Tuesday, September 2, 2014

BY KEVIN JAKAHI | STEPHENS MEDIA

KEAAU -- Kelii Kekuewa keeps shining, despite flying under the radar in the football world.

The 2010 Kamehameha-Hawaii graduate was overlooked by all colleges except one, Arizona Western, the only school to offer a scholarship.

Two seasons later, the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Kekuewa landed on the National Junior College Athletic Associat-ion's All-America first team at center. He also made the All-Western States Football League and All-Arizona Community College Athletic Conference first teams.

His last season at AWC included an appearance in the NJCAA National Championship, a 55-47 loss to East Mississippi Community College. The Matadors finished No. 3 in the national rankings with an 11-1 record, the first 11-win season in the program's 47-year history.

He was back home Wednesday, watching a hard downpour while standing in the Kamehameha administration building's conference room.

The weather was gloomy but it was a bright day for Kekuewa and his parents, Bruce and Lisanne, the school's food service and admissions managers, respectively.

Kekuewa, who already has his associate's degree, signed a National Letter of Intent with Bowling Green State, an FCS school from the Mid-American Conference, which features Temple and Ball State among its most well-known members.

"Hard work pays off. It takes a long time. It took 10 years for me," Kekuewa said. "You have to have the mindset that it doesn't matter how you start, but how you finish. But I'm not finished yet.

"Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard. I know I'm not the best but I try to work toward it. The coach (Dave Clawson) said a starting spot is there. That's why they gave me the scholarship. But I have to work for it. Nothing has been given to me. Since my freshman year in high school, I've had to work to get my spot."

The signing period for midyear junior-college transfers runs through Jan. 15.

The early regular period for signing a binding national letter of intent is Feb. 1 for football.

He's also a candidate for the NJCAA All-Academic team with a 3.9 grade-point average. Kekuewa, who'll be a junior, plans to major in business administration and sports marketing at Bowling Green, which has orange and brown, and no green, as its school colors, a nod to the Cleveland Browns' NFL uniforms.

At home

Kekuewa picked the Falcons, who finished 5-7, over FBS schools Florida International, Texas State, New Mexico State and Arkansas State, which has a new coach in Gus Malzahn, the former offensive coordinator for last season's national champion, Auburn.

He recruited hard, calling Kekuewa until Tuesday night. FCS schools Eastern Kentucky and Sam Houston State also made offers.

Kekuewa will leave Jan. 4 for Bowling Green, which is located in Ohio.

He has no family there, but he'll see a familiar face in Kamehameha headmaster Stan Fortuna when the Falcons play MAC foes Central, Eastern or Western Michigan.

Fortuna will retire July 1 and move to Michigan where he has family.

Bowling Green, Ohio, is 4,387 miles from Hilo.

But Kekuewa felt right at home on his official visit, hosted by All-MAC defensive tackle Chris Jones.

"When I heard the name Bowling Green State I didn't think anything. But when I visited I had the best time," he said. "It's a small town like Hilo (population 29,000), a regular American colonial town. Everyone knows the Bowling Green State athletes. I was walking around with Chris Jones and people wanted to take pictures with him. He said, 'Take a picture with this recruit.' And they would say, 'Come to Bowling Green.'

"Everyone on the team has the same story as me. Chris is not tall. He's 6-2. He was under-recruited out of high school. We're all underdogs, even in our conference."

Light on

Kekuewa said his parents played a pivotal role in his development as a student-athlete; mom Lisanne pushing him on the academic side and dad Bruce, who was his son's Kamehameha junior varsity coach, imploring him to work on his skills.

"If you have a good support system at home and school, the kid will see the investment in him and a light turns on," Bruce said.

Unlike quarterbacks, running backs or defensive players, offensive linemen don't have stats attached to their names. It's their work on film, during games and practices that get them noticed.

That really wasn't part of Kekuewa's mindset. He just wanted to go hard all the time because he felt he had to.

"It's a different feeling to be an All-American. I've always considered myself an underdog," he said. "I never thought in my mind I could be on the first team coming from Hilo. But in my heart I knew I worked hard. At practice I'd go hard during warm-ups.

"The other guys would get ticked at me. But I felt if you want to play in Division I, you have to push more to get to Division I. The most important lesson I got from both of my parents is to be self-motivated."

Then it stopped raining.

And Kekuewa thought about the significance of landing a scholarship through hard work, and the similar efforts of two fellow Warriors, Mana Silva and Kolten Wong, a pair of Kamehameha graduates.

"I would see Mana in the weight room. I realized if you have talent you have to work harder," he said. "He's a big influence for me. It's good for me that Mana and Kolten have made it and are still working hard.

"Hopefully, some day a kid will say the same thing about me."

sports@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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