Maui fire devastates two Grizzly families
(UM News Service) Two members of the Montana football family – one current player and one former – had their homes in the picturesque town of Lahaina, Hawaii, destroyed in the devastating Maui wildfires, and Griz fans have the opportunity to help them get back on their feet.
Matai Mata’afa, a Lahaina native who transferred to Montana over the summer, and Jonny Varona, a member of the 2001 national championship team who serves as a firefighter in Lahaina, were each one of thousands to lose their family homes in the blaze.
In the chaotic hours when fierce winds whipped the fire through Lahaina, Mata’afa was nearly 3,000 miles away in Missoula. A transfer to the Grizzly program from Mississippi State, he was in the heart of Montana’s fall camp when hell broke loose in paradise.
It was his brother Hercules, a Washington State alum and former Minnesota Viking who now suits up for the USFL’s New Jersey Generals, who played the family hero, evacuating their parents, Sophie and Sama, out of their home while visiting the island in the offseason.
“My brother went and saved my parents. He helped them get out, and then ran back into my house to save my dog, who got a couple of burn marks on her. Then after that, he had to go and help his girlfriend and the kids get out,” said Matai, holding back tears.
“It happened so fast because the hurricane winds just kept on blowing everything down to the next house, the next house. It all just like burned so quick.”
While the Mata’afa family home was destroyed, Matai says they were lucky to make it out of town alive and are now safe on the central part of the island in the town of Wailuku.
He also knows the unfortunate reality, however, that others were not so lucky.
“I have neighbors gone, friends that lost family members, and some of my friends are missing. It’s just hard. I've been trying to focus on football to get my mind off it. If I was there, I would be able to help, but there's nothing I can do right now. It’s been hard,” he said, holding back tears.
“I just hope and pray that everybody who is still alive gets found, gets reunited with their families, and gets the help that they need.”
Now Matai is turning to football to keep the worry and sadness of his family, friends, and neighbors away as the scorched town tries to regroup and assess the damage.
“I’m just focusing on fall camp and practicing,” he adds.
“It's crazy that something like that can just happen out of nowhere. I just thank God that my family made it out. There’s a lot of families that unfortunately lost a lot of people.
“I just pray for them, all the first responders that are going out helping people, and all the people that are donating, because a lot of people just escaped with the clothes on their back.”
Varona was a defensive tackle for the Griz, a member of the 2001 national championship team, and a three-year letterman from 2002 to 2004.
Originally from Medical Lake, Washington, he now works as a firefighter in Lahaina. He and his wife Aina also lost their home and a surf school and café they owned. The Varonas have two children, Kimo and Kini.
Montana and Hawaii have long been connected by football, with three current squad members and 26 former lettermen hailing from the Aloha State.
Long-time UM strength coach and former player Bruce Wallwork of Oahu was one of many instrumental in bringing several Hawaiians to play football in Missoula in the 80s and 90s, as was former offensive coordinator Tommy Lee.
Today, Montana’s assistant AD for football operations Jimmy Morimoto, who also hails from Maui and had family affected by the fire, is helping carry on that legacy.