Work ethic key ingredient to Kiwanuka's success

Mathias Kiwanuka worked to transform himself from a scantly recruited player to an All-American. But that is what the Kiwanuka family does. It works, writes Pat Forde.

Updated: September 18, 2005, 5:55 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Mathias Kiwanuka was home in Indianapolis over the summer when his Boston College coach, Tom O'Brien, called.

O'Brien's star defensive end was not lying around at home when the phone rang. He was not spending quality time with his PlayStation2 hookup. He was neither recovering from, nor planning, the next party.

"He was helping his mother clean an office," O'Brien said.

Mathias Kiwanuka
Mathias Kiwanuka is still drawing plenty of attention.

This is what the Kiwanuka family does. It works.

Mathias' Uganda-born mother, Deodata, owns a cleaning service that she built from the ground up to put her three children through Catholic school. She works second and third shifts, and does it so relentlessly that she couldn't be reached for this story, despite multiple attempts.

"As soon as I make the NFL," Mathias said, "the first thing she has to do is take a vacation."

The youngest of her three children works, too.

On the football field, Mathias Kiwanuka has worked hard enough to transform himself from a scrawny, scantly recruited freshman to a 6-foot-7, 265-pound powerhouse who earned preseason Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and All-America honors. More than any other player, Kiwanuka will be the guy Florida State plans against when the two teams meet in a big ACC showdown Saturday in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

"To go from a little, skinny kid coming in here from Indiana, weighing 215 pounds or whatever, to where he is now?" marveled BC defensive line coach Keith Willis. "It's unreal."

Off the field, he's worked hard enough to already have a psychology degree, and is now working on a second degree in English. He worked this past summer mentoring underprivileged kids at Clarence Edwards Middle School outside of Boston. And as O'Brien discovered, when he was home for a brief time, he pitched in with mom's cleaning service.

To go from a little, skinny kid coming in here from Indiana, weighing 215 pounds or whatever, to where he is now? It's unreal.
BC defensive line coach Keith Willis on Kiwanuka
This menial labor might seem beneath a potential first-round draft pick and future millionaire. It certainly seems beneath the grandson of the first prime minister of Uganda. But that's the thing about quietly charismatic Mathias Kiwanuka: he's never let his talent or his bloodlines convince him that he's too good to work at life.

"He's well-grounded," Willis said. "Irregardless of him playing in the NFL, he's going to be special -- and special in a leadership role. Every person who crosses his path, he affects them in a positive way."

Out of Africa
Leadership, of course, runs in the family. Benedicto Kiwanuka was elected Ugandan prime minister in 1961, when the country gained independence from Great Britain. He was assassinated in 1972 at the command of rising dictator Idi Amin, whose reign of terror led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

"He was a very revered man," Mathias said. "He changed a lot of people's lives. [His death] was hard for my parents to even talk about."

One story they did tell was of Benedicto's rubbing pepper in the eyes of village children, so that they'd swell up. That dissuaded marauding soldiers from kidnapping them.

Deodata was one of 16 siblings -- 18, if you count the two who died young. She and Emmanuel Kiwanuka did not know each other when they both fled the political turmoil of Uganda for the United States in the 1970s.

She was studying to be a nun, he was planning to be a priest. When they met, those plans obviously changed. Three children ensued.

When Mathias was a third-grader, the Kiwanukas went back to visit their native country. Deodata packed up clothes to give away, and she sent her children out to buy $100 of candy.

"That was heaven for me," Mathias said of the sweet shopping spree. "Then she takes it all away. When we got off the plane she gave it back to us to start giving it away. We could see how thankful [the Ugandan kids] were."

One other memory stuck with Mathias from that trip. The smell.

He'd been warned about the pungent smell of the place, which he believes emanated from an indigenous plant. The smell permeated the plane as soon as the air conditioning shut off, and young Mathias threw up.

He acclimated to the odor. It was less easy adjusting to the stark poverty and the human toll of the AIDS epidemic.

"You'd see it and think, 'Why isn't anybody doing anything about it?' " Mathias said.

But he also remembers adults coming up to tell him how much they respected his grandfather. "People respect honest, genuine individuals," he said. An appreciation of his ancestral home took root on that trip.

Years later, while in college, he went to visit his sister, Lisa, a law student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Out shopping, they saw Ugandan flags in a store and each bought one. Mathias' hangs in his dorm room, and he has the nation's presidential seal tattooed on his back.

One day soon, he'd like to go back and help in whatever way he can. He'd like to perpetuate the Kiwanuka name in Uganda as an agent of positive change.

Growing Up Humble
Emmanuel and Deodata separated when Mathias was in sixth grade. Determined to keep her children in Catholic schools, his mom started her cleaning service.

"She worked three and four jobs to make it happen," Mathias said. "We grew up humble. There were times when money was very scarce.

"She was breaking her back to make this gaudy tuition payment so I could go to private high school. In eighth grade, she'd take her lunch break, get me from school, then go back to work. She'd come home, make dinner, then go back to work. ... She said, 'As long as you're still in school, I'm going to support you.' "

Mathias matriculated from St. Simon Grade School to Cathedral High, one of the premier academic and athletic schools in Indianapolis. His family's modest means made him self-conscious in a school populated largely by kids from well-to-do homes.

"It's something you became aware of immediately," he said. "Even wearing a uniform. If you're walking around with Dickies on and somebody else is wearing Banana Republic, or when you're driving a Corolla and other people are driving a Lexus."

Athletics made him feel more comfortable. Kiwanuka played basketball on several AAU travel teams. On the football field, he helped lead Cathedral to two state championships and a 36-5 record in three years.

All of which managed to attract the attention of ... well, next to nobody. Purdue said it were intrigued, but couldn't figure out what position he'd play. Boston College noticed him only while recruiting his teammate, mammoth offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood.

The Eagles got lucky and landed them both. They're two of the biggest reasons BC is currently a Top 25 team.

Kiwanuka "did the Creatine thing" before arriving at BC to bulk up to about 220. By the time preseason camp was over, he was back down to 200 pounds.

After that, "Kiwi," as he's called, spent his first couple of years on the Hill doing one thing: trying to gain weight. He and Trueblood would order two pizzas for 10 bucks, then drink a blender full of protein shakes.

"There were times where you'd lay on your bed and you couldn't move," Kiwanuka said. "Or you'd throw up."

Becoming A Star
Eventually, the weight stayed on and Kiwanuka blew up. He had 7.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman, 16 as a junior and an astounding 25.5 last season. His size and quickness made him a nightmare matchup for any offensive tackle.

"Last year he got double-teamed, triple-teamed, chop-blocked, everything," O'Brien said. "He was a marked guy."

That's only intensified this year, as Kiwanuka has been held without a sack in BC's first two games. But even with his sensational stats last year, he resisted the urge to turn pro.

"The money concept, I'm not going to lie, that was tough to pass up," he said. "I'm not from the richest family. But at the same time, I wasn't really worried about that.

"I thought, 'How am I going to be in the NFL?' I'm pretty confident I was going to get drafted. I want to go in and be a productive player in the NFL."

Kiwanuka listened closely to the counsel of Willis, his position coach. A 10-year NFL veteran, Willis told his protégé that life wasn't all just big checks and fun times in The League.

Willis asked him: "Mentally, are you ready for that level? I don't think so. Because I've been there, done that. I know what's expected from a first-round pick. You're supposed to be God-sent, and if you get there and falter, they'll eat you alive."

So Kiwanuka got himself an insurance policy that he said is worth "around" a million dollars and returned to school. Along the way, he shaved off his signature dreadlocks, necessitating an 11th-hour reshooting of the cover of the Boston College media guide.

"It didn't define who I am," he said simply of the hairstyle change.

A descendant of African leadership turned American success story cannot be defined by a head full of dreads. There's much more involved in the making of Mathias Kiwanuka, although the key ingredient can be boiled down to a two-word trait, passed on from mother to son:

Work ethic.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.