By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kamehameha senior Shaun Kagawa signed a national letter of intent to play football at Army on Wednesday, setting his future in stone for the next 10 years.
“It’s more than just about football and signing a letter of intent,” he said. “It will lay the foundation for any success in my future. It takes a burden off my grandparents (Richard and Shirley Kagawa), knowing they don’t have to support me financially and that I’ll get a top-rate education. Not only is my tuition paid for, but at the same time after I graduate I’ll have a paying job waiting for me.”
Army is coached by Rich Ellerson, a former assistant to Bob Wagner when he was the Hawaii coach. Kagawa’s other offers were from UH and Navy, coached by Ken Niumatalolo, a former player under Wagner.
Kagawa will spend his first year of service in a training program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., learning military basics and other nuts and bolts on the academic and athletic tables.
There’s also 10 football games at the preparatory level against schools like Navy, Rutgers and Temple. It’s basically a 10-month junior varsity season.
Then there’s four years of being an NCAA Division I student-athlete, followed by five years of military service. Kagawa has a 3.0 grade-point average and plans to major in business economics.
Most graduates are commissioned as second lieutenants in the Army. That would give him the authority and privilege to pin his 13-year veteran uncle, RJ Kagawa, for his eventual U.S. Marines promotion to E-9, either Master Gunnery Sergeant or Sergeant Major.
Kagawa landed on the All-Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II first team at wide receiver and defensive back in his senior year for the Warriors, who fell to Konawaena 32-28 in the league championship.
But it’s his performance at the Nike camp on Oahu last year in January that put his name on the map. The 5-foot-11, 186-pound Kagawa ran a 4.53-second, 40-yard dash and finished with the second highest rating. His best 40 time is 4.49 at the school.
Luella Aina, the former Hilo athletic director and a family friend, encouraged Kagawa’s grandparents to send him to the Nike camp. Richard Kagawa takes it as more than just good advice. He views Aina’s suggestion as a life lesson come true.
“On and off the court, one of the things we’ve always wanted Shaun to be is humble,” Grandpa Richard said. “You never know when you’re playing sports if someone is watching. If you’re humble, someone may want to help you, like Luella.”
Kagawa said UH coach Norm Chow made a late push to swing his verbal commitment from Army shortly before the national letter of intent signing day Feb. 6. Kagawa visited West Point last week, and came home convinced Army was the right fit.
“I’m excited about the new chapter in my life,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity, not only to play football at the Division I level but to get a Division I education as well.”
He’s already got the discipline part down. Before school starts, Kagawa, who talked to Uncle RJ for military basic training insight, is already working hard, lifting weights on campus and getting in his footwork drills. It also helps him for tennis, the Kagawa family sport.
Last year, he and Keoni Wong, who graduated, were sixth in doubles at the BIIF championships. They lost in the first round to Punahou’s Kawika Lam and Zander Kim, the eventual state champs.
“It’s his stress relief sport,” Shirley Kagawa said. “There’s no big pressure on him and he can be an example to the kids on the team. He helps out with the beginners. It’s the one sport he can play for fun, and tennis is a lifetime sport.”
Kagawa is playing singles this season. His grandparents are the tennis coaches at Kamehameha. It’s a chance for the three to spend a little family time together because Kagawa has a lot on his plate.
He’s involved in the school’s Ambassador of Hawaii program, which runs services for those with Hawaiian ancestry. He’s also helps coach football to youngsters on Saturdays.
It was a busy day for Kagawa, who had to get ready for tennis practice after signing his letter of intent. It was a special day for his grandparents, knowing how the military shaped their son, Richard Jr., and hoping the same for Shaun.
“RJ turned out to be a good leader, good role model and father,” Shirley Kagawa said. “He’s become self-supportive and really grew up. He’s become a man. That’s what we want for Shaun.”