get."

The tradition of the Mili at Utah has varied over the years. In fact, former defensive lineman and current defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a recalls doing the chant during his time as a player under McBride.

"Oh yeah, I loved it. It really got us going, and we just used it to pump us up," said Kauha'aha'a, who actually led the Milli for his teammates. "We didn't always do it before games, or even every game."

In fact, the Mili was preserved for special occasions or big games, and often times, the Mili would be done in practices leading up to the designated big game; apparently the roots for the low-key manner in which Utah approaches it's valued ritual.

Though the Utes do it prior to every game, its meaning has not diminished in any way. A fun pre-game ritual that gets players pumped up, the Mili is an extremely valued Utah tradition that the Utes take seriously. They also value the cultural importance placed on it by their Samoan teammates.

"When I first got here, I didn't really know what it was. I just tried to keep up and copy the movements as we went along," said sophomore linebacker/safety Brian Blechen. "Now I know more about what it means to some of the Poly guys, and also what it means to the team. I really love it and it helps me get ready for the game."

Junior wide receiver Reggie Dunn feels the same way.

"I didn't know what it was, but it kind of looked important or kind of special for the team, so I just went with it and did the best I could," Dunn explained. "Once I found out what it was, and why we do it, it was real cool. It made me want to really get into it and now it fires me up. It gets me ready."

Safeties coach Morgan Scalley recalled the way the Mili got him ready for game time as a player as well.

"It's kind of business-like, the game preparations. Getting to the stadium, putting on the uniform and then going out and making sure you're doing your warm ups the right way, which is important," Scalley said. "Then you get to that point and ready to the do the chant, and it's just a signal that it's game time. That's when you kind of get going, and the adrenaline starts pumping. It's game time. It's a big thing for the players. It's been kind of a special thing at Utah for a long time."


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