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Unleashed: The Relentless Hau'oli Kikaha Overcomes All
Release: 09/25/2013
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UW’s junior defensive end got 2½ sacks last week in his return from two knee reconstructions. As he’s changed his name from Jamora and become an Academic All-America candidate, it’s all been to honor mom and his proud heritage.

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

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SEATTLE – There are more than a few enlightened, mature, 21-year olds playing sports for the Huskies.

Then there is Hau’oli Kikaha.

The defensive end re-emerging from two reconstructive knee surgeries to spark a resurgent pass rush for 16th-ranked UW didn’t see his father, last name Jamora, from 1½ years old until he was 16. That reuniting was at the Hawai’i state high-school judo championships, where the multitalented son was competing and his father was an opposing coach.

His mother Dawn took young Hau’oli and her two older sons from his native Oahu to Ohio, back to Hawai’i, then to Texas, back to Hawai’i, then to four different areas of southern California – all in search of work and a better life for her family.

As his mother went from small job to small job, Hau’oli’s two brothers chipped in raising him. Kila and Kahiapo are four and five years older, respectively.

So having to wait two years and two weeks between getting sacks, from the 2011 opener to the 2½ sacks he had last week in the first half of the blowout win over Idaho State? Having to do wait through two reconstructive surgeries in as many years on the same knee – all while moving to the cusp of an ethnic studies degree with a minor in anthropology, a 3.5 grade-point average and an imminent nomination by UW to the NCAA to become Husky football’s first academic All-American since Ed Cunningham in 1991?

No big whoop. As he often signals with his thumbs, pinkies and a warm smile while doing his native Shaka: “Hang loose.”

“I’ll write a book someday,” Kikaha said this week.

I think he was only half joking.

“I just have a heightened feeling of not taking any day for granted. Any play. Any moment,” he said.


AN UNBREAKABLE BOND BETWEEN “MOMMY” AND SON

Dawn Cockett, re-married now, was planning on giving her youngest son who now has flowing, black hair pulled back in a ponytail another name. Then, when he was born 21 years ago so full of life and fun, mother changed her mind.

“Hau’oli means “happy” in Hawaiian,” she told me Tuesday by phone from her latest home in Hana on the island of Maui.

“And he has been my ‘happy.’ He’s such a sweetheart. Yeah, the name Hau’oli is perfect for him.”

"There are more than a few enlightened, mature, 21-year olds playing sports for the Huskies. Then there is Hau’oli Kikaha."

Hau’oli’s constant happiness and the joy it brought his “mommy” – as Dawn charmingly introduced herself when she returned my call Tuesday – became a glue to the family. As she went from workplace to workplace, from the islands to the mainland to the Midwest to the Southwest and back, Hau’oli kept smiling. And achieving.

“Geez,” Hau’oli said through a sigh. “She struggled really hard with whatever she could. Different jobs. Different apartments in places. All over the place, from Hawai’i to Ohio to Cali to Texas. She just did whatever she needed to do.”

Dawn moved her boys back to the islands in Hau’oli’s freshman year, and for a year they lived in Pearl City, on the west side of Oahu. Then Hau’oli moved in with his tutu (Hawaiian for grandmother, his mom’s stepmother) in Laie, about an hour’s drive up the coast from Honolulu on Oahu’s North Shore. He went to Kahuku High School, the alma mater of numerous NFL players such as Chris Kemoeatu, plus singer and songwriter Jack Johnson.

Kikaha became the state’s defensive player of the year in 2009 at Kahuku. That was just three years after he began playing the sport. He didn’t begin football until freshman year of high school, the same year he took up judo and wrestling. It wasn’t because of all the moving. His mother didn’t want him to get hurt playing football. Her boys and her time were too precious for injury.

I asked her how she got through all those moves and years and hardships and still not only kept her three boys together with her teaching them the ancient Hawaiian hula and dancing with them to reinforce their heritage -- but also raised a young man as determined, accomplished and dedicated as Hau’oli.

She sighed.

“It is an honor to be their mommy,” she said.

“I didn’t do as well as they deserved. I struggled and I did my best. The most important thing was, we stayed together and we had each other.

“I raised them to be responsible young men. Not punks. We have too many punk men in this world. I didn’t want them to be punks.”

Of all the things Hau’oli Kikaha has become in three seasons as a Husky – an inspiration, a co-captain this season, a model student and featured presenter at UW’s annual undergraduate research symposium in May -- a punk is absolutely not one of them.

“Man, that guy is hungry for knowledge,” said Huskies’ middle linebacker John Timu, a fellow team captain and Kikaha’s research and presentation partner in that campus-wide symposium last spring.

“He’s taught me that we all should be blessed with what we’ve got. He’s amazing.”

Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said that from the first day he and his staff met Kikaha on a recruiting trip to Hawai’i about four years ago they wanted him in their program. Anywhere.

“Once we got around him a little bit we said, ‘We HAVE to have him,’” Sarkisian told me Wednesday. “We didn’t even know exactly what he might play for us. But we said we have to have this guy on our team.

“He is very, very mature. He plays so hard. He is very reminiscent of Daniel Te’o Nesheim (the defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who set UW’s career sack record from 2006-09) with how hard he plays the game. And it’s not just on the field. He does it in all areas. I think that is why it shows up in the classroom, too, with how well he does.”

I could just about see mom’s smile through the phone.

“They’ve grown up great, all three of them,” she said of her boys. “The older two (who still live on Oahu) are great supporters of Hau’oli. They watch every one of his games on TV.”

His mother works each Saturday as a concierge at a hotel in Hana, on a remote, idyllic beach far on the east side of Maui, at the end of the majestic, winding “Road to Hana.” Yes, they even get satellite and cable TV at the edge of paradise, so she tapes every Husky game and watches her youngest son chase quarterbacks with her husband and their 16-year-old son by her side when she gets home.

She will get to see Hau’oli play for UW in person for the first time next Aug. 30, when Washington plays at Hawai’i to open the 2014 schedule, Kikaha’s senior season. It will be the first time she’s seen him play since she used to hang leis around his thick neck on the field following games at Kahuku High.

She says she intends to come to UW for the first time next fall to attend one of Hau’oli’s final home games as a Husky.

The fact her boy is not only playing but starting and leading UW’s resurgent pass rush into this Pac-12 season is a testament to his perseverance.


HIS LONG ROAD BACK

Kikaha thought he was all the way back in August 2012, following nine long months of rehabilitation that cost him the final eight games of his sophomore season. But the same, reconstructed knee failed him during a preseason practice.

Back to the beginning. Back for another reconstruction, on Aug. 30, 2012 -- this time done by Dr. Edward Khalfayan, a team orthopedic surgeon and head physician for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and the medical director for baseball’s Seattle Mariners who consults with Husky athletics. Then nine more months of lonely rehabilitation, of two- and three-a-days inside the UW training room while his teammates were going to another bowl game.

“It’s definitely wearing on my brain more than my body – or it has been. And just trusting myself and trusting my knee and trusting my body,” he said, revealing that even after 2½ sacks in less than two quarters last week he hasn’t fully shed the mental weight of the knee surgeries.

“Just the fact that I have to question myself takes away all that I am able to do – especially after the second time. That was definitely difficult. And overcoming that is still a bit of a challenge for me. I am a lot more confident in the health of my knee. But I feel like the brace is kind of a reminder to me of the safety that I have to tag onto it.

“I’m really close. I’m really close. It’s just that small margin is annoying. It’s like I want to get rid of it but I know I can’t – yet.

“I’ll just make do with what I’ve got.”

By now, he’s pretty adept at doing that.

“He never gives up,” his mom said. “When I struggled, he was my buddy. He never gave up on me, so I never gave up on myself – because of him.”

So if you see No. 8 in purple this Saturday against Arizona appearing extra driven, if you catch a smile through his facemask, there’s ample reason.

“It’s just a heightened feeling of not taking anything for granted,” he said. “It’s literally every play, every moment. It’s a constant reminder to me. Any moment that I pause to think, that runs through my head.”

Something else runs through his head while he’s on the field these days: A huge thank you to Dr. Khalfayan for getting him right.

“It’s amazing. I think I’m going to have to get in contact with my surgeon and tell him, ‘You the man, dude!’” Kikaha said.

He again flashed the dual, “hang loose” signs with each hand.


AT ONE WITH HIS HERITAGE

Kikaha has a 3.49 grade-point average that is about to rise following the transforming, extra credits he earned in June while joining 10 other Husky student-athletics in Tahiti.

Then still known by his father’s last name Jamora, Hau’oli and the 10 other Huskies and his fellow Dawgs spent 10 days seeing a Tahiti to which travel agents don’t send tourists. They experienced the struggles of a small nation better known for being paradise for its majestically blue waters and white sands, but one whose people are unsure of whether they want independence from French colonization. Kikaha is still thinking of seeing a Tahitian farmer being denied the water he needed for his crops and family. The pipes instead U-turned away from the farmer’s property, diverted to support the tourists staying at Tahiti’s glimmering hotels down the way.

The Huskies saw first-hand what they had been studying in professor Holly Barker’s anthropology class: The damaging effects of decades of nuclear testing by the French in Tahiti, in the south Pacific. They saw a Tahitian culture struggling to stay alive amid school and government requirements that are almost entirely French.

The trip and class reinforced why the man Kikaha wants to ultimately become isn’t Te’o-Nesheim, J.J. Watt or any other NFL defensive end and sack king.

It is Epeli Hau’ofa. The writer and anthropologist in Fiji was of born of Tongan missionary parents, then spent his life through his death in 2009 spreading his Pacific Islander heritage and sociology through writing and teaching at universities on those islands.

“I want to be a cultural teacher and maybe professor in the Pacific Islands,” Kikaha said. “Not to teach unification, but to show all the similarities. That they are all one people, just spread across an ocean.”

In May, he and Timu were featured presenters at the UW’s annual undergraduate research symposium, at which Sarkisian gave an opening address. The Huskies defensive stars were assigned Session 2C, Education and Social Inequalities. For 12 minutes they articulated their findings of "Decolonizing Education: Translating Football Intelligence into the Classroom" to Judith A. Howard, a professor and divisional dean of social sciences in UW's College of Arts and Sciences.

Their project examined why our society doesn't accept football intelligence as correlating into real-world intelligence -- though it makes a similar correlation for intelligence in, say, chess.

Kikaha and Timu, who is also of Polynesian heritage, began their presentation in room 228 of Mary Gates Hall accentuating the stereotypical jock by wearing their dark purple, Huskies lettermen's jackets with the gold, varsity W sewn into the fronts. Near the end of their entertaining presentation, they simultaneously shed the jackets to reveal dress shirts and slacks.

Then they each put on clear-lens eyeglasses to amplify the crux of their research.

"Do I have to take off these jackets and put on glasses to be seen as intellectual?" Timu asked the audience of fellow student-presenters and UW faculty, plus staff from the Huskies' Student-Athlete Academic Services (SAAS) office.

"This is a start. This is a gateway for people to be able to show their intelligence (rather than disprove perceptions)."

Outside the room, the two bedrocks of the Huskies' defense looked as if they had just spent the day chasing down Oregon Ducks all over Eugene.

"It's not my realm," Kikaha said that day of public speaking. "It will be, though."

He has made UW’s Dean’s list in each of the four years he’s been enrolled here; you have to have a 3.5 GPA over a minimum of 12 credit hours in any one academic term to get that distinction.

Pamela Robenolt, director of learning resources for UW Athletics, reports Kikaha has never been below a 3.0 in any academic quarter – even his first fall one on campus when he was on his way to starting the Huskies’ final seven games as a freshman. Now that Kikaha is back and starring on Washington’s defense Robenolt and the SAAS staff are planning to nominate him and Danny Shelton, Kikaha’s defensive line mate who has a 3.46 GPA, for Academic All-America recognition this season.

“More important than football is that he gets good grades. And he always has,” Dawn Cockett says. “In everything he has done in his life – sports, his school work – he has succeeded.

“He will succeed, always, in anything he does. He was the kind of child that he had a sore stomach he would get all his homework done. When he would yell, ‘Mom, I need help with this!’ I would be busy helping the other two older boys. By the time I got to him he would have figured out his problem himself.

“That’s the way he became in his life. He figured things out himself and got it done. He’s always been like that.”

Hau’oli just shrugs at all he’s accomplished off the field.

“I just hate to fail so badly. That anything I have to do or get to do I will excel in, I feel,” he said. “If there is some sort of competition or rating, as far as grades or whatever it would be, I want to do well in it and show that I can overcome it.”

He acknowledges the perception that Polynesian athletes are not as intelligent as their peers, or that they won’t succeed.

“I feel that the amount of opportunities given to Polynesians isn’t as abundant as other groups. Therefore it is harder for us than for those other groups to become accomplished,” he said. “So, yeah, out of that comes some stigmatism.

“But I just feel like – I don’t know it is it ‘overcome’ it – I just feel like I have met the challenge.

“Gracefully.”


WHY KIKAHA?

This summer Hau’oli went to his mother and his tutu to ask for their help and blessing in changing his last name from that of his father. It was a big deal; neither of his older brothers had asked to do that, and to his mother it was initially something of an affront to their specific family heritage.

Then he told her why he wanted to change his name. It wasn’t that he had any ill will toward his father – dad left home just after he was born to move to Hawaii’s Big Island “to go raise his other kids, which is good,” Hau’oli said.

“We’re cool now.

“It is my great-grandfather’s name on my mother’s side,” Hau’oli said of Kikaha. “I’ve always wanted to change my last name. My dad is pretty confident his dad changed his name. I met my dad when I was 16. I had his name, which he didn’t even like, or agree to. It’s just something I always wanted to change. My mom raised me, a single mother with my two older brothers, and it felt like I needed something from my mother’s side.

“I went to my great-grandmother and talked to her about changing my name. And Kikaha is what I came up with.

“My mom ,” he said, “I wanted to honor her.”

Turns out, Kikaha means “to soar” in Hawaiian.

“And he is soaring, yes he is,” his mother said, pride oozing through the phone line all the way from Hana.

“He’s a smarty pants. He’s actually a nerd, you know.”

I laughed.

“No, he really is. Always has been. A big, handsome, athlete nerd.

“He’s just beautiful.”

The feeling is mutual.

Each game he plays, each sack he gets, each test he aces, Hau’oli Kikaha feels he is honoring his mother and his two brothers for having raised him.

“Those three are the reason I am here,” he says. “They are what I want to be here for, to take care of them.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me to not take care of them the way they took care of me, by being successful here.”


Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or 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.

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