Hau’oli Kikaha only doubted his dream once.
He had just torn his ACL for the second time. Kikaha had been pushing hard, fighting to return as quickly as possible after tearing the ACL in his left knee as a sophomore at Washington, and then the ligament failed him again in a preseason practice.
Kikaha felt a year’s worth of work undone in one wrong step.
He packed on pounds, but not out of apathy. Kikaha spent so much time in the weight room that he started to get muscle-bound, raising his weight from 245 to 267 in a fit of controlled fury.
When he wasn’t in the gym, Kikaha tried to fight back uncertainty. He knew the statistics. Only 3 to 6 percent of people who suffer an ACL tear ever rupture the same ACL again. A second ACL tear hurt his chances of reaching the NFL.
“I was nervous, thinking, ‘Is this knee ever going to work?’ ” said Kikaha, now a rookie linebacker with the Saints. “Everything, it seemed like my whole plan for my future was being questioned. I wasn’t so sure of anything after that. I started looking at Plan Bs.”
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Football is king in Kikaha’s home state of Hawaii, an island as passionate about the sport as any state in the South. Whole cities stop everything for high school football games, and Kikaha’s high school coach, Reggie Torres, said thousands pack the stands.
Kikaha loved the game from the moment he saw it. When he was little, he played in the streets, in backyards, on the beach. Kikaha watched the game whenever he could.
“Then I found out you can make a lot of money doing it,” he said. “And I was like, ‘This is a way out. This is a way to take care of everybody.’ ”
Kikaha was raised by a single mother, Dawn, who worked hard to provide for her three sons.
But raising three boys on a single mother’s salary is no easy task. Money was often tight. The family moved over and over again: from Hawaii to Ohio and back, to Texas and all over southern California, landing in La Mesa and San Jacinto before moving back to Hawaii when Kikaha entered high school.
Kikaha’s older brothers, Kila and Kahaiapo, 5 and 6 years older than him, often helped their mother by taking care of Kikaha while she was at work. Kikaha spent the final two years of high school living with his grandparents, Bob and Leona Kulesa, who opened their home at a time when his career began to take off.
“There was a time when we went hungry, stuff like that, but I know other people had it worse. I don’t feel bad for myself,” Kikaha said. “I was happy.”
His mother also made sure her sons wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes they saw around them.
Dawn set high expectations. No matter what the family was going through, she raised her sons to be responsible, to follow a strict set of rules and take care of those closest to them.
“Growing up, I got to see so many examples of what not to do, and how not to be, or what to do if you want to have a hard life,” Kikaha said. “I wanted to know how I could take care of everyone and kind of fix some of the issues that we had in my family’s history.”
Kikaha made a symbolic move to identify with a better part of that history in college.
He changed his name. Born Hau’oli Jamora, Kikaha decided early in his life that he wanted to take another last name, a name that reflected the values of the woman who raised him rather than the father who wasn’t around when he was a child.
So he started doing research. He dove into his mother’s lineage, talked to his grandmother and found his great-grandfather’s last name.
Then, still known as Hau’oli Jamora, he went the extra mile, traveling to Maui from Oahu to talk to his great-grandmother in person. A spiritual person, he prayed hard over the choice before making his final decision.
“I go back to my mom’s family, to my great-grandfather, the last guy that was a real man and took care of his family and everything that I admire,” Kikaha said. “Voilà. Kikaha.”
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Dawn had one more rule for her youngest son.
Kikaha couldn’t play football until the ninth grade. She didn’t want him to get hurt.
When Kikaha transferred to Kahuku High as a sophomore, his football skills remained raw.
“He was a quiet, humble kid, with a great work ethic,” said Reggie Torres, Kikaha’s high school coach. “That kid worked his tail off.”
Torres immediately realized his new pupil needed to develop a more fluid, natural style of movement to realize his potential.
He sent Kikaha to Ray Imada, the same judo coach who once taught Torres.
“He had good basic football skills, but he had to get more flexible, learn to use his entire body instead of just his arm strength,” Imada said.
A lot of kids have come through Imada’s doors hoping to sample the sport for football purposes without embracing it fully.
Kikaha, who also wrestled, found another home on the mat. By his junior year, Kikaha was good enough to win an Oahu Interscholastic Association title in judo, and he would likely have made a run at the state championship as a senior if he hadn’t broken his arm.
Kikaha wanted to return to the mat despite his injury, but Imada and Torres convinced the state’s Defensive Player of the Year he shouldn’t risk his budding football career. In a short time, Kikaha has done enough to earn the art’s coveted black belt, although Imada hasn’t gotten a chance to present the honor.
Imada has a special place in his heart for Kikaha, who embraced the entire discipline, a rarity for an athlete his age.
A true judoka is much more than just a fighter.
“A person that would serve humanity,” Imada said. “Learning how to be healthy, learning to work hard. Working to develop humility and respect for others, yourself. Develop your mind, your academics and social skills. A lot of kids that come out don’t think about that. They just want to win.”
The sport also drew Kikaha back to another side of his family.
When he was 16 and competing in the state judo tournament, Kikaha saw a man who looked an awful lot like him. He hadn’t been trying to find his father, and he wasn’t sure what he’d feel if the two reconnected.
Kikaha found himself able to forgive. His father understood the name change; as it turns out, his father wasn’t sure the name Jamora was the rightful name of his lineage.
Despite years of absence, the two have built a relationship.
“To be honest, I thought I’d want to fight him or dislike him,” Kikaha said. “Turns out, he’s a pretty cool guy.”
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Kikaha refused to let the second ACL tear force him to give up his dream.
“I was angry, angry and mad, sad at the same time,” Kikaha said. “I don’t know what to call it.”
He responded by sticking to Plan A. Faced with odds he didn’t like, Kikaha worked harder than ever.
The knee still gave him pause. Even during his breakout junior year — a season Kikaha racked up 13 sacks and cemented the undying attention of NFL scouts — he wore a brace the entire season, privately worried the knee could somehow give way again.
Then he decided to study abroad in French Polynesia the next summer. Kikaha spent the summer working out on the beach without a brace. His knee felt strong. When he returned to Washington for his senior season, he ditched the brace.
“My mind was right,” he said. “I felt good about it.”
A fully confident Kikaha tore up the Pac-12, led the nation with 19 sacks and established himself as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL draft, convincing the Saints to take him in the second round in May.
And he has been every bit the player the Saints were hoping to get. A relentless, high-motor starter at strongside linebacker and an edge rusher in passing situations, Kikaha ranks third on the team with 37 tackles, stands second with four sacks and leads the Saints with three forced fumbles.
Kikaha plays like a man immune to fatigue.
“It’s not talked about as much as it should be,” rookie defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “They like to focus on, ‘Oh, he (runs) a 4.6 40, or he’s got this, he’s got that, he’s a raw, explosive athlete and everything else.’ But a lot of times, football comes down to effort and conditioning. It’s tiring out there. You’re tired every play. And to be able to push past that and chase the ball, that’s a hard thing to do. Hau’s definitely doing that.”
Kikaha has always played that way.
Torres, a legendary coach in Hawaii, has coached NFL players like Aaron Francisco, Chris Kemoeatu and Manti Te’o. When Kikaha was at Kahuku, he played with two other defensive linemen who might have been more gifted naturally, Torres said.
Nobody else had Kikaha’s trademark dedication.
“I’ve seen other guys like him, guys who were undersized or earned starting Division I spots as walk-ons, but as far as the guys who made it to the league, I don’t think any of them had the work ethic Hau’oli did,” Torres said. “Hau’oli was special. He wasn’t as gifted as some of those guys, but he had the drive.”
With his rookie contract — Kikaha signed a four-year, $5.2 million deal with a $2.1 million signing bonus — he has bought his family a few things, including a brand new Toyota truck for his mother, a truck she handpicked herself.
“I’m trying to be smart about it,” Kikaha said. “I’ve taken care of a good amount of things that I wanted to, that I feel good about and help with it. But I want to be able to establish something that has residual income and can take care of people for years to come.”
Kikaha’s dream has come true.
But he wants more. Simply making it to the NFL is only the first step. Now Kikaha is focused on making his career count.