He Made the Difference
BC's Kiwanuka proudly wears his legacy
By Jeff Goodman, special for USA TODAY
CHESTNULL HILL, Mass. — Mathias Kiwanuka waited four long years before he finally did it. Heeding his mother's request to make sure it was what he wanted, the Boston College junior defensive end had the Ugandan presidential seal tattooed onto his back July 4 as a tribute to his grandfather and heritage.
Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka hopes to reach the NFL to be able to help those less fortunate in Uganda.
By Gene Boyars, AP
Kiwanuka, 21, has dreams that are atypical of a big-time college football player who has a legitimate chance to be a first-rounder in next year's NFL draft. He's coming off a breakout season, including a Big East-leading 11½ sacks.
Sure, he wants to make the NFL and earn lots of money. But he's interested in far more than taking down quarterbacks.
His residence has changed often throughout his three years at BC, but one thing has remained constant for the 6-7½ Kiwanuka: The Ugandan flag that hangs in his dorm as a reminder of his heritage.
If that wasn't enough, he finally got the 5-inch by 5-inch tattoo, which stretches underneath the back of his neck, to further honor the country to which his grandfather gave his life.
Benedicto Kiwanuka (key-wuh-NEW-kuh) became the first prime minister of Uganda in 1961, but was imprisoned in 1969 by A. Milton Obote and assassinated three years later by Idi Amin and his men.
The elder Kiwanuka, committed to helping the common man by pushing for educational opportunities and raising the price of cash crops such as coffee and cotton, faced opposition from the government because of his values. The former lawyer, who studied at London University, was a strong-willed individual. His unwillingness to bend the legal rules is what eventually led to his death.
Amin, who seized power in a military coup in 1971 when he overthrew Obote, had Kiwanuka murdered for a variety of reasons, according to the 1996 biography Benedicto Kiwanuka: The Man and His Politic. Kiwanuka, as the country's first chief justice, heard the case of a British national who had been imprisoned by Amin. Kiwanuka also opposed the expulsion of Asians from Uganda.
"It was a horrible situation with my grandfather, from everything I've been told," said the grandson, born more than a decade after his grandfather's death. "But he faced it with dignity. And that's something I try to do with everything in my life, but I'm not there. I have so much to learn. The main thing I learned from what he did is to stand up for what you believe.
"He was a man who stood up for the people of Uganda. And that's what cost him his life."
Kiwanuka's parents, Emmanuel and Deodata, hailed from different walks of life in Uganda. Emmanuel was the son of one of the nation's most respected men; Deodata was the daughter of schoolteachers and had to fetch water from a well each day in between school and homework.
"Benedicto was a great man. He worked so hard for peace and for the good of the poor," Kiwanuka's mom said. "He spoke out against the dictators and went around to all the villages to talk to the people.
"When he was killed, no one could believe it. He helped everyone and was one of the first to promote education for women. Everyone in Uganda looked up to him."
Family life takes a turn
Kiwanuka's parents knew of one another in Uganda but didn't get a chance to establish a personal relationship until they were reintroduced in Indianapolis, while his dad was in the seminary and his mom was a nun.
His father left the family when Mathias, the youngest of three, was 10.
His mom took the children to a hotel before finding an apartment and two more jobs. She worked nearly 100 hours a week as a nurse to keep her children enrolled in Catholic schools. Any extra money went back to her family in Uganda.
"I don't have any relationship with my father, and that's definitely hard, but time has passed and I've come to terms with it," Kiwanuka said.
He said his mother, who has remarried and owns a housecleaning business, kept trying to give her former husband chances to rekindle his relationship with his children, but it never worked.
"She tried so hard, and we didn't understand," Kiwanuka said. "She'd call him on the phone and then tell us that he called. She could have bad-mouthed him, but she never did. She's an extraordinary woman and put aside everything for us."
Kiwanuka, whom everyone calls "Kiwi," was a scrawny kid at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, nearly certain he'd be chasing after rebounds in college instead of quarterbacks. He was named captain of the basketball team after outlasting all his teammates, despite vomiting in a two-hour run which followed a loss the previous day.
Breaking out on his own
However, the only basketball scholarship offer came from Wofford College in South Carolina — Kiwanuka still doesn't know it's in Spartanburg.
He eventually landed a football offer from Boston College, thanks largely to his best friend, Jeremy Trueblood, his teammate at Cathedral, who decided to attend BC shortly after Kiwanuka gave the coaching staff a verbal commitment. (Related item: Big East outlook)
Eagles coach Tom O'Brien and his staff were looking at Trueblood, a heralded offensive lineman and one of eight Division I Cathedral recruits at the time, and happened to fall upon the vast potential of Kiwanuka.
Kiwanuka began his senior campaign at Cathedral at a rail-thin 195 pounds, redshirted his first season at BC and now checks in at 260.
However, the future didn't always look so bright in Chestnut Hill. Kiwanuka burst onto the scene last season after recording five sacks and 44 tackles in primarily pass-rushing situations in 2002.
Kiwanuka's coming-out party came against Penn State a year ago when he had two sacks, three solo tackles and a fumble recovery and batted down a pair of passes.
"It was so much fun, an unbelievable experience," he said. "A packed house and going up against a storied program like Penn State. A lot of things started to come together for me. When I'd come onto the sideline, I'd see coaches smiling at me. I hadn't seen that since high school."
Kiwanuka's confidence soared — and so did his game. Think of a taller version of a combination of the NFL's Jevon Kearse and Jason Taylor.
Kiwanuka is so athletic and agile that the BC basketball coaching staff has been after him to suit up.
"He's obviously a first-round caliber talent. That's a given," said ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. "But it just depends on what type of year he has. Last year doesn't mean anything. It just put him on the radar."
"We don't know what he is yet, because he's only started for one year," O'Brien cautions. "I think his talent is still untapped, and potential is a deadly thing."
Kiwanuka, voted one of the team captains last week, goes up against Trueblood every day in practice.
"He's so focused and never talks about the NFL," Trueblood said. "Everyone on the team respects him and his game. What makes him so special on the field is that he plays bigger than he is — and he's just so fast.
"Everyone called him Jevon Kearse because he's so fast and is tall and lanky. He can run around you or go through you. Plus, he watches so much film it's unbelievable. He knows everything about the guys he goes up against."
Kiwanuka, the first sophomore to be selected to the All-Big East first team since William Green in 2000, also is an All-American candidate and on the Bronko Nagurski watch list for the best defensive players in the nation.
"I'll be honest — it's hard not to listen when people talk about the NFL," Kiwanuka said.
"It's gratifying to a point, but you've got to bring yourself down because all their talking about is potential. A lot of people are judging me on what they think I'm going to do, and that's just a guess."
Heritage always on his mind
However, what makes Kiwanuka so special isn't just his athletic ability. It's his understanding of what's important outside of football.
Since he took his only trip to Uganda, with his parents and older brother and sister when he was a third-grader, Kiwanuka has held a different set of values.
"They knew who we were right away and held us in pretty high regard," he said. "We had feasts every day, and the magnitude of what my grandfather did was unbelievable. Everyone I spoke to had terrific things to say about my grandfather. So many people genuinely wanted to see us do well because of everything my grandfather did for the country."
Kiwanuka got to witness how his countrymen struggled, and despite being so young, he never forgot the values he learned on the trip. He'd collect pencils and other items from school and give them to his mother to send to the needy children in Uganda.
"That whole experience changed my life," he said. "It completely changed how I look at things."
Kiwanuka is hoping to earn a spot in the NFL not just to achieve a dream of playing at the highest level, but also so he can help his mother and those less fortunate in Uganda.
"One of the first things I'll do is help (stamp) out the AIDS epidemic because it's tearing the country apart," he said. "I'd like to build a hospital or supply medication, then help the country with industrialization. I'll definitely go over and offer myself and just listen."
Despite never having a chance to meet him, Kiwanuka knows that's exactly what his grandfather would do.