Meet Brian Kajiyama, a first-year graduate assistant for Hawaii who was born with cerebral palsy, scoots around in a motorized wheelchair and communicates by typing into a small computer that speaks in a robotic voice.
As a member of the coach June Jones’ staff, Kajiyama is responsible for breaking down game film and preparing scouting reports for the defense.
Ask Hawaii’s players and coaches and they’ll tell you Kajiyama has contributed greatly to the best football season the school has ever had. The Warriors are Western Athletic Conference champions, the only unbeaten team in major college football and on their way to their first Bowl Championship Series appearance and a matchup against No. 4 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
"Everybody talks about the greatness of this 12-0 team and how we have a tremendous quarterback. That is so true," said Jeff Reinebold, Hawaii’s defensive line coach. "(But) is there anybody who has made the impact that guy in the chair is making in terms of changing lives? I don’t know."
Reinebold called Kajiyama’s role at Hawaii "groundbreaking."
"Brian, to my knowledge, is the first wheelchair-bound, non-speaking coach in college football," Reinebold said.
Kajiyama attends every practice. He zips around the field and is generous with his high-fives and smiles. A Warriors logo is proudly displayed on the back of his wheelchair. Above that, there’s a sticker that reads, "No Fear."
As long as he can remember, he always wanted to be part of a team, in the action, on the field.
"It’s been a great ride that I never, ever dreamed of, even in my wildest dreams," Kajiyama said.
The 31-year-old is trying to change the way people with disabilities are perceived.
"Many times people think a disability equates to ‘cannot,’ when the reality is, persons with disabilities have many unique abilities and gifts that are waiting to be shared," said Kajiyama, who was nominated for the Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award won this month by Navy’s Zerbin Singleton, an aspiring astronaut.
Kajiyama sits with the fans at Aloha Stadium because the coaches’ booth isn’t accessible by wheelchair. He’s not allowed on the field during the game for safety reasons.
Also, Kajiyama hasn’t accompanied the Warriors on any of their away games, let alone been on the team bus ride to their home stadium.
That’ll change Christmas Day.
He’ll make his first road trip with the team when the Warriors travel to New Orleans.
Reinebold and others on the team lobbied for Kajiyama to attend after it appeared he would be left behind, again. The university has arranged for a wheelchair-accessible bus and hotel room to accommodate Kajiyama.
"To have my official road trip to be a BCS bowl, I’d say that’s a heck of a first trip to make," he said.
Kajiyama has already come a long way.
At birth, both of his lungs collapsed. He had to have tubes inserted into his chest to breathe and spent 19 days in the hospital.
"For the first hours of life, it was more of a survival thing," said his mother, Grace Kajiyama.
It wasn’t until a few months later that Bert and Grace learned that their firstborn had cerebral palsy, which affected the left side of Kajiyama’s body, but not his brain.
"I thought it was something that could be corrected with therapy and I could just stay at home with him until he was fully recovered. But I learned it wasn’t something he was going to recover from," Grace said. "It’s just a lifelong condition. It’s just a matter of how you deal with it."
She taught her son to always try, even if that means failing.
Kajiyama’s interest in football came early from watching Hawaii play at Aloha Stadium with his father every Saturday night. Despite being in a wheelchair, Kajiyama believed he could one day play for Hawaii.
"Back then, I thought I’d become a star athlete," Kajiyama said. "But as I grew and matured, I realized that God’s plan didn’t have me being that athlete. ... I began to focus on academics since that was one area where physical ability didn’t matter."
This year, Kajiyama earned a masters degree and is now working on his doctorate in education. He hopes one day to become a professor and train future special education teachers.
Reinebold encouraged Kajiyama to talk to Jones about the job.
"He didn’t have the technical background in football, but he had the interest, passion and willingness to work and contribute," Reinebold said. "That’s what you look for in every young coach."
Jones, who has built a winning program largely by giving players second chances, gave Kajiyama his first shot.
"He’s what we’re about," he said. "It’s about helping, and about people. ... He has a real love for football and the students."
Offensive line coach Dennis McKnight, the graduate assistant last year, said his successor has been fully accepted by the team.
"Nobody treats him with kid gloves," he said. "He’s one of the boys and he knows it. We make fun of him just as much as anybody else."
McKnight said Kajiyama makes him realize how special every day is.
"Never complains. Never says, ‘Why me?"’ said McKnight, who played a decade in the NFL. "He’s always positive."
Safety Jacob Patek said Kajiyama belonged at the Sugar Bowl as much as anyone on the team.
"He’s really an inspiration to all," Patek said. "He’s really touched my heart and almost brings me to tears. We treat him as family because that’s what he is."
In a blog entry dated Aug. 12, a couple weeks before the team’s season opener, Kajiyama predicted Hawaii’s success.
"We WILL be a great team, I have no doubt in my mind," he wrote. "People will KNOW Hawaii has a football program. We ARE the Warriors."
In his latest entry, he thanks coaches for making him a part of the team and looking past his wheelchair. The coaches "enabled this kid from Hawaii, who loved UH football all his life, to have a role in such a great program.
"I will NEVER forget this experience and will cherish it always," he wrote. "I look forward to continuing to be a part of this program, as I feel that this is where I belong."