Notre Dame linebacker stepping away from football for a mission to North Carolina

When the Church News caught up with Kahanu Kia, he had just finished watching the Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, national college football title game. The hard-hitting defender was understandably feeling a post-game jolt of adrenaline.

Kia plays for Notre Dame, one of American football’s most storied programs. The college gridiron is his second home; the place where he plays out his athletic dreams on Saturdays in autumn.

But the Kaneohe, Hawaii, native was equally excited Monday to talk about fulfilling another fast-approaching, life-changing ambition: serving a full-time mission.

“I’m going to miss football a lot,” he said, “But I’m still ready to go and serve.”

On Monday, Kia formally announced via Twitter his decision to temporarily step away from Notre Dame football: “As was discussed during my recruitment, I will be taking a leave of absence and serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Image from Kahanu Kia's Jan. 10, 2022, tweet announcing his plans to leave Notre Dame football to serve a full-time mission.
Image from Kahanu Kia’s Jan. 10, 2022, tweet announcing his plans to leave Notre Dame football to serve a full-time mission. Credit: Screenshot from Twitter

On Feb. 14, Kia is scheduled to report to the Provo Missionary Training Center and then on to his assignment in the Raleigh North Carolina Mission.

So how does a Latter-day Saint kid from Hawaii end up playing for a football-frenzied Catholic school adjacent to South Bend, Indiana — and then step away to share the gospel in the Tar Heel State?

“Notre Dame offered me a great combination of athletics and academics,” he said regarding his school selection last year.

Kia had offers to play at several West Coast schools that would have provided access to large Latter-day Saint communities and family connections. But he was immediately drawn to the hospitality found on the “Fighting Irish” campus and, of course, the school’s rich football tradition.

“And I also felt that I needed to go somewhere that would get me out of my comfort zone,” he said.

During Kia’s recruitment, he was open with the Notre Dame coaches about his plans to serve a two-year mission. They were supportive from the beginning.

Kia said being a Latter-day Saint athlete playing at a Catholic school was not especially difficult. Football is still football. And good people are found everywhere. “Sometimes I would have to explain things to others about my religion… but I got along with everyone, and everyone respected my beliefs.”

Latter-day Saints are actually building something of a football tradition at Notre Dame. In recent years, fellow Hawaiian Latter-day Saints Manti Te’o and Alohi Gilman both excelled on the Fighting Irish defense before moving on to the National Football League. “Their examples and how they affected people at Notre Dame were all positive,” said Kia.

Notre Dame linebacker Kahanu Kia (44) tackles Navy fullback Maquel Haywood (24) in the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.
Notre Dame linebacker Kahanu Kia (44) tackles Navy fullback Maquel Haywood (24) in the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Credit: Paul Sancya, Associated Press

Additionally, the soon-to-be Elder Kia won’t be the first missionary with ties to Notre Dame football. Returned missionary/former safety Chris Badger actually began his college football career at Notre Dame before transferring to Brigham Young University.

While South Bend’s Latter-day Saint young single adult community was not nearly as large as what he would have found in, say, Salt Lake City or Southern California, Kia still enjoyed the fellowship of Latter-day Saints. 

He participated in the young single adult unit near the Notre Dame campus and “made some great relationships with a lot of people there.” He often attended Sunday services with fellow Latter-day Saint player Paul Moala, who recently announced he was transferring from Notre Dame.

Playing the 2021 season for the highly-ranked Fighting Irish offered Kia a taste of big-time college football — including nationally televised games, huge fanbases and a New Year’s Day bowl game. He was also establishing himself on the defensive side of the ball with his teammates and coaches.

“So leaving to serve a mission was a hard decision… I had fallen in love with this team, made great friends and built relationships with the coaches. Notre Dame had become my home,” he said. “But after a lot of prayer and talking to my branch president and my parents (Nate and Emmalei Kia), I came to know that a mission was what my Heavenly Father wanted for me.”

Further confirmation came from an unexpected text from one of his position coaches who assured the young athlete that he was “going to be doing God’s work for two years” before returning to Notre Dame football.

Kia is now counting down the days until he can begin sharing the gospel in North Carolina. He’s looking forward to serving others — “And I feel like I need that spiritual growth as well by taking two years off to gain a stronger testimony of Christ and His Atonement.”

North Carolina is a sports-loving state, so a Latter-day Saint missionary who plays defense for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will surely glean curiosity in his future areas of labor. 

And here’s another local icebreaker:  “I had a tackle in our win against North Carolina, so I’ll always have that,” he said, laughing.