Mathias Kiwanuka is on a mission. Sure he wants to be a first-round pick in April's NFL draft, like dozens of other players at this year's NFL scouting combine, and he has the skills to achieve his goal. But unlike most players in Indianapolis, Kiwanuka considers football a game. His responsibility is living up to the family tradition.
"It's very important to me to uphold my family name and tradition," he said Saturday. "It's something that's personal."
So personal that Kiwanuka permanently put a reminder on his back--in the form of a tattoo.
In 1961, Kiwanuka's grandfather, Benedicto, became the first elected prime minister in Ugandan history. Eleven years later Benedicto Kiwanuka was assassinated by Idi Amin's henchmen.
Not long after that, his parents emigrated to America and as he grew up he learned about the traits that made his grandfather a successful politician--leadership, hope and pride.
"I know a decent amount about him, but I'm not exactly well-versed," Kiwanuka said. "My parents told me about him."
Everywhere he goes, Kiwanuka carries those thoughts with him.
As a senior at Indianapolis Cathedral High School he decorated his room with an Ugandan flag, then took it with him to Boston College. Two years ago, he took the next step by having a tattoo of the Ugandan presidential seal carved into the middle of his back.
And during his only trip to Uganda, Kiwanuka finally met the rest of his family for the first time.
"It was truly a homecoming for me,'' he said. "A lot of people like to go home, and for me I had that sense. That's where most of my family still lives."
Kiwanuka is part of a growing number of NFL players with recent African roots. It's bound to grow with this year's draft class.
Among the combine's 300-plus invitees are defensive end Victor Adeyanju, who played at Indiana after spending much of his childhood in Nigeria; defensive tackle Kader Drame, who played at Syracuse and is a Senegal native; and Ohio State cornerback Ashton Youbouty, who moved to the U.S. from Liberia when he was 4 years old.
There's also defensive end Tamba Hali, another potential first-round pick who played at Penn State after fleeing Liberia's civil war. Hali has now applied for U.S. citizenship in hopes of bringing his mother and sister, whom he left behind, to the U.S.
By the time Hali left Liberia at age 10, he had already witnessed the ravages of a war-torn country. His mother was once shot in the knee as three or four other people were killed.
"Sometimes you'd see a lot of people killed, sometimes maybe just a person,'' he said. "Sometimes you'd see a stack of bodies on the side of the road as you were walking."
But Hali's mother wanted a safer life for her son. So she rounded up the children, hid in small villages and eventually made it to the Ivory Coast where she filed emigration papers for her son. Eventually Hali was reunited with his father, a teacher at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Teaneck High School, in New Jersey.
At first, life the transition was tough. Hali couldn't even call his mom, and in the nearly 13 years since he came to the U.S., he still hasn't seen her.
It's a story that stunned NFL officials.
"I was overwhelmed not only with his story but by the way he told it," New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "You could have heard a pin drop in that room when he finished."
Kiwanuka's story had a different twist.
While he managed to avoid the battlefields, the genocide and the political persecutions that that were commonplace in Amin's Uganda, his grandfather could not.
Now Kiwanuka is taking his grandfather's legacy with him. A born leader who was twice elected captain at Boston College, Kiwanuka grew from a lightly recruited 195-pound high school senior into a 6-foot-5, 266-pound menace. He finished with a school record 37 1/2 sacks, 65 1/2 tackles for loss and 245 career tackles.
Now he is on the verge of a big payday in the NFL.
But for Kiwanuka, his success has never been about money or fame. He just wants his family to be proud of him.
"They definitely understand what's going on, but I don't think they understand American football," Kiwanuka said of his Ugandan relatives. "I just want to uphold my family name."