BOWLING GREEN — We begin with the name because in David Wayne Keli’ikuewa Kekuewa’s culture the name itself narrates the story.
And to understand that significance we have to flash back to the 1800s when Hawaii was in its final days as a kingdom and tribal chiefs were stripped of much land and power.
They became known as the wandering chiefs and among the most prominent were some of David’s forefathers.
“That’s how my family name translates,” he said. “My middle name, Keli’ikuewa, it translates to wandering chief. Through the years it was sort of condensed, I guess, to our current last name, Kekuewa. My dad thought it would be good for me to have both names.”
It sure makes for a great nickname.
On the Bowling Green State University campus David Kekuewa is known by one and all as The Chief. Of course, when you are 6-foot-2 and weigh 310 pounds people will call you whatever you desire.
Kekuewa, like many college football players, is big. In another time and place he would have been one of the Seven Blocks of Granite at Fordham. He is solid as granite … a big man with big hair, spilling out from under his helmet and reaching down to frame the top of his uniform number. And there’s that big smile, as bright as all the lights at The Doyt will be on Thursday night when BG opens the season against Tulsa.
The Chief will start at center for the second year, so, yes, this is partly a football story. Football is why he went from the Big Island to a junior college in Arizona to the flatlands of Wood County.
“I guess I’ve been wandering the last few years,” Kekuewa said with a laugh.
Kekuewa went to Kamehameha igh School in Keaau — yes, there are a lots of K’s in this story — a little town of some 2,300 south of Hilo, forests and mountains and some of the world’s largest volcanoes to the west, gardens and beaches to the east.
It is the Big Island, but aside from sheer size it’s not really all that big.
“People think that’s where Honolulu is, where Waikiki and Pearl Harbor are; they think Big Island means main island,” David said. “But, no. Really, it’s a lot of farmland and volcanoes, one highway that goes around the whole island. It’s not the first place football recruiters go.”
The ones that do have the budgets to travel that far, mostly the Pac-12 Conference schools, are rarely in the market for 6-2 offensive linemen.
So The Chief wandered to a junior college, made all-league, played in a national championship game, and prepared for the next step of his career. He was pretty sold on Arkansas State and had a visit to Florida International lined up. Bowling Green, said coach Dave Clawson, figured it was a longshot.
“We really weren’t looking for offensive linemen,” Clawson said. “We felt we needed a junior college receiver. They had a real good one at Arizona Western. Coach [Warren] Ruggiero was there, noticed the center and said, ‘I’m telling you, this guy can come here and help us right away.’ We thought we had no shot at him. Then the coach at Arkansas State, Hugh Freeze, got the job at Mississippi. David was going to visit a school in Florida. But he missed his flight. You talk about dumb luck.”
The Chief was sitting at the little airport in Yuma, Ariz., looking at an empty runway and maybe feeling a little desperate when he phoned the BG football office. Within a couple hours he was on a different flight and within 48 hours his life had taken a different direction.
“I suddenly had a weekend open,” Kekuewa said. “It was a trip, free meals, go hang out, so OK. It was in the beginning of December. I didn’t have any long pants. I got off the plane wearing shorts.
“I’m a small town guy and I loved the team and the community. The Sunday night of my visit, I went to church service on campus. I grew up in the Hawaiian church. My grandfather was a minister. I felt something pulling me to Bowling Green. I called my dad after church service and told him I was coming here. I felt it. I felt God wanted me here. And, yes, I own some pants now, mostly Bowling Green sweatpants.
“I love Hawaii. That’s all I knew. But my dad always told me Hawaii would always be here, to go and see the world. Because I was so into my culture and my traditions, as a Polynesian of native Hawaiian birth, how we interact with others is a value that’s instilled in me. It’s why I have an easy time going to other places, because I love sharing those traditions and my heritage. To be Hawaiian is to share aloha, to share the love.”
Clawson will point out this is not your stereotypical JUCO kid. There was and is no baggage. But you may have figured out by now The Chief is not your typical college kid, period. He is spiritual, a product of his upbringing and culture, and involved in the campus ministry. He flashes that smile and makes friends in a New York minute. He was voted a team captain, rare for a transfer player. His family is No. 1 and, sure, he misses them, but he calls his BG teammates and classmates “a new and forever family.”
And did we mention he is just about the sharpest knife in the drawer? He is majoring in environmental policy and last semester he took 18 credit hours and scored a 4.0 GPA.
He will graduate in December, about the same time he plans on playing for a MAC championship and in a bowl game, and after that there may or may not be more football. But there will be more school.
“I believe knowledge is power. Eventually, I want to go back, go home and help preserve the lands, to reforest and to take care of the ocean reefs. I want to teach and appeal to the next Hawaiian generation why the land has always been and remains to be so important.
“The state seal translates to, ‘The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.’ That’s how I attack life, my studies, and how I will attack a career.”
By then, perhaps, this Chief will have stopped wandering.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.