Just like much of the rest of the country, Jahlani Tavai found out about the wildfires through social media.
The New England Patriots linebacker had only returned to the mainland for football a week prior, having been in Hawaii to spend time with his girlfriend's family before his season got into full swing. But on Aug. 8, as flames blazed through West Maui, he realized the Hawaiian islands might never be the same again.
"Just seeing videos and knowing I have family and friends out there who are suffering, who lost everything – it's hard to put into words," Tavai recalled as he sat down to discuss his support for Rebuilding Maui this year for the NFL's My Cause My Cleats initiative.
"All I could think about was how I wish I could be there to help."
The situation was hectic, even from afar, as his girlfriend Kalei Mau, updated him on the situation from the islands. She was still in Hawaii, mourning the passing of her loving stepmother. Now, just days later, her brother had lost everything.
Tavai felt helpless, but with help from his Patriots teammates, he sent as much as they could to Maui – from food and clothing to baby stuff. He thought about his college football teammate, now a Maui firefighter, and the tragedy he must have witnessed that day. Sending care packages is one thing, but Tavai wished he could have been there to help more.
"I'm sure people have seen the videos," Tavai said. "Kalei's brother was actually one of the last cars that made it out of Lahaina. Whether it was witnessing people dying from being burnt or cars blowing up beside him, his story was the worst I'd heard."
It's been months since that Tuesday changed everything for Maui residents.
It's been confirmed that 100 people lost their lives that week, with wildfires leaving many more missing having destroyed more than 2,2000 structures. It will cost an estimated $5.5 billion to
rebuild, and an overwhelming amount of people, like Kalei's brother and his family, remain displaced.
"They're going hotel to hotel and family to family right now," Tavai said of Kalei's family.
"What I love about Hawaii is despite this disaster, the community is staying strong. You have every other island trying to help. No matter what happens out there, they are there for their own, and I'm grateful for that."
He felt that love personally.
Though he grew up in Inglewood, the Californian loved watching Colt Brennan play for Hawaii and felt drawn to the atmosphere around the football program. He wanted to experience that himself, and during Tavai's time with the Rainbow Warriors, the islands became his second home.
Going to school in Hawaii marked the first time on his own, but it didn't necessarily feel like that. His teammates never let him feel alone, and the fans embraced him and his brother Justus, who joined him in Honolulu for the 2018 season. Tavai credits the island culture for molding him into the person he is today.
"It's breathtaking when you're flying over there," Tavai said, specifically about Maui's natural beauty. "You land and you're just in the valley looking into the ocean – it's hard to replicate. Each island is so different, but the same energy and the same type of people. They remind people who are visiting to respect the ʻaina, respect the island, and if you respect the land they'll welcome you with open arms."
There's good reason for that, Tavai notes, referencing the complex and controversial aspects of how Hawaii was formally annexed by the United States
"For them, it's Hawaii versus everyone," Tavai said. "You learn about the history there and how they became the 50th state – you know, the true history that I never learned back in Los Angeles. It's awesome to see how proud they are. They take it to heart when they say their from their city, especially when you look at Hawaii on the globe. It's a little spec, you know? But they just create so many amazing people."
Now, those people are faced with difficult challenges.
Rebuilding Maui will be difficult, well beyond the general logistical challenges that construction in Hawaii presents given its geography and everything it takes to get supplies to the islands. And as more than two thousand acres burned in Lahaina, so much irreplaceable history is now ash.
The people of this sacred land, in many cases, passed down from generation to generation, now face an impossible decision. They could sell their land and build a life elsewhere, as developers buy up the prime, long-sought-after real estate and turn it into luxury resorts.
Or, they could see this through – a process that could take years and financially destroy them in the process. Tavai knows these people need instant relief. For many, the financial and emotional situation is a dire one.
"One of the things that really ticked me off is that hours after the fires ended, you had corporations and companies, people with a ton of money trying to buy up the land while these people are literally trying to process what is going on," Tavai said.
"They lost everything. Understanding the history about Hawaii, how much they've been taken advantage of, it ticks me off every time I think about it because people are struggling. I pray people continue to help and dive into the community. I love the Red Cross but they have so much going on in the world to deal with. So, the foundation a few of the guys in the league made is RebuildMaui.org. We're trying to make sure that we emphasize helping the community, helping individual families, sending money to them so they can pay their mortgage, and keep passing their home and their land down to the next generation. I'm praying that people around the world help."
Tavai heard about the Rebuild Maui relief fund through Carolina Panthers linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, whom the Patriots drafted in 2016. He and other NFL players with ties to Hawaii were coming together to raise money, and Tavaii was all-in, adopting the cause for the NFL's My Cause My Cleats initiative.
When he suits up against the Chargers this weekend, his custom cleats reflect that. They'll feature "Maui" written in a pink heart, and the phrases "Keep Hawaiian land in Hawaiian hands," and "Imua," which means moving forward.
"I don't want people to forget about Hawaii," Tavai said.
"There's so much tragedy in the world, so much is happening that's out of our hands. My thing is just to not let Hawaii be forgotten."
Learn more about Rebuilding Maui here.