Punahou’s Kahanu Kia and the voyage to Notre Dame

Punahou outside linebacker Kahanu Kia (8) returned an interception for a touchdown against Kamehameha in a 2019 matchup at Aloha Stadium. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

In late July, Kahanu Kia and his father, Nate, made the voyage of a lifetime.

After playing in the PTP National College Showcase in Utah, they journeyed across the continent and visited campuses. The Punahou senior didn’t make it to all 15 universities that offered him football scholarships. But he and his dad made sure Notre Dame was on the itinerary.

On Wednesday, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker became the latest island football product to join the Fighting Irish, signing his letter of intent.


“I’m ready to get to work. I feel relieved. The Poly Bowl got cancelled. That sucks, but there’s just one thing to focus on now and that’s getting ready for Notre Dame,” Kia said on Thursday afternoon.

Kia had offers from a wide spectrum of schools, from Utah, Arizona, Stanford and UCLA of the Pac-12 Conference, to Dartmouth and Penn on the East Coast. Hawaii was in the mix with multiple Mountain West Conference schools.

The trip to South Bend, Ind., for an unofficial visit to the Notre Dame campus was not the normal parent-son experience. While media attention locally was at a high point when he signed on Wednesday, it was another level in the Midwest.

“I only had two (interviews this week), but when I actually committed (in November), there were a lot, and when I was on my trip, it was every other day,” Kia said.

The influence of Notre Dame is everywhere, apparently.

“Oh man, they’re popping up out of nowhere. People I knew, and people I didn’t know are Notre Dame fans. There’s people all over this island that are Notre Dame fans and that’s cool,” he said.

Kahanu Kia made it official on Wednesday, signing his letter of intent to Notre Dame. Photo courtesy of Kahanu Kia.

The biggest influence, though, is the pipeline of island players who have gone to Notre Dame. That includes some of the biggest names in Punahou’s football history, like Manti Te‘o and Robby Toma. More recently, Marist Liufau made the transition from Buffanblu standout to Fighting Irish defensive back.

“I talked to Marist a lot. He’s kind of been a big part of my recruitment. I asked him all kinds of questions. The most broad question I asked him is how he feels up there, but I asked a bunch of little questions. He’s been helpful,” Kia said. “That’s the big thing in the whole recruiting process. I also asked people who played at UCLA and Stanford because we were unable to go on trips (due to NCAA restrictions). That was really valuable.”

Kia was proactive once he got the hang of it.

“At the top, it’s different. The difference between the SEC and the Big 12. Notre Dame’s definitely up there in their own way. They don’t really sell it. They just tell you what it’s like,” he said.

Kia learned from experience after testing the waters.

“Reflecting now, I can remember as a sophomore being super stressed about it, before I even realized that recruiting is all on Twitter. I’d be emailing San Diego State, watching videos about how to get recruited. Asking coaches to look at my sophomore film. It’s funny to look back on it, how far I came. I guess it’s funny remembering how naive I was with coaches,” he said. “Now I’m signing with Notre Dame. I’ve built some great relationships with coaches and it’s hard to say no to them.”


Notre Dame made its offer to Kia on Sept. 1. Until then, he had 13 offers and more than two months had passed without a new one. After the Irish offer, Stanford stepped up with its offer 24 hours later.

“Stanford came in and offered the day after Notre Dame offered. Then after I committed to Notre Dame, two days later, I got admitted to Stanford,” Kia recalled. “It would’ve made my decision more difficult, but I probably would’ve chosen Notre Dame.”

The prospect of a disjointed school year has weighed on high school seniors. The ILH is planning to play football in the spring after all fall sports were postponed statewide. However, because of the short offseason between spring and fall, some football players are considering another option: sitting out.

Kia isn’t certain which way he’ll go.

“I’ll have to talk to the coaches and see the timeline. I think as the days go on, getting closer to me going to Notre Dame, obviously you don’t want to come into camp late after your (high school) season. That (PTP summer) camp in Utah could have been my last high school football experience,” he said.

The cancellation of the Polynesian Bowl, announced on Thursday morning, was a gut punch for many players. It was a light at the end of this long tunnel caused by the pandemic. Nine months of training away from campus facilities.

“I’m guessing if we have a season it’ll be ILH (only), which sucks. It’s disappointing, especially the Poly Bowl getting cancelled, a lot of my teammates, this is their year. They told us they would still send us gear. I asked around because I was wondering about it. Everybody said they never heard it wasn’t going to happen,” Kia said. “The All-American Bowl by Adidas got cancelled two months ago, but someone said because the Hula Bowl is still on, the Poly Bowl could still be on.”

The residual effect of the Poly Bowl cancellation is suggestive.

“My thought is that if the Poly Bowl is on, we can play some (regular-season) games,” said Kia, who would be a leader and key returnee to a Punahou defensive unit that lost plenty of talent to graduation.

There were some unique experiences along the way.

“One school offered me through a text message and I never talked to them before. It happened twice. One time I was in chapel at school and a random coach offered me a scholarship. Never met the guy before, never heard from him. Things like that,” Kia said.


One chapter closes. Then some peace and quiet until the next one opens.

“Shout out to my family, my parents. The coaches that recruited me,” he said. “And ND nation.”

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