Kai Nacua heard his father calling. Lionel Nacua was limited to a hospital bed and fading in and out of consciousness when he summoned his son to his bedside.
“He is screaming my name, ‘Kai, Kai,’” Nacua said. “I was, ‘Yes, dad, I am right here.’ He said I have to finish football and go to college. Right there, I made a promise. ‘I will do it, dad.’”
Lionel died a few months before Kai’s senior season at Liberty High School, where Nacua in 2012 led the Patriots to their first appearance in the state championship game. Nacua, a quarterback and safety, paved the way for others — especially those of Polynesian descent — to attend Liberty in helping transform the program from one of Las Vegas’ worst to nationally ranked.
Nacua, now with the Cleveland Browns, returned Friday to have his jersey retired during halftime of a playoff game. He was greeted by many longtime friends, those coaches and parents who helped raise him after Lionel’s passing and whom he credits for his development.
Without Liberty, there wouldn’t be an NFL player. Without Nacua, who accounted for 26 touchdowns and was an all-state safety as a senior, Liberty wouldn’t be a local football power. He’s the first in the school’s 14-year history to have his jersey retired.
“He is a legend around here,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “He had obviously left the program before any of these kids stepped into high school. But a lot of the kids were part of our Island Warriors youth program and looked up to him and idolized him. A lot of kids say they want to make the NFL and wish and dream of that. To say there is someone from their school who was able to do that, that is inspiring.”
Nacua became emotional when talking about his dad, who died at age 45 from complications of diabetes, during the ceremony. He was flanked by his fiancee, Alexa Reveles, who he’s dated since both were Liberty students.
“They mean everything to me,” said Nacua, who has the date his father died tattooed on his chest, of the Liberty community. “All of the support here, the family I have here keeps me going. They built me into the player I am today. Just go out there and give everything I’ve got. That is what they instilled in me. Seeing everyone out here brought tears and a humble heart.”
A few months before his passing, Lionel took Kai on a recruiting trip to BYU. Dad fell in love with the school and program and was determined to have his son play there.
Nacua went on to a celebrated college career with BYU, registering 164 career tackles and 14 interceptions in four seasons. He earned the reputation of being a “ball hawk,” someone who is always near the football and ready to make a play.
He also earned the reputation of being a hard hitter. One of those hits, unfortunately, went viral.
At the end of BYU’s appearance in the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl, Nacua was part of an end-of-the-game fight where he connected with a Memphis player. Video quickly spread online and sports television shows, and many outsiders spoke negatively of Nacua.
Those at Liberty, though, went to his defense.
They talked about his kindness and compassion. They talked about his loyalty to teammates and family — something, Nacua says, explains what happened. He was suspended one game for the fight and rarely spoke of the incident.
“It wasn’t the best decision. You get caught up in the emotions of the game,” he said. “I was defending my brothers. I will take the criticism. I feed off that and trying to prove people wrong.”
Nacua returned for the second BYU game of his junior season, and did so with his best collegiate effort. Nacua had three interceptions against nationally ranked Boise State — including one he returned for a touchdown — in the start of a two-year run that gave him the credentials to become a NFL player.
Nacua went undrafted but ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash to impress scouts and earn a free-agent opportunity with Cleveland. Undrafted free agents making an opening day roster are becoming more common, but they are still rare.
And Nacua needed a little fortune to reach Cleveland’s rotation.
He excelled in preseason camp and hung around until final roster moves, where he was one the last players cut. He was later signed to the team’s practice squad. Then, a few days before the season opener, he caught a break when Calvin Pryor was released following a practice fight.
Nacua was elevated to the active roster and dressed for the season opener. He’s played mostly on special teams in all eight games. More important, he keeps honoring his dad.
“My mindset is tomorrow isn’t promised,” he said. “Every day is a job interview. I don’t want anybody catching the ball on me; I don’t want anyone scoring on me.”