On Thursday, Ka‘ua Nishigaya’s life will change.
He will board a red-eye flight for the West Coast. After two more connecting flights and a 90-minute drive, Nishigaya will set his feet on the firm terrain of Yankton, S.D. It was Yankton that was once the jewel of the Dakota Territory, which encompassed both Dakota states and Wyoming.
Mount Mary University is a gem in the town of 15,000. Nishigaya, once a bulldozing running back and wrestler at ‘Iolani, is joining Coach Mike Woodley’s latest mission. Woodley once broke ground on an NAIA program at Grand View, winning the national title in 2013. Now, he’s attempting a second venture from scratch at MMU, which was known as Mount Mary College until this year.
Though the school won’t play a football game until 2021, the program kicks off this fall, which is why Nishigaya will be on board his flight Thursday. Coach Woodley’s offense during his 11 seasons at Grand View featured a single-back, wide-open offense. It could be a perfect fit for Nishigaya, who rushed for 983 yards and 16 touchdowns with 15 receptions for 198 yards and two more TDs as a senior at ‘Iolani in 2018.
“I haven’t seen (Grand View) video. I definitely like playing running back. That’s always been my position. I like getting the hard-nosed yardage,” said Nishigaya, who was listed at 5-foot-5 and 164 pounds at ‘Iolani.
“I don’t know why they listed me at 5-5,” Nishigaya said. “I’m 5-6.”
He went on to walk on at Hawaii, working out with the team and attending classes. Then, his dream of playing for the Warriors crashed overnight.
“The NCAA ruled me ineligible. I missed one credit from high school,” said Nishigaya, who had a 2.8 grade-point average at ‘Iolani. “I’d be playing (for UH) if that wasn’t the case.”
There was, still is, pain. Not quite bitterness, but the shock is still there.
“It was my dream to play Division I. I was practicing with the team. That was the tough thing. I tried to talk to my high school about it, and the NCAA, but I really wasn’t getting answers,” Nishigaya said. “My option at UH was to go JUCO and come back, which I thought was absolutely ridiculous.”
He stayed busy. He worked part-time jobs. He kept in shape.
“Ka‘ua is full of grit and determination. He loves to compete,” Raiders Coach Wendell Look said. “He’s elusive, tough and strong. He’s hard to bring down. He has such great balance due to his wrestling background.”
Rather than pursue a junior college, Nishigaya got busy and communicated with NAIA schools, which have different academic requirements and financial packages than the NCAA. Ohio Wesleyan and Central Methodist were interested in Nishigaya. So was Montana Northern, a school that had pursued his younger brother, Star-Advertiser All-State receiver Koali Nishigaya.
“MMU was the last one that came in. Talking to (Associate Head) Coach John Michaletti, I loved what he has to say and the culture that they’re bringing,” he said. “I feel like he was one of the first coaches to believe in me and my talents. I know he loves my film. He’s always texting me, making sure I’m OK. I feel safe going up there because of him. It’s such a long ways from home.”
One of his biggest fans will be cheering from the football office at Eddie Hamada Field.
“I’m glad someone is finally giving him a chance to play in college. That was his dream and goal to play at the next level. I’m very happy and proud of him for never giving up on his dream,” Look said.
What MMU is getting is a hungry player with four years of eligibility. Always an underdog, always overachieving.
“It’s honestly been super taxing. There’s times when I wanted to give up, especially after the UH thing, but my parents supported me to pursue my dream,” he said. “Even if it’s not a big D-I school, it hurts that no one gave me an opportunity, but I want to play. My parents have seen me devastated.”
Kawohi and Myles Nishigaya have three very active athletes in their midst: Ka‘ua, Koali and Kaiolani, a freshman soccer player at Kalani. Oldest brother Keani was a state wrestling champion at Saint Louis.
“I’m getting a scholarship, but my parents were wiling to pay for me to go anywhere to live my dream. Koali, he’s not getting a scholarship. I think that’s just the way it is. Us smaller guys have to prove ourselves more, so we’re willing to do what it takes,” he said.
Breaking in a new facility is one of the first memories Nishigaya will have in Yankton. In April, the school broke ground on the $15 million, 100,000 square-foot Ruth Donohoe First Dakota Fieldhouse.
“I think they got it done, actually. It’s pretty nice. The weight room in there is absolutely beautiful. The most important thing,” he said.
Nishigaya will be a mainstay there. Though there hasn’t been a football home for him of late, he worked out diligently at home with his brother, sister and father. He hit a new personal mark in the squat at 405 pounds at home. His max on the bench press is 235.
“I’m still working on that,” Nishigaya said.
Meanwhile, brother Koali is the one walking on at Hawaii now. Both have heard comparisons to a fabled, explosive and relentless offensive player: Chad Owens.
“I love that comparison,” Ka‘ua Nishigaya said. “Same situation, wasn’t highly recruited, but he made the most of his opportunity. Did well in the NFL and the CFL. He made it. Being compared to him is an honor.”
Koali’s path has been one of patience. He will be there with the rest of the family when they head to the airport on Thursday to see Ka‘ua off.
“I probably say my mom will cry, first son going away. I know my dad’s going to be sad, but he’s going to hold it in. I think my sister’s going to be a little sad. During the quarantine, we got closer, working out a lot,” Nishigaya said. “I’m sure Koali’s going to be sad. Our relationship is a bond that can’t be broken. He’s always gotten my back and I’ve always gotten his.”
The process has tested Nishigaya’s mettle.
“I’ve matured a little more. Not being able to play football for a year, you learn new things about yourself. You learn to handle adversity. Now, I’m betting on myself. It makes you mature a little more,” he said.
His old coach, Look, has one bit of practical advice.
Top 3 movies/shows
2. Prison Break
Top 3 food/drinks
1. Li hing mui gummies with lemon peel. “We honestly just make these at home. My dad, my sister, we like it. That goes down real quick. She makes a big tub. Sometimes when we’re watching TV, or we scoop and go.”
2. Korean BBQ. Sikdorak (buffet). “We just went the other week. My whole family. It’s still $25 (per person). Me being a local boy, I’ve got to eat (meat) with the rice. Right now, I think Koali eats the most. He’s getting a lot bigger. He’s been working out so much and he has to make weight every week. They check their weight every day.”
3. Spicy ahi poke. “That’s my favorite. I like Ono’s in Kapahulu. Any time there is good, but you have to avoid lunchtime. It’s crowded and crazy.”
Charlie’s Pizza House is ranked No. 3 among Yankton eateries.
“Most definitely, I’m going to Charlie’s Pizza. I’m a big fan of pizza. Can’t go wrong with that. Probably spinach and cheese with garlic,” Nishigaya said.
Nishigaya: “I’ve been working. I worked at Creative Kamaaina Drapes and Blinds. This year, I worked at Oahu Metal and Glazing. Pretty much learn how to install glass, cut glass and do basic stuff in the workshop. Cleaning, lifting all the heavy stuff. It was good to learn all that kind of stuff. You can’t be sheltered all your life.”
Nishigaya: “At UH, I was in biochemistry, but now I’m going into business.”