’Backer comes on strong
R.J. Kiesel-Kauhane's affinity for iron began modestly enough.
"In the back of my house there was a small bench rack and just some weights my uncle and my dad left," Kiesel-Kauhane said of his introduction to weightlifting as a middle schooler.
The youngster's appetite for lifting grew in proportion with the weight he began throwing around, hitting the 400-pound mark on the bench in his senior year of high school.
"I think a lot of the kids were in awe of his workouts," recalled Wendell Say, Kiesel-Kauhane's high school football coach at Aiea.
Kiesel-Kauhane's daily devotion to lifting continued when he enrolled at Hawaii in 2005, where he now ranks among the strongest Warriors with a bench press of 455 pounds.
But the numbers, as impressive as they may be, aren't what drives him into the weight room, whether on campus or back home.
"The main reason I lift is just to get on the playing field," Kiesel-Kauhane said.
Though still playing behind a heralded group of Warriors linebackers, the fourth-year junior appears headed in that direction.
Kiesel-Kauhane was a special-teams fixture last season and has been running with the second unit at outside linebacker so far this spring. He got some reps with the first team yesterday morning when the Warriors went 11-on-11 for the first time in spring practice.
"I feel real confident with the linebackers we have, with the experience that they bring that we can do a lot more rotating and not have our level of competition drop," UH defensive coordinator Cal Lee said.
"We have to put guys like that, who are big, strong, athletic, in the game. I don't see any problem putting him in there."
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, Kiesel-Kauhane's attributes made him a find for special teams, where he played in all 13 games last season. He's slated to contribute on the return and coverage units again this fall, but is also positioning himself to be part of the mix at linebacker.
Playing time has been hard to come by for backups in a linebacker corps headed by returnees Adam Leonard and Blaze Soares on the outside and Solomon Elimimian inside. But rather than curse his place on the depth chart, Kiesel-Kauhane views his situation as "a privilege to work with some of the best linebackers in the country."
"I'm just trying to get better myself so I can get time to play," he said.
Along with topping the Warriors' strength tests, Kiesel-Kauhane displayed some mental fortitude in winning the "wall sit" during the team's Super Games competition last month. Each player had his back against a wall with his thighs parallel to the ground and a 45-pound plate in his lap; Kiesel-Kauhane was the last to give out.
"He's probably our strongest linebacker, bar none," Elimimian said. "He's worked really hard and plays with passion. Guys like R.J. and Tyson (Kafentzis), they're going to be playing. We're deep enough where the second team can get in. And God forbid someone gets hurt, R.J. has to be ready to come in. And we're still competing. It's not like me, Adam and Blaze think we have the jobs locked up. We're all competing and trying to get better in spring practice."
Kiesel-Kauhane began weight training in middle school with his father, and drew his friend and teammate into his workouts.
"R.J.'s always had that gift, but he knows gifts are only so much, he has that hard-work mentality also," said UH defensive tackle Rocky Savaiigaea, his Aiea teammate.
"In high school people really don't train, it's kind of just raw ability. ... He was the one who would push me in high school and he started getting me into the weights."
The two have been close from the sixth grade through their careers at Aiea and UH, though their personalities are on opposite ends of the chart.
Where Savaiigaea is one of the Warriors' more outspoken characters, Kiesel-Kauhane prefers to blend into the background.
"Away from the field you'll barely hear him talk until you get to know him," Savaiigaea said. "It's not that he's stuck up or anything, he's just a humble guy."
Though not one to seek the spotlight, Kiesel-Kauhane hopes he and Savaiigaea can serve as examples for the younger players following them.
"It's just good to see people from Aiea make it this far and try to set a standard for our school that the guys back where I came from can do it too," he said.