Mom, student, athlete, all in a days work
Keilani Unga is back on the basketball court at BYU this fall.
She feels a sense of stability perhaps greater than when she left Provo nearly three years ago.
She is, yes, home.
But that means so much beyond basketball.
In April 2010 Keilani Moeaki and her boyfriend of three years, BYU star running back Harvey Unga, voluntarily withdrew from the school because of an honor code violation. Moeaki, the 2007 Daily Herald All-Area Captain while at Wheaton Warrenville South, had started for BYU in all 33 games of her junior season while helping lead the Cougars to the quarterfinals of the NIT. Unga was BYU's all-time leading rusher.
Unga and Moeaki moved back to Chicago. On July 4 of that year, Keilani gave birth to their first child. Eleven days later, the Bears selected Harvey in the NFL supplemental draft. The next day Keilani and Harvey were married.
Keilani assisted with the Vernon Hills basketball team that fall while Harvey trained with the Bears, but the plan all along was to move back to Provo after their year's probation was up and resume classes. BYU's coach told Keilani he'd keep her spot open for a return.
They returned to Provo, Harvey's hometown, the next year, and Keilani enrolled in classes the fall of 2011.
Nobody said a word, but it was an uncomfortable transition.
"It was hard for me to show my face in Provo, period. My business was so public. I felt everyone's eyes on me and people staring," she said. "But it really wasn't like that at all; it was all my perception. Everybody has been so welcoming."
Pregnant with their second child, Keilani did not play during the 2011-12 season. Encouraged by Harvey, she decided to make a comeback last summer, two years and two children removed from her last game.
"He was saying, 'It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. When it's done it's done,'" Keilani said. "If he wasn't so supportive or didn't think I should do it I don't think I would have followed through on it."
Convincing her coach that she was 100 percent committed, Keilani devoted her summer to getting back in playing shape.
It was a brutal few months.
Five days a week, she worked out lifting and conditioning. Four-minute runs, five-minute runs, six-minute runs. Now she's only 10 pounds off her previous playing weight.
"I'm still not in the best shape I want to be, but I feel good. Slowly I'm getting there," Keilani said. "Coach always said I started for three years because of my defense. I don't move as well as I did before, but the 10 extra pounds does have its advantages in the post."
These days, Keilani juggles the three full-time jobs of mom, student and player. She is taking 12½ credit hours, on schedule to graduate in April with a degree in public health. Harvey, twice waived, was added back to the Bears practice squad again Tuesday.
Fortunately, Harvey's parents live in Provo and Keilani's mom moved out to help take care of the kids. It is a long-distance family relationship in many respects. Keilani's dad, Sione, is a dean's assistant at West Chicago High School, her brother Tony a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Every morning Keilani helps her mom bathe and change the kids, leaves for class at 8:30, then returns from practice around 7 at night. She eats with them, reads to them and puts them to bed, then starts homework around 10.
Before Keilani left BYU basketball was her life, 24/7. She missed it greatly and knows she would have regretted not giving it one last shot.
Now 24 and the team's only senior, she doesn't at all feel old suiting up next to a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds.
She is, though, playing with a new perspective.
"I feel like with my family and everything I am able to focus better," she said. "Everything is more stable. With my kids, I want to be an example to them. I want to show them that through adversity and obstacles, you can persevere. I'm playing for my family now."
Keilani has started all eight games for the 4-4 Cougars and scored 11 points against Creighton last week.
Her mom brings the kids to every game, and Keilani can see them sitting by the bench, laughing or crying out for her.
Win or lose, she's still mom. Basketball is her home court, but it isn't her only home.
"Seeing them, it brings me back to why I'm doing this, especially when I'm frustrated," Keilani said. "I can just look over to them."
Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96
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