Keliikipi overcomes hurdles to fulfill dream of playing for Hawaii

Updated: October 16, 2003, 12:03 AM ET

HONOLULU -- Severely overweight, dejected and closing in on his mid-20s, West Keliikipi's lifelong dreams of playing college football seemed almost impossible just a year ago.

"Seeing myself go downhill and seeing myself not being happy with life, I just decided I had to do this," he said. "Not to prove it to anybody else, but to myself."

After saving enough money to enroll at the University of Hawaii and shedding 80-some pounds, Keliikipi walked onto the football team this season. At the time, he hadn't played organized football in five years.

Today, the 23-year-old running back has emerged from obscurity to a key component in Hawaii's run-and-shoot offense and one of the most exciting Warriors to watch.

Keliikipi, who even was left out of the 223-page Hawaii media guide, is now second on the team with 166 rushing yards and is tied for third in scoring with four touchdowns. He is averaging 6.6 yards per carry and has led the Warriors in rushing in three of the six games.

But it's not how many yards he gains that has caught the attention of Hawaii fans, coaches and players. It's how he gets there.

At 6-foot-1, 260 pounds, Keliikipi is a powerful and punishing running back that leaves a trail of defenders on their backs, dizzy and demoralized.

"I live every play like it's my last," he said. "I run every play hard."

Hawaii coach June Jones said Keliikipi's ability to "crush" defenders reminds him of former NFL running back Craig Hayward.

"It gets a certain electricity going," he said. "That's football -- hitting, and hitting hard."

Receiver Gerald Welch said he's one of Keliikipi's biggest fans.

"Once he has an open field, he makes moves, he runs you over, you don't know what's coming," he said. "He's thinking that no one is stopping him. And at 260 pounds, there's nobody that's stopping him."

Keliikipi's teammates still buzz about nationally televised highlights of the jarring stiff-arm he landed against a Southern California defensive back more than a month ago.

"I'm really glad he's on my team," cornerback Abraham Elimimian said. "Guys like that will get you hurt. He just runs over people and there's nothing you can really do about it."

Quarterback Timmy Chang said Keliikipi, a junior, is also an awesome blocker.

"West brings in another dimension where he's as big and strong as one of the linemen, but he's quicker," Chang said. "He gives receivers that extra time to get open downfield and gives me time to get the ball off."

The physical abuse Keliikipi inflicts on his opponents does come at a personal price.

"I feel bad for them, so after the game I apologize," he said. "I tell them, 'I have to do my job."

Keliikipi's road to Warrior notoriety hasn't been an easy one.

Since graduating from Waianae High School, where he once rushed for 376 yards in a single game, he has worked as a welder and attended school on the mainland. He eventually saved enough money and was admitted to Hawaii, keeping his dream of playing football alive.

"West is a guy has been through a lot," Elimimian said. "He's a very tough warrior, but he's really a kind guy.

"He doesn't try to dish it out on us in practice, thank goodness. But in the games, he's trying to show everybody what he's all about," he said. "I respect a guy like that."

Keliikipi, who has to wake up at 4 a.m. to commute from his Waianae home and be on the practice field by 7 a.m., said he didn't have major expectations coming into the season, but he kept believing in himself.

After last week's game against Fresno State, Keliikipi was told that he would be awarded a scholarship for next season.

"It's a dream for me because I worked so hard, I lost 80-something pounds to do this, and I'm happy," he said. "I'm happy I'm playing for this team. It's an honor."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index