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Notre Dame Football

Kahanu Kia Reflects on Two Years of Growth, Challenges & Notre Dame Return

February 10, 2024

Kahanu Kia was always firm in the fact he wanted to take his LDS mission when he signed with Notre Dame.

The Hawaii native arrived on campus in June of 2021 and then went on to play in two games as a true freshman. 

Following the 2021 season, Kia then headed off to North Carolina to serve as a missionary for the next two years, where he had the time of his life but was also tested as a man. 

“It was so awesome,” Kia stated. “A lot of times missionaries will say it’s the best two years. It certainly was that, but it also was a challenge. You go through hard things. You’re stretched mentally, spiritually, emotionally. From there, you can grow. I know I grew for sure in the person that I am and the things that I believe, things that pertain to football and things that pertain just to life. It’s only been a month since I finished, but I’ve already seen the ways that I‘ve changed. I’m so grateful for it.”

In addition to the positions, Kia saw his growth come from exhibiting discipline and entering uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous situations while also experiencing others pain as he traveled to places like Fort Bragg and Fayetteville. 

“At first, the hard thing is you’re going to some situations where you’re probably not safe and people have not nice things to say to put it lightly,” explained Kia. “Those are hard at first. The real challenge is when you’re actually helping people, it kind of just switches to other people instead of yourself.

“This person’s going through so much and I’m trying to help them. I feel like everything’s just going against them. Seeing other people suffer and go through hard things, that’s ultimately what gets you and what changes you.”

There was a lot of change for Kia over the last two years, but one aspect of his life that remained the same was his desire to return to Notre Dame. 

“There was no doubt for me,” said Kia. “I love this place so much. It was hard to leave. I knew it was something I wanted to do. I had prayed about it. I felt strongly that I wanted to go, but I love this place so much. Leaving was difficult. So there was no way I wasn’t going to come back and finish what I started and also be a part of what they’re building with Coach Free and all that.” 

Kia admits his schedule didn’t allow much time to workout or stay sharp with his football skills, but he and Notre Dame knew that going in. 

“You have like an hour-and-a-half each day and a couple hours every Monday to get in some physical exercise,” Kia explained. “You try your best. You’re with a companion, so they have to stay with you. You can’t really just go off on your own.

“I knew what I signed up for. I knew I wasn’t going to be in tip-top shape. That’s why I’m trying to hit it hard right now and get back into doing what I need to do.”

As a freshman, Kia had started off as a linebacker and then moved to Vyper, where he recorded four tackles. The 6-foot-2, 219-pounder is working at linebacker and catching up on Al Golden’s defense. 

“Right now, it’s just been a linebacker,” stated Kia. “That’s what I was recruited as. I’m excited to be back in the room with those guys like Jack (Kiser). That’s where I left off at. Wherever they need me, honestly. We haven’t talked too much really. It’s just been learning the playbook and do everything you can to give yourself the best opportunity to play.”

Another positive for Kia is there is a familiarity with his game as Marcus Freeman was the defensive coordinator in 2021. In fact, Kia was on campus to experience the emotions of the head coaching change, which included Freeman signing off on him taking his mission. 

“Most of the groundwork was before I left with the administration and kind of letting Free know how this thing is going to work,” Kia recalled. “Once we kind of knew that, coming back was, honestly, a little easier. I had to do my classes and things like that. We knew when I was coming back. That was the plan. Make sure you’re here for spring training.

“He was the one that mainly supported me. Even before he was the head coach. It definitely gave me a lot of comfort knowing that.”

When we landed in South Bend and saw all the snow, I was like, ‘All right. I’m back.’ It was weird at first, but I’m here and it’s been great.”

If there wasn’t enough change in Kia’s life, there was one more that he maybe saw coming as his younger brother, Ko'o Kia‍, committed to Notre Dame as he was moving back on campus. 

“It was awesome,” laughed Kia. “It’s one of those things you dream about where you’re like, ‘Ahh, that’s never going to happen.’ So to see that happen was a blessing. I couldn’t be more happy for him and for my parents. I know they’re super excited.”

It’s clear Kia wouldn’t trade the last two years for the world, but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t grateful to arrive back in South Bend last month to restart his academic and football career. 

“When we landed in South Bend and saw all the snow, I was like, ‘All right. I’m back,’” said Kia.” It was weird at first, but I’m here and it’s been great.”

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