As the eyes of the world turned to the gruesome spectacle of bigotry that swept over Charlottesville, Va., in August, all eyes in the University of Virginia football locker room turned to Micah Kiser.
It wasn’t just that the Woodlawn native is a fifth-year senior and the best player on the Cavaliers defense. He’s also a consummate student-athlete who’s pursuing a master’s degree in higher education after earning a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs last spring. Not to mention that Kiser, who is black, has maintained some of the closest bonds in his life with white classmates and teammates.
As he and his team watched images flash on CNN of white supremacists flooding their normally welcoming college town, the former Gilman star knew precisely how to respond.
“It was something no one ever expected. I was watching my little brothers looking up at me, confused,” said Kiser, who will finish his college career against Navy in the Military Bowl on Thursday. “So you take it on yourself to make sure we all stayed together, because that’s what you would do for your family members. We just wanted to send out a positive message that whatever was going on, it wasn’t reflective of what we’re a part of here.”
The next day, the 22-year-old Kiser helped organize a photo of the team — arms linked without regard for race — on the same Rotunda steps where protesters had barked their messages.
He didn’t even share what he was planning with his parents, who’d been terrified by the initial reports from Charlottesville. But they weren’t surprised by the way he handled the situation.
“Micah comes from a very diverse background, whether it was his neighborhood, his family or his class at Gilman,” said his father, Michael. “So he knew how to handle it. His instinct was to bring everybody together and say, ‘We’ve got each other. We’ve got this university.’ ”
Because he led in difficult times, because he’s a heck of a linebacker and because he took his studies seriously at one of the best universities in the country, Kiser won the William V. Campbell Trophy, known colloquially as the academic Heisman. Previous winners include former Ravens guard John Urschel and Peyton Manning.
Kiser has earned plenty of recognition in his time at Virginia — three times first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference and this year first-team All-American according to the Sporting News. But the Campbell award was perhaps the most fitting tribute to his well-rounded existence, nurtured by his parents from the time he was small.
“Sports, leadership and academics — who knew you could get an award for that?” said Kiser’s father. “It was perfect for him, because that’s what he’s always been about.”
Kiser’s parents say he was always an unusually disciplined and committed child. In fact it’s fitting that his final college game will come against Navy, because his kindergarten teacher predicted his personality would take him to a service academy.
“I’m pretty structured,” Kiser said. “I follow the rules.”
His mother, Donna, laughed as she recalled the family vacations Kiser skipped to stay home and push through CrossFit workouts. Other times, he’d be watching a movie with his father only to get up before the end because he didn’t want to fall behind on a school project.
The Kisers flooded their boys, Micah and younger brother Jordan, with activities, from swimming to martial arts to youth football to piano and trumpet lessons. They sent both to Gilman because they believed the school would promote a well-rounded existence. All they asked was that each son commit himself fully to a passion.
For Micah, sports proved to be the path, even though neither parent was particularly athletic. Jordan fell in love with musical theater, eventually leaving Gilman to attend the Baltimore School for the Arts. Older brother wants to play in the NFL. Younger brother wants to sing on Broadway.
Kiser grew into an All-Metro linebacker at Gilman, where he was best friends with future Michigan fullback Henry Poggi, the son of the school’s then-coach Biff Poggi.
“He was always hardest on Henry, and then I was probably the one he was second hardest on,” Kiser recalled with a laugh. “I was kind of like his stepson.”
Kiser committed to Virginia in hopes of finding a similar all-around experience. That worked out on the academic side, but football proved more frustrating as the Cavaliers struggled to an 11-25 record the first three seasons Kiser played (he redshirted his first year). He achieved plenty of individual glory, but he was used to winning.
“He’s a fan of Ray Lewis,” Michael Kiser said. “And I always told him, ‘Micah, Ray Lewis got to Baltimore and it wasn’t like they started winning right away.’ I told him the tough times build character.”
The tide finally turned this year under coach Bronco Mendenhall, who replaced Mike London after the 2015 season. Some football powerhouses might scoff at a 6-6 record, but Virginia celebrated its return to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011. The “new standard” Kiser and his teammates proclaimed going into the season became tangible reality.
“I came to UVA to build something new, and it took a long time. It took a lot longer than I thought it was going to do,” Kiser said. “But I stayed and persevered, along with all the other seniors, and to get to a bowl game finally and leave a solid foundation for the future, I think that’s going to go down as our biggest impact here.”
This is an age of cynicism regarding college athletics. Stories of big business, corruption and undercompensated players overshadow traditional narratives of amateurism and opportunity.
Nonetheless, Kiser, who could probably do anything he wants after he plays in the NFL, aspires to be an athletic director. He remains a true believer in the scholar-athlete ideal.
“I think athletics can provide so many opportunities for people, no matter where you’re from or your socioeconomic background or whatever,” he said. “But I feel like a lot of student-athletes, when they get to college, they let the college or the sport use them without using the college back. … I came to UVA with a plan that I’m going to get the most out of being a football player, the most out of being in the classroom and the most out of the opportunities being a football player at UVA can provide. I feel like a lot of people don’t do that.”
Before he spreads such wisdom, however, Kiser badly wants a pro career. He always scrawled his goals on the back of his bedroom door at home, and before he left for college, the last one he wrote was, “Make the NFL.”
Some scouting services have him graded as high as a second-round draft pick, though others project him as a middle-round selection. Kiser knows he probably won’t blow teams away with his 40-yard-dash time or his physical measurements. But he’ll spend the next few months resting his body (his right hand is currently in a cast after a recent surgery) and trying to make himself as fast as possible.
“At the end of the day, you are who you are,” he said. “I’m not going to become some brand-new player. I have three years of film and if they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t.”
He’ll close his college career in an ideal setting — just down the road from home, against an opponent he might have played for had his life taken a slightly different path.
The last time he played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, his father noted, Gilman beat New Jersey powerhouse Don Bosco Prep, and Kiser returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown.
“It’s an awesome way to finish,” Kiser said. “I’ll have a lot of friends, a lot of family there. I can maybe go home for a few hours and spend Christmas Eve with my family. And then to go out against a team like Navy, what other opponent would you want?”