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LB Kiwanuka returns home for Super Bowl

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The Giants' trip here today for Super Bowl XLVI was both mundanely familiar and breathtakingly exciting for Mathias Kiwanuka.

The Giants' hybrid linebacker/defensive end grew up and was a high school football star here in Indiana's capital. His family still lives here. So Kiwanuka gets to enjoy that rare thrill of coming home to play in the biggest of all football games.

"It's hard to find all the right words to describe it," Kiwanuka said. "This is everything that dreams are made of. It's a culmination of a lot of people's careers. When you get a chance to get to the Super Bowl, you have to enjoy it, you have to take it in because these opportunities don't come around very often. We have been fortunate enough to have a couple in there in a short period of time. Getting to one is big enough, but now getting to one in your hometown, I don't know how many times that is going to happen.

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"Just landing and being here – it's such a familiar flight. I've done the flight from Newark to Indianapolis, it was like I was going home. But being here for this purpose, it's fun."

Kiwanuka first enjoyed football glory at Cathedral High School, located about 11 miles northeast of Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Giants and New England Patriots will battle for the NFL championship on Sunday.

The Fighting Irish won state 4A championships in Kiwanuka's sophomore and junior seasons. But Cathedral couldn't complete the three-peat in his senior year (2000).

"His senior year, we were undefeated through the entire season and won some big ballgames," his coach at Cathedral, Rick Streiff, said in a phone interview. "We got upset in the second round of the playoffs in just one of those fluke games. So he went 10-1 as a senior. And quite frankly, we were maybe better when he was a senior than we were with those other two teams. We just had a bad night."

"It does still bother me," Kiwanuka said. "I'll always remember that lesson, how hard you have to focus regardless of how much talent you have. Because we rattled off a number of wins, but when it came down to it, we didn't get that ring. And that's what I still remember from that season."

Cathedral was 36-5 in Kiwanuka's three varsity seasons. He was a star tight end and defensive end. Kiwanuka earned Super Prep and Prep Football Report All-Midwest honors. He was a 2000 All-State and All-City selection.

Kiwanuka clinched the 24-21 championship game victory over Goshen High School his junior season with an interception in the final minute.

"He jumped up and intercepted the ball to seal the win in the last 25 seconds of the game," Streiff said.

"It came down to the end of the game," Kiwanuka said. "We had kind of a prevent defense going, so I was chasing receivers down the field. The ball went up, I tipped it and it was hanging in the air for someone to grab it. When I came down with it, the next thing I know my teammates were jumping on me and the game was over and we had won. It was one of the better feelings playing football, especially at a young age to have that kind of success. It put me on the route to everything that I accomplished."

Streiff has been a high school football coach for 27 years, 24 of them as a head coach. He was at Cathedral for 13 years, moved to North Central High School for six years before returning to coach the Irish four years ago. Although more than a decade has passed, Streiff has great memories of Kiwanuka and his teammates, including Jeremy Trueblood, who played with Kiwanuka at Boston College and is now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' right tackle.

"He was in a class that was a pretty special group," Streiff said. "We had between five and seven guys – I can't remember the exact number - that ended up going on and playing some Division I football. And a handful of other guys played Division II or Division III football. So we had a pretty good team. He was surrounded by some pretty good guys."

Kiwanuka is a lethal defender on the field, but out of uniform he is soft-spoken and cerebral – just as he was in high school.

"He was always quiet," Streiff said. "There were some characters in his class and he just kind of flew under the radar.

"Mathias always played hard. He was 6-5, 6-6 and he always had a high motor. He was always playing hard, he was always moving, he was always running. And he was that way as a basketball player. He had excellent hands; probably would have been a pretty good tight end. He was just a really good player for us."

Kiwanuka learned much more from Streiff than just how to catch passes and tackle. Streiff imparted life lessons every day and Kiwanuka learned about accountability and responsibility. Few Giants are as accessible and thoughtful with the media as Kiwanuka. He will stand in front of his locker and answer questions in good times and bad. Two years ago, he received the George Young Good Guy Award from the team's beat reporters for his consistent cooperation with the media.

Asked recently why being a stand up guy is so important to him, Kiwanuka quickly mentioned Streiff.

"He taught me about discipline, about holding yourself to a higher standard," Kiwanuka said. "Making sure that when you go out you represent yourself, your community, your family, your school and everybody you're associated with, because he did the same thing for himself. He held himself accountable and he held us the same way. He's a similar coach to a (Tom) Coughlin, a Tom O'Brien (his coach at Boston College), all the coaches I've had throughout my career."

For Streiff, helping put young men like Kiwanuka on a successful path is far more important than any game or state championship.

"You're responsible for your actions, you're responsible for the things that you do," Streiff said. "When the kids are younger, they do some things. Our group always tried to hold him accountable for his actions. He was teenage boy – they do things at times. But he was never a problem, never a troublemaker. But he knew if he did something and it wasn't right, we were going to tell him. We were going to make sure that he knew he was going to do the right thing. I had very, very few problems with him, other than teenage boys doing goofy stuff sometimes. But for the most part he was very good and very easy to work with. He accepted responsibility."

Streiff said he takes great pride in having former players like Kiwanuka credit him for creating a foundation for success.

"That's why you do it," Streiff said. "You do it for the kids so when they're older, they're respectable, responsible people like Mathias has been. When you watch him in a game, he'll make a big play and he gets excited with his teammates. But he's not one of those guys that bumps his chest and jumps up and down and draws more attention to himself. He's never been that kind of guy. That's one of the things I don't put up with a whole lot. And it's good to see he's still following along and does that. It does mean a lot. It means you're doing something right with the kids. That means a lot to you."

Kiwanuka frequently returns to Indianapolis to visit his family and friends. But not all of his memories of this town are good. On May 28, 2010, Kiwanuka and his brother, Ben, were riding black Honda motorcycles when a woman backed out of an apartment complex parking space. Mathias hit his brakes. Ben did not, slammed into the car and was thrown 100 feet from the point of impact. He suffered fractures of both wrists and thumbs, as well as his left leg, right foot and pelvis. Ben's right arm was cut so badly he lost 10 pints of blood.

"I was there; I took my shirt off and stuck it in his arm to stop him from bleeding, because he was losing so much blood," Kiwanuka said. "I honestly believed that there was a chance he was never going to come back, I was never going to see him again. When we were in the ER, doctors couldn't stop the bleeding, there was bleeding in his arm and bleeding in his pelvis and they couldn't get all the bleeding stopped and that was our fear, that they wouldn't get the bleeding stopped in time. That was the toughest part of my life."

Ben endured a long and painful rehabilitation, but has thankfully recovered and is back at work for Federal Express.

"(When) you break that many bones in your body, you're going to have to deal with it the rest of your life," Kiwanuka said. "But if you just saw him and didn't know him from being in an accident, you wouldn't assume that anything was wrong with him."

Ben Kiwanuka attended several Giants games this season and will be in Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday to watch his brother play in the Super Bowl.

"He'd be there even if it wasn't in Indianapolis," Kiwanuka said.

Just as Kiwanuka would be thrilled to play in a Super Bowl no matter where it was played. He was on injured reserve with a fractured left fibula the last time his Giants and the Patriots met for the league title. Although he was on the sideline when the Giants defeated New England in Super Bowl XLII and received a ring, he couldn't fully enjoy the triumph because he was idle. 

Asked to compare his Super Bowl experiences, Kiwanuka again cites his high school career as a reference.

"I played on some good high school football teams, too, and won two state championships, one as a sophomore and one as a junior," Kiwanuka said. "The one during my sophomore year, I was on the field and I contributed, but I wasn't a starter. For my junior year I was starting on both sides of the ball and my friends were all involved. I feel like this one will be more like that."

Ironically, in a week in which Kiwanuka has returned to his roots, Streiff isn't in town. He is serving as the defensive coordinator for the 2012 U.S. Under-19 National Team assembled by Indianapolis-based USA Football. A 50-player Team USA squad will face a team of high school-aged football players from four continents at the Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex in Austin, Texas on Wednesday in the third International Bowl.

"The Super Bowl comes to Indianapolis and I fly out to go to Austin to coach and I won't be back until Thursday," he said.

But he's here in spirit. And he couldn't be more proud that one of his former players has returned home to play in the biggest of all football games.

"One of the local news groups came in and interviewed a couple of our kids and I thought one of them really said it well," Streiff said. "You see the names on the back of the jerseys and you know he's a Cathedral kid – but to have a Cathedral guy playing in Indy, in the Super Bowl, he's one of ours. He's played with the gold helmet on, he's walked the same halls, he ate lunch in the same cafeteria. He's one of our guys. And we're just a) really proud of him with the success that he's had, and b) that's a little bit of Cathedral High School going out on that field next Sunday."

Mathias Kiwanuka is pretty proud of that, too.

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