Kiwanuka everybody's All-American -- but Uganda on mind, too
Aug. 26, 2005
By Dennis Dodd
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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Preseason All-American team
The first memory Mathias Kiwanuka has of Uganda is vomiting.
"The first impression was the smell," Boston College's senior defensive end said. "I was warned about it, but I don't think there's anything that can prepare you for it. There's some kind of plant in the air. It's an adjustment. The plane de-pressurized, I smelled it, and immediately I threw up."
Mathias Kiwanuka is eyeing a huge season as Boston College joins the ACC. (Getty Images)
Kiwanuka lost his lunch but gained perspective as a third-grader while visiting his parents' homeland in 1991. Culture shock doesn't even begin to describe what he encountered.
Poverty, disease, strife -- and incredible heroism. As the grandchild of Uganda's first prime minister, Mathias quickly found out he was a descendent of a legend. Benedicto Kiwanuka took office in 1962 after Uganda won its independence from the United Kingdom. Ten years later, he was assassinated by dictator Idi Amin during a military coup.
"(A) number of people back in Uganda ... would just come up and shake my hand, saying, 'I have a tremendous amount of respect for your grandfather,'" Mathias said. "People appreciate honest, genuine individuals. From my standpoint it motivated me not necessarily to aspire to be a big political figure. But if you can change one person's life that dramatically, a couple of decades later ... and shake your grandchild's hand, that's something that is unmatched."
Mathias Kiwanuka is as American as a Big Mac, but a part of his heart is in Uganda to this day.
"Seeing the lifestyle at that young of an age, not having the things that America has," he said. "It's hard for children, especially, to understand that.
"There's a lot of things that could be changed -- the AIDS epidemic. You think, why isn't anybody doing anything about that? It kind of keeps you grounded."
The NFL was slobbering over him last year when the kid they call "Kiwi" could have easily forsaken his senior year and been drafted high. A member of CBS SportsLine.com's preseason All-America team, Kiwanuka is attempting to become the defensive player of the year in two conferences.
Posting 11½ sacks and 25 tackles for loss earned him that honor in the Big East last year. With Boston College moving to the ACC, Kiwanuka already has been named the conference's preseason defensive player of the year.
Why stop there? Kiwanuka goes into 2005 as the best defensive player in the country.
He grew up playing AAU basketball back in Indiana. Only halfway through his senior year did football become an option. Only recently did he cut off his stylish dreadlocks. Still, a Ugandan flag hangs in his room. The Ugandan presidential seal is tattooed on his back.
That's a sneak peek at why Kiwi should be everybody's All-American. He came to Boston as a scrawny 200-pound defensive end/tight end. Big Ten teams back home didn't want to risk that Kiwanuka would put on the weight needed to become something more than a 'tweener.
Kiwi and former high school teammate Jeremy Trueblood, a 6-foot-9, 330-pound BC offensive tackle, bulked up together as freshmen, pounding protein shakes and cheap pizzas.
"You'd lay on your bed and you couldn't move because you might throw up," said Kiwanuka, now 6-7 and 261 pounds.
Four years after arriving in Boston, he is one of the city's most beloved athletes. Not quite Tom Brady or Manny Ramirez, but a face of the program that takes the big leap into the ACC with a nation-leading five consecutive bowl victories.
"They bring an element of class, they bring an element of hard-working football to the conference," Miami offensive lineman Eric Winston said.
Example: Kiwanuka already has a psychology degree and is pursuing a graduate degree in English.
It has been 14 years, but Kiwanuka wants to go back to Uganda -- soon. His parents met in the States after leaving their native country. What are the odds of these two meeting across the world in the U.S.? Mother Deodata was a nurse. Father Emmanuel was a political activist like his famous father.
The couple divorced when Kiwanuka was in sixth grade. To assure that her three children would go to private schools, Deodata started a house-cleaning service.
"That took a lot of guts for her to change jobs," Kiwi said. "She was making good money as a nurse at the local hospital ... I told her as soon as I make the NFL, she has to take a vacation."
Deodata gave her children a trip back to the homeland for their high school graduation gift. The start of Mathias' BC career got in the way after high school. An NFL career might delay the trip even longer.
But there is a connection that goes beyond football. Even as a third-grader, little Mathias had sympathy for the Ugandan people. His mother told him stories of soldiers raiding villages, snatching children who became soldiers and "knew nothing more than how to kill."
"Her father would come around and put a certain pepper in their (children's) eyes so they would swell up," Kiwanuka said. "The soldiers would come around to the village and think they were sick, and the soldiers wouldn't take them."
Before that 1991 trip, Deodata gave each of her children $100 to buy candy in Indianapolis.
"Then we get home and she takes all the candy," Kiwi said. "We didn't see it until we get off the plane. We start handing all the candy to (Ugandan) kids.