KAPAA — Kapaa High School had its Kauai Interscholastic Federation football season opening game on Sept. 1 at Vidinha Stadium.
The varsity Warriors defeated Waimea High School, 47-21. But for the school and community, particularly one family from Wailua Homesteads, that night meant much more than watching a game.
It was a night to honor a beloved brother and son.
“I’m just glad to still be playing. This is my favorite sport. It’s good to just be out here,” said Warriors junior defensive back Ali’i Brown on Wednesday. “Even though he’s not watching me in the stands, I know he’s watching me. Whatever I do, it’s just good knowing that he’s watching over me.”
Keanu Shannon Lawai’a “Anu” Saito died on Aug. 27. He was 20. The cause of his death is unknown and is still being investigated by police, the family said.
“It hasn’t been easy, but we’re just living,” said Paka Brown, Saito’s father. “It’s kind of the motto we came up with since all this happened — we’re just living. Living for our family. I think that’s just the best way we can honor my son — just by living and loving each other, and sticking together.
“I’m really proud of him. Even if he’s not here, I’m proud of all my kids, and also proud of my wife,” he continued. “My wife has been unbelievable throughout this whole thing. I have so much respect for her. Like I’ve said, she’s been solid throughout this whole thing. She’s handled it with grace and dignity. Just really proud of my family right now.”
Brown, 16, said Saito was a mentor to him.
“My brother, he was just a good kid. He taught me a lot of things — playing video games, riding bikes. He would go, and I would have to go with him. We just had a nice bond,” Brown said. “He’d love going to the beach, playing games, all of that stuff.”
Saito graduated from Kapaa High School in 2015. He was a member of the school’s football team, paddling team and track team, and he briefly played tennis. In 2015, Saito was named a KIF Paddling All-Star.
“Awesome kid. Good attitude. Always happy,” said Kapaa High School varsity football head coach Philip Rapozo after Wednesday’s practice. “He had a shoulder issue. He was trying his best to play, but that shoulder just kept popping out and he would just keep coming. Even though he couldn’t suit up, he would be here every day running. He wanted to play the game so bad, and his shoulder wouldn’t let him. Three years, he stayed and tried.”
Saito was a student at Kauai Community College and was working on an associate’s degree in liberal arts. He also studied photography at KCC. Saito shared a lot of his photos on his Instagram social media account “awwnew.”
“He was an awesome photographer,” Paka said. “Nothing commercial or anything. Just personal photos he’d post on Instagram. You know the kids nowadays with the social media. That was a big part of who he was.”
Desaray Saito-Brown said her son was also caring of animals.
“We used to call him ‘Dr. Doolittle’ because he really loved animals, and at one time we had a farm,” she said. “We had like chickens, ducks, birds, you name it.”
On Sept. 1, the Warriors dedicated the game in Saito’s memory.
With heavy hearts, the team — including Saito’s brother — took to the field. Brown said, however, he wasn’t even planning to play. Last minute, he changed his mind and suited up.
“We were just planning on staying home. Or if I was, I was just going to go to the game with my jersey,” Brown said. “But after we did the seven nights prayer thing, we all had a talk. We were like, “Nah, I should play.” My older brother wouldn’t want me to be on the sidelines just because of that. And I was supposed to start that week.”
“I actually played more than I thought I would,” he added. “The first half, I went in only twice. But the second half, I played like the whole fourth quarter on defense. So, it was good.”
The Brown family watched as the middle brother played with the varsity.
“It’s kind of hard to explain. Even my JV team, when we got there, they told me they dedicated the game to us,” said Paka, who is also a defensive line coach for the school’s junior varsity team. “I so appreciate that. We’re talking about ninth and tenth-grade kids. They had enough to think about not themselves for the game. Being the first game of the season, you can imagine how ninth and tenth-grade JV kids would be reacting. But the held themselves up, went out there proudly and dedicated the game to my family. That felt great. Also having the varsity do that, that was unbelievable.”
After the game, the team met on the field for pictures. Front-row center was Brown holding a portrait of his brother.
“It means a lot. It’s just good knowing that I got people supporting me and my family,” Brown said. “It’s a hard time, so it’s good knowing people are supporting us. They’re there for us whenever we need anything.”
Saito-Brown added: “With the support of the football team, it really helped that my second son, Ali’i, to play and to want to be there — it’s just very supportive of the football team. And also when they huddled around him after and they took a picture with him, it’s an amazing and beautiful thing — to show that in such loss, there’s so much beauty and so much living that is going on. Even in our sadness, we see the love and support of everyone.”
Rapozo said the last few weeks have been rough, but the football field has served as a place of refuge.
“It’s hard. Everybody’s with a heavy heart when the dad and the brother is part of our football family here,” he said. “And the mom’s been around. She a team parent. The younger brother is here every day in practice. It’s kind of hard to keep going. But yet, football helps. It helps heal. It makes things a little easier, I guess, for everybody.”
Though the family’s “Pocho Prince” — as Saito-Brown called her son — may not be with them anymore, they continue to live on.
“Keanu, he is my Pocho Prince. You know, he’s Portuguesse. But I thought he was my prince,” Saito-Brown said. “The same way with Ali’i. I call him my ali’i. He’s my Hawaiian prince. And my little Larry, he’s my baby. But just with the determination this boy had, and all the things I’ve watched from when he was a little boy all the way until his older years, and he was very loving to his brothers. Always wanted to see his brothers at games and all of that.”
Brown added: “We’re doing alright, just living like that. Just the help of my family and all, like my friends and a lot of family friends, they’ve been helping us a lot. We’re just living because if we just sit around and not think about it, it would be harder for us. We’re just living and trying to enjoy things. It’s still sad, what happened and everything, but we just got to keep going. We’re going to miss him a lot and it hurts every day, but that’s what we got to do. Just keep living and enjoy life.”
Saito is survived by his mother Desaray Saito-Brown, brothers Ali’i Brown and Larry Brown, father Paka Brown and other numerous family members and friends.
A celebration of life is to be held at a later date.