Nov. 24, 2017

by Jim Daves

Just three plays into this season, Micah Kiser‘s final college campaign almost came to a crashing halt.

Running to pursue a ball carrier, a teammate crashed into Kiser’s left knee and he crumbled to the Scott Stadium turf. The collision resulted in a full tear of the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his left knee.

“A lot of things go through your mind,” Kiser said. “Why is this happening to me? What if I can’t play? Selfishly, I was kind of disappointed because I had had a really good camp. I had learned the defense really well and I felt like I was at the peak of my game athletically and mentally.”

Kiser felt he had just one course of action. He knew his teammates needed him, so he got up and played on. All season long. You can hardly tell the difference from a player who entered last Saturday’s game at Miami with an astounding 372 career tackles and 19 quarterback sacks.

“I knew I was a leader for this team and I always wanted to be out there with the guys, whether it was hurt or not,” Kiser said. “I’ve fought through it. It’s football. I can’t let that be an excuse for anything. The guys need me so that’s just what I do. I play.”

Kiser’s approach to the game dates back to his days in rec league football where he got so frustrated from playing on a bad team, he would cry after losses.

“My dad was like, ‘If you’re going to play this sport, you can’t cry about things. It’s a tough game. You have to have heart and you have to be strong. You have to have a strong mentality when you play it. You have to do something about it.’ “

His first year on Grounds was tough. He was relegated to the scout team and did not know if he would ever see playing time with a half-dozen other linebackers ahead of him on the depth chart.

“When you’re young, you don’t know where you’ll fit in, where you’ll be in the rotation,” he said, “It was pretty tough football-wise because I didn’t really feel like I was a part of the team. When you were on scout team, you didn’t feel the connection to the team. We went 2-10 on top of that, so I was kind of regretting my decision.”

That all changed when those same linebackers above him on the depth chart encouraged him to be patient. They saw his ability and potential and knew he would get his chance.

“Sometimes, it would be easy to get down on yourself, being a young guy,” Kiser said. “But they would always tell me “You are going to be the next guy.” I finally started embracing that and believing in myself and going out there and making plays.”

Kiser’s coming out moment was UVA’s 2015 season-opener at UCLA in the fabled Rose Bowl. He started and made 12 tackles.

“It was a huge college atmosphere against a good team and I pretty much held my own and played pretty well,” Kiser said. “From then on, I knew I could do this.”

And do it well.

Kiser was a second-team All-American last year, also picking up All-ACC honors. He’s recorded over 100 tackles in three consecutive seasons and has the third most career tackles of any player in the nation as his final college season winds down.

“If you had told me, coming in here, that I would have three straight years where I would have over 100 tackles and a bunch of sacks, I would not have believed you,” Kiser said. “But, that’s the way it has worked out.”

Come December, Kiser will finally get to wear a UVA uniform with a bowl patch stitched on the shoulder. Getting to six wins and becoming bowl eligible after defeating Georgia Tech took on special meaning to Kiser.

“The way we did it, down 15 in the third quarter with all the wind and the rain; for us to finally do something memorable in Scott Stadium was awesome,” Kiser said. “And memorable for the right reasons. A lot of my memories in Scott Stadium are awful.”

Kiser is haunted by the last-minute losses to the likes of North Carolina, Notre Dame and Louisville on his home field.

“I had had so many ‘almost there, almost did it’ memories, only to come up short,” he said. “For something right to finally happen in Scott Stadium, it meant a lot.”

Second-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall has also had a huge impact on Kiser, so much so that he now believes he wants to work in athletic administration when he hangs up his cleats.

“He’s part football coach, part psychological therapist,” said Kiser of Mendenhall’s approach. “It is one thing to put people in the right football situation, it is another thing to make them believe they can win and make them believe that they are invincible and make them think they are the best. That’s one thing he is really good at doing ÃÆ’¢Ãƒ¢’¬¦ tapping into you mentally to get your best physical performance. It is really interesting to watch. In a way, we are like little lab rats, coach Mendenhall’s little lab rats.

“Watching how he conducts himself and how he runs the program. What it really takes to run a program. It has inspired me to want to work in athletic administration and eventually be an athletic director.”

Kiser’s success has hardly been limited to his football abilities. This year he is a finalist for the Campbell Trophy, presented to college football’s top scholar-athlete. A year ago he earned Academic All-America honors. He also drew the national spotlight this fall with his initiative to show team unity by organizing a team photo on the steps of the Rotunda following the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville.

“The fact that message was heard loud and clear was great,” said Kiser, who understands the very visible role he has within the University community.

“I have always valued my position not just on the field, but also in the classroom – the responsibility of being a student-athlete at a university carries,” he said.

“When you go into a classroom people know you. They know who you are. It is a great opportunity for me to go into a classroom and show that I am more than just a football player. I am a student here at the University of Virginia as well. I deserve to be at this school. I am intelligent just like everyone else is here. So, I carry that role intently and seriously.

“I have tried to lead in the classroom, on the team and in the community. In my opinion, that’s what being a UVA football player is all about. You have to be the best at everything you do. People are always watching. That’s what I have tried to do.”