April 7, 2006
By Noah Cohan
During spring drills at the University of Washington, most football players need little in the way of introduction. Dawg fans recognize them and look forward to the chance to cheer them on in the fall. Relocate one of those players to a small village in Africa, however, and they might have some explaining to do.
At some point between losing 40 pounds to a diet of rice and yams and dropping 60 to the relentless toll of malaria, William Kava stopped telling people that he played American football. He stopped not because he didn't stand out - even after dropping fully a third of his body mass he easily outweighed even the largest of the people around him - but because he realized that it didn't matter why he stood out. That the people of Sierra Leone and Ghana understood that he was a missionary - that was the important thing.
Kava, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came to Africa in the summer of 2003, after two years of playing football at the UW. Like most Mormon men of his age, Kava chose to go on a two-year mission at the encouragement of the church. Unlike most football players his age, Kava chose to put his career on hold in order to fulfill a religious commitment. Though the offensive lineman had not been a starter in his first two years as a Husky, he had shown plenty of promise, earning Bob Jarvis Offensive Scout of the Year honors during his redshirt year in 2001 and seeing action in a back-up role in three games in 2002. Yet the way Kava tells it, he felt no hesitation about embarking on a journey that he knew would alter his football future.
"It was something I always wanted to do," said the Kaneohe, Hawaii native. "So after I finished my second season here, I went home, filled out the necessary paperwork, and got sent out a few months later."
In June of 2003, Kava was sent from his home in Oahu to Sierra Leone, a country of six million people in coastal West Africa. He arrived shortly after the nation's 11-year civil war had ended. With most of the population living in poverty, Kava's duties were often concentrated on helping the locals gather food or complete other day-to-day tasks.
"We went to talk about our church and the beliefs that we have," Kava said. "Apart from that we spent a lot of time helping people, doing Peace Corps-type stuff. We just did whatever we could do to help, depending on the situation. In some places I helped build houses, in some places I helped with farming and in other places I had a chance to go out fishing.
"The people there were really nice. Life there is hard. They don't have the things that we have, but they make do. It was a great learning experience. It made me really grateful for the stuff we have here in this country."
Among the things that the people of Sierra Leone and Ghana (where Kava also spent part of his mission) didn't have was access to a diet similar to the one Kava used to fuel his 6-foot-3 300-pound football-playing frame.
"The African diet is basically a lot of carbohydrates and not very much meat," Kava said. "I ate a lot of rice and cassava, which is a vegetable kind of similar to a yam. But that was pretty much it. We got fish if we were lucky, or maybe some chicken. In the first month I was there I lost 40 pounds, just from the diet alone."
While the change in diet brought down his weight, the solidly-built offensive lineman tried to explain his role as an UW football player to the villagers he worked with. But describing the spectacle of more than 72,000 people packed into Husky Stadium to villagers who often lived without electricity or running water proved difficult.
"I tried to explain football, but I gave up after about a month. A few of them had heard about it a little bit, but not many. After that I didn't tell people that I was an athlete, but I think they kind of knew that I played some kind of sport just because of my size."
Despite being away from the game, Kava stayed up to date on his former teammates thanks to the letters sent by his parents. And though keeping himself in playing shape was impossible, Kava was able to apply the mental aspects of the game to his situation.
"The mental toughness of football, I applied that to my time in Africa," said the former high school All-American.
Given the civil strife that was often present in the lives of those around him, that toughness proved useful.
"I think the peace that we have in this country is something we take for granted," said Kava. "Over there, not only do you have to worry about your family and how to make a living, but you have to worry about the safety of yourself and your family. That was a big eye-opener for me.
"When I first got (to Sierra Leone) there was a civil war going on in (neighboring) Liberia. We had to evacuate the missionaries from there. And (the LDS missionaries) have had some problems in Sierra Leone before. So there were a lot of difficult things going on."
But the most difficult things about Kava's time in Africa came about halfway through his two-year mission. While stationed in Ghana, Kava contracted malaria.
Malaria is a mosquito-spread disease that kills more Africans every year than any other malady, and certain strains can afflict people, like Kava, who have already been immunized. Medicine sent to him by the LDS missionary services allowed him to make a recovery, but the once formidable gridiron giant, having already lost 40 pounds, ceded 60 more to the disease, which he equated to "the flu on steroids." Though severely weakened, Kava stayed in Africa to finish his mission. In July 2005, when he had completed his two-year stint, Kava, who had spoken to his parents via phone only once the entire time, returned home.
It was only upon his return that Kava realized how much he, and the world he had left behind, had changed. Having shed all that weight, he didn't look the same. And after living amongst some of the world's poorest people, he didn't look at American prosperity in quite the same way.
"The people I lived with had nothing, but they were really welcoming," Kava said. "Things are hard for them, but they try and do the best that they can - they just go day-by-day. That's something that I try to do too, now that I'm back in the U.S."
But one thing had stayed constant while Kava was away, something not many people, even he, might have expected. Despite having been almost completely cut off from football for two full years, Kava wanted nothing more than to put on his pads again, preferably for the purple and gold.
"I've been playing football since high school and never really taken a break from it," Kava said. "When I was gone I realized how much I love this sport. Not only that, but I try not to take for granted the time that I have here and the abilities that God gave me. I just want to use them and do the best that I can."
To fulfill that goal, Kava first had to reconnect with the Husky coaches. Fortunately, defensive line coach Randy Hart - the only coach extant from the football staff present when he left - put in a good word with head coach Tyrone Willingham and Kava was welcomed back for the 2005 season.
But there was another obstacle to overcome, a - pardon the pun - particularly big one. Although he was able to regain 20 pounds of the weight lost to malaria while still in Africa, he still weighed only 220 pounds - too low a number if he intended to return to his position along the offensive line.
"When I got back a lot of people didn't think that I would be able to play football ever again, just because of my size," said Kava with a hint of a smile. "But thanks to some good eating I gained most of my weight back. It wasn't that hard for me, I'm a big eater."
Back around 300 pounds, Kava is once again a tree trunk of a man. Football isn't just about size, however, and two years away from the game will make even the most polished player feel like a beginner. So Kava spent last season on the scout team, reintroducing himself to the rigors of practice and sharpening his technique.
"I just try to do the best that I can with practice and training," Kava said. "I was really rusty this past year, but I just tried to do my best and stay humble. Wherever I could help out, that's where I was."
After a year spent regaining his form, the 23-year old junior - called "Pops" by the more playful of his younger teammates - hopes he and the Huskies will regain their stride in 2006.
"I would just like to play, to help the team win and hopefully go to a bowl game. I want to put us back on top, where we're supposed to be."
How did Kava know, after a college-football-eternity spent a world apart, that the UW was where he was supposed to be?
"I just felt like I belonged here," Kava said. "I missed it. It's a place that I love."
Should Kava fulfill his goals, he won't need to explain to Husky fans who he is or what he does. They'll know he plays football, and they'll love him for it. Given what Kava's already accomplished and overcome, it doesn't seem farfetched.