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Gain from pain: After cousin’s death, Kai Kai committed to football, will play at ECU

Friday, Jun. 13 | By Jeff Malmgren
Kettle Run's Abu Kai Kai recently gave a verbal commitment to East Carolina University. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Abu Kai Kai plans to pull an East Carolina football jersey over his head 15 months from now.

He wants it embroidered with No. 7, a digit that’s been on his mind for the past 19 months.

A Kettle Run junior, Kai Kai verbally committed in April to play for East Carolina University. His drive to earn that NCAA Division I scholarship intensified as a sophomore after his cousin died.

"I just promised him and myself that I would take this football career seriously for him,” Kai Kai said.

Sam Tellu died Nov. 27, 2012 while serving in the U.S. Army, Kai Kai said. He had a March 7 birthday, so Kai Kai wants to honor him by wearing that number.

“Death does not mean anything to people unless it happens to someone close to home," Kai Kai's father, John, said. "It gives you a little bit more meaning as to what life and death is. … It’s helped to motivate him."

Abu Kai Kai felt like he lost a brother with his cousin's death. An only child, he grew close with Tellu, who died days after the Kettle Run football team lost in triple overtime of the Group AA Division 3 state tournament semifinals to James Monroe, 37-30.

“I got a phone call saying he got shot," Kai Kai said. “I had to see his body put in the ground. It was horrible.

“It still hurts,” he said. “He was the only big brother I had.”

Kai Kai said he expected a bright future for Tellu, as did the rest of the family.

“When he died, I just had that vibe that everyone was looking on me,” Kai Kai said. “So I just took that challenge — bring my family back to happiness.”

He focused on improving his strength in the weight room and, little more than a year later, the defensive end received scholarship offers from East Carolina and Liberty University.

“College coaches saw me because of my speed, but they didn’t look too much because of my size,” said Kai Kai, who now stands 6-foot-1, 250 pounds. “I had to get bigger and stronger.”

The 17-year-old can now dead lift 605 pounds, squat 575, bench 308 and clean 315. He went from playing mostly special teams as a sophomore to leading the Cougars with 87 tackles, seven sacks and two fumble recoveries as a junior.

That production landed him a spot on the AA all-state second team. Then the scholarship offer came from ECU on March 4. Kai Kai waited little more than a month to commit while visiting the Pirates’ campus in Greenville, North Carolina on April 12.

Prior to leaving for ECU, he discussed his college options with his father and Kettle Run head coach Jeff Lloyd. They decided Kai Kai would not wait for other potential scholarship offers if he felt comfortable in Greenville.

“I told them if he liked it, I thought it’s the place he should commit to,” Lloyd said. “I see him as a very good fit there.”

The Pirates’ 3-4 defense is similar to Kettle Run’s 3-5-3 scheme. They use, at times, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, which could allow Kai Kai to have an immediate impact, the Warrenton resident said. He could play on the defensive line but use a two-point stance like a linebacker to take advantage of his speed.

“They recruited him as a five-technique D-end, but he has the ability to be that hybrid,” Lloyd said. “Those kids are hard to find. … His college ceiling is very high.”

As a sophomore, Kai Kai played some at linebacker and wide receiver. He said he may also use an upright stance on the defensive line at times next season for Kettle Run.

He’ll continue to wear No. 16 for the Cougars, though.

Kai Kai considered changing to a No. 7 Kettle Run jersey after Tellu's death, but he decided to stick with No. 16, in part, to remain consistent for college recruiters. Instead, he honors his cousin in other ways, such as pointing to the sky before games.

“And I just pray and talk to him,” Kai Kai said.

Lloyd plans on helping Kai Kai honor his cousin in another way during the defensive lineman’s senior season.

“He’ll probably carry out the flag at home” games, Lloyd said. Tellu’s death is “something that’s heavy on the young man’s heart. It stays with him constantly.”

At home

ECU’s location in Greenville was another selling point during its recruitment of Abu Kai Kai.

Greenville reminded him of Warrenton, where he lives now.

“A small town,” Kai Kai said, “and everybody’s just focused on the football team.”

Warrenton holds a special place in Kai Kai’s heart because his life path changed when he moved there from Columbia, Maryland. He was born in Columbia but his family relocated prior to Kai Kai's third grade year in school.

“I’d get kick out of school after school after school,” he said. “Kids would bully me, but I was bigger than them, so when I’d push them” trouble ensued.

“And I used to steal a lot,” he said. “I would always get in trouble.”

“My parents thought, ‘This is not working,’” he said. “They thought if they could move me to a better place, I could be a better person.”

So Kai Kai ended up in Warrenton. He attended Hunter Ritchie Elementary School and Auburn Middle School before arriving at Kettle Run, where he’s made more than an impression as a football player.

“He’s got great character,” Lloyd said.

Kai Kai credits Lloyd for turning him into a high school football player. He grew up playing soccer, like father, and basketball. The latter sport became his true love, and he helped Auburn win consecutive Fauquier County middle school championships before playing for Kettle Run as a freshman and sophomore.

“All I wanted to do was play basketball,” Kai Kai said. “Without Coach Lloyd and all his help, I probably wouldn’t be here” as a future college football player.

Lloyd spotted Kai Kai one day in the weight room as a freshman and asked if he planned to play football for Kettle Run. The basketball junkie told him, no.

But Lloyd eventually changed Kai Kai’s mind.

“He told me I’m not going to go Division I in basketball, but I had that potential in football,” Kai Kai said. “It’s funny how it’s all coming true.”

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Cougars in college

Four players have earned Division I scholarships during Kettle Run’s six years as a program:

Abu Kai Kai East Carolina 2015 class

David Eldridge Virginia 2015 class

Josh Tapscott Wyoming 2013 class

Casey Kroll James Madison 2010 class

“We’re beginning a tradition,” Kettle Run coach Jeff Lloyd said. “A lot of the bigger [college] programs are really starting to look at our kids.”

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The Abu Kai Kai File

Family: Father, John, is a computer engineer. Mother, Augusta, is a registered nurse.

Home: Warrenton.

Favorite music artists: August, Chris Brown and Kid Ink. "August, I can kind of relate to him. His brother got shot, too. His music is deep."

Favorite movie: "Ride Along," starring Kevin Hart. "He's just hilarious. ... And he's small, which makes it even funnier."

Favorite restaurant: Red Lobster. "That was the first place I ever [remember going to] when I was a little kid. Their biscuits.”

Favorite athlete: LeBron James. "He's not human."

Favorite sports team: Los Angeles Lakers. “Because of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”

Pregame ritual: "I change by myself. I'm not with the team so I can get mentally focused for the game."

Potential college major: Physical education or communications.

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