In Tongan, fefe hake means “how are you?” When two Polynesians come across each other in public, those words are followed by a warm embrace and an introduction if the people are strangers. It’s what Polynesians do.
“I think one of the most unique things about our culture is that we can go anywhere and once (we) see another fellow Polynesian, (we’re) always going to say hi,” said Bojay Filimoeatu, the newest defensive line coach at SDSU, during an upcoming episode of The SDSU Football Podcast.
For Filimoeatu, his culture is everything. His parents came from Houma, a small village in Tongatapu, Tonga, which has a population of about 2,000 people.
His dad was raised with ten other siblings. Family is everything in the Polynesian culture. The first thing young men learn in their culture is to treat everyone with respect, especially women.
“Women in our culture are treated at the highest level and it starts with all our sisters, our mothers, our wives,” Filimoeatu said. “They get the most respect out of everyone.”
If that respect is not shown at an early age, there are repercussions, which according to Filimoeatu, can come from anybody within your tribe. It’s how the culture ensures that men are raised the right way and learn how to overcome obstacles and adversity.
Adversity hit Filimoeatu hard a few months ago. With the firing of UNLV’s head coach Marcus Arroyo at the end of last season, Filimoeatu’s role as the defensive line coach at the school was over after only one season.
He needed a new home and waited for his next shot. Based on the culture described above, it comes as no surprise that a fellow Polynesian played a pivotal role in what came next for Filimoeatu.
When Justin Ena decided to depart SDSU in January to become BYU’s linebackers coach, he recommended his friend to head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix. Another example of how the family culture embodies the Polynesian way.
While Ena may have thrown the name in the ring, Hoke was already very familiar with Filimoeatu after he resurrected UNLV’s defensive line into a disruptive force in 2022 and helped defensive lineman Adam Plant, Jr. become an All-Conference player. After recording seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in each of his prior two seasons, Plant raised his level to 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2022. He also forced three fumbles. Against SDSU, Plant’s three tackles for loss and two sacks were his season highs as he helped wreck the Aztecs’ offensive gameplan.
Shortly after meeting and conducting interviews, the position was Filimoeatu’s. He was ecstatic to land in a place he considered one of his dream jobs. His wife was raised in nearby Temecula and her siblings all attended SDSU.
His coaching stints prior to UNLV included Weber State (2021), Utah State (2019-2020), San Jose State (2017-2018), and Oregon State (2016). The five years spent in the Mountain West gave Filimoeatu an advantage over other possible candidates because of the experience gained preparing and game planning against most of the coaches in the conference.
“The staffs that are still on board (in the conference) run the same schemes and I can help in that extent,” he explained. “But most important thing is that I want to make sure that we’re creating and developing the guys to compete with those guys because I know what they have on the other side … you want to continue to progress and be better than them and having that knowledge does help.”
Two months into the program and Filimoeatu has already experienced the Aztec Way firsthand.
“Every year I played (SDSU), we knew it was going to be a battle,” he recalls. “To see why they’re so tough and why the culture is so strong here because of what these guys do day in and day out. It’s no excuses. It’s get the job done and just be relentless. You understand why (SDSU) is known to be tough, relentless, and always really good on defense because the structure has been set since 2009.”
The reference to 2009 ties back to the start of Hoke’s first stint as head coach at SDSU. For some, the way Hoke runs his program is reminiscent of what the Polynesian culture represents. Savai’i Eselu, SDSU’s tight ends coach, referred to Hoke as an “honorary Poly” during an interview in Episode 26 of The SDSU Football Podcast.
Filimoeatu agrees with that sentiment, describing the Polynesian culture of people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and their authenticity is easy to identify.
“We always go off that first impression and with coach (Hoke), he doesn’t put up a wall,” he said. “You can feel how genuine he is. He’s not going to be the fake tough guy. He’s going to tell you straight but he shows that he actually loves you through that. And I think we can all relate to somebody like that in our life. He does such a great job with our team and with us coaches that we actually feel that presence from him. We look up to him and we want to work hard for him.”
Toughness is the key principle of Hoke’s philosophy. It’s ingrained in every coach and player that has come through Montezuma Mesa for the past 14 years. To make sure that toughness does not cross the line, discipline and respect are equally important.
For Filimoeatu, that is exactly how his family raised him. He was the youngest sibling, the only boy with five older sisters. Starting at age eight through the end of high school, his father had him working in the construction business to develop traits that he would use in life regardless of the profession he chose. Ultimately, it showed Filimoeatu that he needed to make football work as a career because he did not want to live the “9 to 5” job.
“It’s been instilled in us since the beginning so when you get to (SDSU), you see why the culture is so strong because it’s so similar to ours,” he noted. “We want to be humble, hardworking, and hungry and make sure that we respect everyone. And then when we step on the field, just like in our life and anything we were brought up, that warrior mentality comes out.”
“My ancestors were warriors on the sea and so I think that comes out with sports and we can all resonate with that. When you come here, everybody wants to battle and it’s a brotherhood. These guys are tight like glue and they all want to work hard not just for themselves, but the brother next to them.”
Another advantage of the partnership for Filimoeatu is getting advice from Hoke, one of the most respected defensive line coaches in the country. Having the head coach heavily involved in one positional group is a dynamic that is uncommon around college football but for Filimoeatu, he sees it as a blessing.
“I’m like a sponge right now, taking in all the wisdom, all the coaching, and every detail and tips of being a man basically in life,” he exclaimed. “I’m taking it from coach (Hoke) and he’s done awesome for this room and I just want to make sure that I do justice for him.”
SDSU’s defensive line lost all three starters from last year’s team and has a mix of young returners and several junior college transfers who are vying for playing time in 2023. During spring camp, Filimoeatu has been teaching fundamentals and technique. With so many young guys on the roster, he preaches to each player to focus on doing their individual job first instead of selfishly trying to make the play.
“If you can do your job and beat that one man in front of you, then you’ll make plays and you’ll be defensively sound,” he noted. “I want to let these guys loose. I want them to understand that the only way you can play fast is if you know what you’re doing out there. I know that it has to slow down for them first in order to get faster.”
The first chance Aztec fans will have to see the young defensive linemen unleashed under Filimoeatu’s reign with be Thursday’s Spring Game at Snapdragon Stadium.
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America’s Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.