Oct. 25, 2001
By Ben Gould '02
Life has truly been a journey for Uwadiae Airhiavbere '02. Uwa's story starts in Benin City, Nigeria, where he was born on Novenber 2, 1980. His father, Charles, worked for the Nigerian government, and with his ever-changing reassignments, the family was on the move around the country every two or three years. Thanksgiving Weekend of the year 1993 saw the Airhiavbere family cross the Atlantic and end up in McLean, Virginia, as Charles was stationed at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Though Charles would be sent back to Nigeria, he made the decision to leave his wife, Ehiorose, and their five children in the United States, since it would be a better place to grow up and get an education. The product of a British-style education system, Uwa was the equivalent of a junior in high school when he arrived in America. However, since he was a 13-year-old, school officials thought it would be better if Uwa were placed with students of the same age. "I think it was a very good idea, since I got to do high school all over again and be with people my age," Uwa says.
It was also a good idea because it kick-started Uwa's football career. During high school orientation, the first day of his freshman orientation, Uwa noticed the McLean High football team, which had been practicing together all summer, sitting together in a corner, wearing their jerseys. Something immediately appealed to him.
"I liked the camraderie. I thought it would be good to be on something like that. You relied on each other, instead of just yourself," he says.
That day after school, he went to the freshman football practice, and because of his experience playing soccer in Nigeria, offered his services as a kicker. One 30-yard boot later, Uwa was on the team.
"It was a bit rough, though," he says, "because as a kicker, if you're not doing anything else and if you're only scoring two or three touchdowns all season as we did, it's a very boring season. And, being from another country, I got really cold on the sideline. If anything, it got me thinking about not playing another position."
Sophomore year, Uwa took on defensive end duties along with kicking. While the young man had lots of natural talent, he still had much work to do to familiarize himself with the game of football.
"I had a whole lot to learn," he says. "I didn't really have the feel to play the game - I didn't even know what a first down was - and that hindered my development. It also hindered the coach's desire to let me play."
In time though the game of football became more and more natural to Uwa. By his senior season, he had gelled into a quality varsity player, kicking ten field goals and connecting on 36 of 41 extra points, while recording 55 tackles and eight sacks as a defender. Recognition came in the form of selection to the Virginia All-State Team.
Then, colleges came calling. Originally, Uwa had no desire to play football in college, opting instead to focus on academics. His college coach was able to talk Uwa into creating a highlight tape, for nostalgia purposes if for no other reason. Eventually, Uwa sent if off to a couple of schools, and in January, one of Brown's assistant coaches invited the senior up to Providence for a recruiting trip in February. When Uwa arrived on the Brown campus, he instantly fell in love.
"I was a bit reluctant at first, because I wasn't sure if I wanted to play football," Uwa says. "So I took the trip and I loved it here. I loved the people and I had a good time while I was here. People here were very relaxed, very honest people. They told me if I came to Brown, I would have the chance to concentrate on school, because the coaches made sure that was important."
Uwa saw action during his freshman year, taking kickoffs and doing special teams duties on the punt return team. He made his first start in a loss at Princeton and two weeks later, blocked a punt during Brown's record-setting 58-51 Homecoming Weekend win over Penn.
"The night before the game, I couldn't sleep," he says. "I was up until 3 a.m. just tossing and turning. I knew it would be a really good game. Once a punt is blocked, the team that blocks the punt usually wins, and by blocking that punt, I felt like I became part of the team."
The Ivy League championship season of 1999 saw Uwa take an increased special teams role, as the Brown squad opened the year with a miraculous come-from-behind victory against Yale. The Bears then proceeded to knock down every other opponent in its path, with the exception of Cornell, en route to the finale against Columbia and the school's second-ever Ivy title.
It was last year that Uwa emerged as one of the leaders of the team. He led the Bears with 4.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries, while making 12 tackles for a loss, good for second on the team. As the Bears went 7-3, their fourth straight winning season, Uwa earned the respect of his teammates, to the point where he was elected one of three captains for this season.
"It's a lot of responsibility, being one of the captains, but it is a responsibility I wanted," he says. "So far it's been good, but I want somebody to look at our team picture and say, 'That team was amazing, that team won the Ivy League title.' We're definitely not out of the running yet. This is our team now. I want people to know our names, to know our numbers, to come out and take pictures of us, to know that we're the best that Brown history has ever seen. I want people to know that this football team is ready to roll."
Earlier this season, Uwa was named the Ivy League's Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Princeton where he made eight tackles, three quarterback sacks and a tackle for a loss.
Off the field, Uwa, a business economics concentrator, has been co-chair of the African Students Association, a student representative on the Advisory Committee for University Planning, co-chair of Harambee House, and a member of the Committee to Review the Non-Academic Disciplinary System.
Looking toward the future, Uwa plans to return to the Washington area and work for an investment banking or consulting firm for a couple of years, then attend business school. However, finishing his senior season is a higher priority right now.
"After our last game, it's going to hurt a lot," Uwa says. "When I look back at the guys that I've met, the games we've played, the nail-biters, the heartbreakers, the Penn-Brown games, I don't think I'll ever be the same. I'm definitely not the same person I was when I first walked onto this campus, and football's been a big part of that."
Uwa Airhiavbere is one the most friendly, polite, and modest young men you will ever meet - that is, until he steps onto the field on game day and becomes the defensive monster Brown fans have cheered on over the past four years. He has been a tremendous asset to the team, both as a player and a leader. But it all goes back to that first day of school in 1994, when a certain Nigerian freshman who had been pushed back three grades and had never played a game of football in his life decided to stop by practice after school and see how far he could kick.