UW’s new coach allowed co-captain Hau’oli Kikaha to miss the first months of offseason workouts to pursue his passion: studying the culture and history of the Pacific Islands in French Polynesia. “Certain guys earn certain privileges,” Petersen said of the team’s top pass rusher and star, 3.53-GPA student.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Click here to sign-up and receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
SEATTLE – Of all that Hau’oli Kikaha bagged last season, this was his best catch yet.
The Huskies’ co-captain was so excited two nights after Christmas he couldn’t contain his smile. Kikaha was at his locker inside the clubhouse of Major League Baseball’s Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The fast, relentless defensive end had just finished a breakout junior season in the 2013 Fight Hunger Bowl with three more sacks in the victory over Brigham Young. Those were the last of his 13 sacks, the second-most in a season in UW history.
Afterward, outside the locker room, he talked in soft tones and with aw-shucks shrugs about his sacks, his forced fumble and nine total tackles that made him the game’s defensive most valuable player. But inside, after he put down his trophy on a table in the middle of the Giants’ clubhouse and pulled off his shoulder pads for the final time last season, he got pumped.
“I’m going back to Tahiti!” he told me that night. “I got the OK to pick up where I left off (last summer), to study more about the effects of colonization in Pacific Islanders’ culture.
“I leave next week!”
New coach Chris Petersen has gotten the Huskies’ and the nation’s attention in his first months at Washington by suspending presumed starting quarterback Cyler Miles and formidable wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow indefinitely; middle linebacker and two-time captain John Timu for two weeks. Those sanctions were for violating team rules. Others have been sent away from spring practices until their grades improved. The punishments have been swift and eye-opening, the effects of having a new sheriff in town.
Turns out, that sheriff carries far more than just a stick.
Within days of UW hiring him in early December, unknown to most, Petersen gave Kikaha permission to miss two months of the Huskies’ winter conditioning program. That was so the team’s top pass rusher could join 16 other UW students on a cultural and anthropological study in the islands of French Polynesia, after it looked like he wouldn't be able to go.
"This didn't happen for him until Coach Petersen arrived," said Chris Rothschild, the study abroad director out of UW's Information School who created the course and trip to learn about traditional language systems of Polynesians.
The new coach had done his homework on his way into Washington from eight seasons at Boise State. He already knew Kikaha has a 3.53 grade-point average in a curriculum steeped in anthropology and hands-on sociology abroad. That he was a first-team Pac-12 all-academic selection and academic All-America nominee last year.
This week, the kind-spoken, hard-hitting pass rusher from Laie, Hawai’i is one of 16 male finalists for the esteemed Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Award given annually to the minority student-athlete with the nation’s best credentials on the field or court, in the classroom and in the community.
Thursday, Kikaha will find out if he has won the Ashe Award. Previous recipients include Seahawks superstar Russell Wilson, in 2011 when he was graduating in three years from North Carolina State, and Marshall Faulk in 1993 when he was excelling at San Diego State before becoming an Hall-of-Fame running back in the NFL.
Even if he doesn’t win Kikaha is already in great company. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III was a finalist for the Ashe Award in 2011 while the quarterback, now starting for the Washington Redskins, was graduating in three years from Baylor.
If there was ever a Husky that deserved to miss team workouts from January 5 until the first week of March for what he says became a spiritual calling, it was Kikaha.
Petersen is proving months before his first game with the Huskies he follows a basic tenet of quality leadership: Be unwavering and indiscriminant while enforcing your rules – and reward excellence just as evenly and vigorously.
In December with Kikaha, still weeks before he officially took over the team following the bowl game, Petersen showed the Huskies his high standards come with high rewards. In February and March with Miles, Stringfellow, Timu and others, he showed them his rules also carry tough consequences.
In doing so Petersen is proving months before his first game with the Huskies he follows a basic tenet of quality leadership: Be unwavering and indiscriminant while enforcing your rules – and reward excellence just as evenly and vigorously.
“Hau’oli’s a really good student, and I know that’s important to him,” Petersen told me following Tuesday’s latest spring practice at Husky Stadium, which Kikaha and other Huskies missed because their new academic schedule for the new spring quarter has them in class during Tuesday morning practice times.
“He’s done a good job football-wise. You know, certain guys earn certain privileges. I hadn’t been here, but I did my research on the type of person he is and how important that was to him. And so we just felt like he deserved to go.”
The Information School's Rothschild said Kikaha was the ideal candidate to go on the trip. Not only had he already studied in Tahiti but he has leadership and teamwork qualities from football. Those became essential among the 17 college students far from home, smart-phone reception and televisions for 10 weeks.
By deciding to let Kikaha study abroad in the infancy of his new program at Washington, Petersen instantly gained the trust and allegiance of one of the team’s most respected leaders. The effect of that bond could last well past this spring and summer, deep into what the Huskies hope will be a run at a Pac-12 championship with a new coach that is a national-best 92-12 over the last eight years.
“First of all, I think it says a lot about him as a person and as a coach,” Kikaha said Tuesday of Petersen. “Immediately, as soon as he gets here, he allows a player to leave and pursue his academic goals far away? That is something that is super uncommon in college football.
“It meant a lot to me. I was very shocked. And pleased. I felt like I had a lot of respect for him right off the bat. Him being different, him allowing these kids of pursuits and him being interested in his players for more than just football, that is so huge to me and to our team.”
JOINING A HEADY LEGACY
To be considered for the Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Award, presented by the publication Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, one must compete in an intercollegiate sport; maintain a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.2; and be active on their campuses and their communities. This year the NCAA Office of Inclusion joined with Diverse to select the 10 finalists from approximately 600 male and female students nominated from across the country.
The significance of being a finalist for the award isn’t lost on Kikaha. He knows about the legacy of Arthur Ashe, that he was the world’s No. 1-ranked tennis professional in the late 1960s as an African-American fighting discrimination in his white-dominated sport. That he toured the world, to places such as segregated South Africa, to help dismantle barriers of racism and poverty. That he campaigned in the final years of his life to spread worldwide awareness of AIDS, a disease with which he was diagnosed in 1988. Ashe died in 1993 at the age of 49 after complications from AIDS.
Ashe was so impacting and respected, he once spoke on the floor of the United Nations on World AIDS Day. Immediately after Ashe died the governor of his native Virginia had Ashe’s body lie in state inside the executive mansion.
“He was a smart guy, a great guy. A great person with great integrity,” Kikaha said of Ashe.
It figures Kikaha knows about Ashe, even though he died about the time Kikaha was born in Oahu.
Kikaha also has been exploring his heritage, understands its barriers and works and studies to obliterate them. That’s what had him back in the South Pacific this January, 2,700 south of his Hawaiian home, among the archipelago of French Polynesia that include Tahiti in the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Marquesas Islands.
The Huskies’ Student-Athlete Academic Services staff gave Petersen a heads-up upon the coach’s arrival in December that Kikaha had been accepted last July as the only intercollegiate athlete among 17 students -- three graduate students and 14 undergrads -- in a UW program for additional study in French Polynesia. That was just after Kikaha, who changed his name from Jamora before last season to honor his mother’s side of his family, had returned from an amazing trip with Professor Holly Barker and 10 other Huskies student-athletes studying Tahitian culture and colonization.
“We had done research projects, had gained indigenous knowledge on the different forms of French colonialism that has affected their lives there, learned the language – all these things to prepare to go there,” Kikaha said of preparing for his return to French Polynesia. “Then we went into the communities to see first-hand how different languages used create a power structure in society there. We went into each community and lived like they did, lived off the ocean and the land. We learned their sustainability tactics.
“Then we’d go into a classroom setting there and analyze what we were seeing – what we were living—and compare it to what the researchers we had been studying had written.”
Kikaha will walk in UW’s commencement ceremonies in June but will continue to take credits this fall as he plays a fifth, redshirt season for the Huskies. He and his 16 colleagues used comparative analysis to judge the communication and knowledge systems in the reality of living under modern French colonization. French Polynesia and its 270,000 residents rely upon France for its systems of justice, finance, education, security and defense, as well as for much of its infrastructure.
The students stayed with host families on each of the islands they visited. In Tahiti, Kikaha was reunited with in the town of Puna’auia on the island’s west coast with Andrew and Andrea Lependu. They had shared their beachfront home and their five children who ranged from eight to 14 years old with Kikaha and the 10 other Huskies in Hau’oli first trip there last summer. As I wrote last summer, the natives came to adore the Dawgs. During his return trip Kikaha said he saw Huskies purple and gold all over the islands, kids and adults wearing the UW gear the players had handed out last summer.
“I left a lot more of it behind this time, too,” he said, chuckling.
A “SPIRITUAL AWAKENING”
Kikaha has been dismayed during his two trips to French Polynesia and his studies to learn that reliance there upon France has come at a steep cost. He’s seen the erosion of traditional Pacific Islander customs and culture, as well as environmental destruction. The latter is after decades of nuclear testing – almost 200 atomic explosions in all -- by the French in Tahiti and its neighboring islands in the South Pacific.
“I learned a lot about the culture -- and about myself. I had to represent myself, my language, my culture alone, autonomously, in this special place so far removed from my everyday life. This was a huge, defining experience for me. It made be happy, fulfilled to be around these people who let me into their world."
Kikaha has seen French Polynesian culture struggling to stay alive amid school and government requirements that are almost entirely French, even though a 2007 census showed 87 percent of French Polynesia’s population was born there on its islands. He feels this culture – his culture – is being exploited, and he seeks to find an end to it. He says after his football days are done he wants to make a difference in restoring those customs and cultures of Pacific Islanders, in French Polynesia, in his native Hawai’i and throughout the Pacific Ocean region.
Not the stuff of your everyday, 13-sack defensive end in major college football, eh?
His favorite time of his January into March in French Polynesia came when he found himself as the only English speaker among approximately 80 elders meeting in the center of the sacred Maroto Valley between dormant volcanoes in the center of Tahiti. He had befriended an older woman during the trip, and she invited him to Maroto to hear the elders give speeches, songs and dances on their native culture. He went for the 20th-anniversary celebration of natives finding and then restoring ancient remains of the Polynesians that lived in the valley centuries ago.
Alone as the only UW student and person under 40 years old there in the middle of the lush Marato, Kikaha was awed hearing their tales in French and Islander dialects, and the descriptions of the native artifacts the French had forced the Polynesians to mostly destroy because the rulers deemed them Pagan and worthless to the colony. It was the essence of what Rothschild's course had hoped the UW students could experience on the trip, and Kikaha was the only one there.
“It was amazing. Amazing!” Kikaha said Tuesday, sounding as excited as he was that December night in the locker room in San Francisco telling me about his trip.
“I learned a lot about the culture -- and about myself. I had to represent myself, my language, my culture alone, autonomously, in this special place so far removed from my everyday life. This was a huge, defining experience for me. It made be happy, fulfilled to be around these people who let me into their world.
“It was an inner, spiritual awakening for me.”
Hey, thanks Coach!
Kikaha’s awakening following Petersen’s blessing is one, early benefit of the coach’s arrival at UW. It’s one not easily seen so far behind the scenes, or anywhere in the big-money, win-loss dominated world of college football.
It’s also a payoff that will last far beyond the coach’s first season – and Kikaha’s last – with the Huskies, well into a curious and proud, young man’s life beyond football.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page.