NAMPA — Kai Kovick doesn’t really remember who he was before.
Before being given away by his biological mother at 2.
Before the orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he spent four years.
Or before Curtis and LeAnne Kovick gave him a new life with his adoption at 6.
But the Ridgevue High School senior football player has come a long way since then. He is now the starting cornerback for the Warhawks (1-0), who will look for their best start in program history when they visit Twin Falls (0-1) in nonconference play at 7 p.m. Friday.
“This guy really came from nothing and he’s turning into something special,” Ridgevue senior defensive back Quinn Rodriguez said. “Everything he gets, he’s grateful. So it’s just so humbling to see.”
Kai, 18, was born in Mirebalais, Haiti. But like many children from there, he was sent to an orphanage because his family didn’t have the means to properly take care of him. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and the 16th poorestin the world, according to World Bank Group. Nearly 80 percent of its residents live in poverty.
LeAnne saw this firsthand. She was a liaison between adoptive families and the government for an Haitian adoption agency. It’s why she and her husband, Curtis, decided to adopt for themselves from Haiti after several miscarriages.
“There was just something about the country and the culture, there was something beautiful about it,” Curtis said. “The people who live there, they struggle, but they still love each other. And to see that and see how they work with each other and raise each other up, it totally takes part of your heart.”
So they adopted Hunter (22 years old) and Demi (19) before LeAnne, who wasn’t looking to adopt at the time, met Kai on a work trip.
LeAnne was walking around the New Life Link Orphanage in Port-au-Prince — the same place where she adopted her first two kids — when someone tugged on her skirt. The first thing she saw was a big smile. It was Kai.
“He still has that little dimple,” LeAnne said. “Even under some of the worst circumstances, here was this kid with a big ole smile on his face.”
Kai wanted to play Peekaboo, which LeAnne was more than happy to do. Only his version was a little different. Instead of just removing his hands from his face and saying, “Peekaboo,” he gently slapped her in the face.
“It definitely caught me off guard,” LeAnne said while laughing.
But it stuck with her. So much so that she took a picture of him and stuck it on her fridge.
And when she and Curtis were ready to adopt again, his name was at the top of the list.
But unlike their previous two adoptions, thanks to a corrupt Haiti government and new immigration procedures by the United State, this one took almost two years. They had to leave Kai behind after spending a week with him in a guest house. It was where he and Curtis bonded over kicking a soccer ball.
“He was a very charming individual,” Curtis said. “There was just something about him that immediately drew you in.”
On a return trip a year later, LeAnne and Curtis decided that wasn’t going to happen again.
“I knew one of us had to stay because when Curtis left to go to town to make arrangements to change our plane tickets, Kai sat at the door and cried,” LeAnne said. “So we made the decision that Curtis would go home and I would stay here for as long as it took if the adoption didn’t go through this time. Seeing how well that they had already bonded with both of us, I couldn’t just leave them again.”
Thankfully, they never had to make that decision.
Kai and his adoptive younger sister Nikaya, 15, were officially adopted in 2006.
The nearly 3,000-mile move took some adjusting. It started on the plane ride back. Kai started screaming in Creole — Haiti’s native language —after flushing the toilet.
“He thought it was going to suck him in,” Curtis said.
Food was also a challenge at first. He refused to eat anything other than rice and beans.
“We bought him pizza at the airport and he looked at it like we were trying to give him dog food,” LeAnne said.
Kai still prefers rice over most anything else.
But he eventually got the hang of things — discovering his biological brother, Juneau Meyer, two years after his adoption, certainly helped.
Juneau, who is three years older, was adopted by a family in Oregon before Kai was even put in an orphanage. The two met for the first time when Juneau’s adoptive parents contacted LeAnne and Curtis to tell them they were coming through town. Kai abruptly stopping dribbling his basketball when a boy that looked exactly like him stepped out of a car and onto his driveway.
Kai has since learned he has another brother and four sisters. He and Juneau see each other every summer now.
“It really filled some holes in for me knowing someone from my birth family like that,” Kai said. “It really helped me find my identity in a way.”
It was an identity that included sports.
After barely being able to bounce a basketball during his first YMCA basketball game at 6, Kai has found himself on the football field. It went from flag football in the third grade to playing both ways on Ridgevue’s freshman team. He was a wide receiver and defensive back. He had a team-high four interceptions for the Warhawks, who went 7-4 that season.
Kai added two more interceptions the following year before being moved into the varsity starting lineup last season. He didn’t have any interceptions last season. But that was because opposing teams refused to throw on his side of the field.
He showed why in last week’s 26-13 season-opening win at Caldwell. Kai nearly saved an 80-yard touchdown run by the Cougars’ Matias Pizano in the third quarter. He ran all the way from the other side of the field, passing the corner on the near side, and nearly tripped up Pizano just short of the end zone on a dive.
“Kai has separated himself over the course of four years with efforts like that,” Ridgevue coach Tom DeWitz said. “Kai is not spectacular, but very steady. He’s always there and very coachable. I could probably count on one hand the workouts (and) practices that Kai’s missed in four years. He has probably been our most dedicated dude. Everything he’s got, he’s earned.”
It’s players like Kai the Warhawks hope will help them take the next step. They haven’t won more than three games in a season and are 7-21 (.250) with no playoff appearances since their inception in 2016.
A win over Twin Falls, which went 7-3 and made state last year, would go a long way toward changing people’s perception of the program.
“Nobody thinks we’re any good. So we want to show everyone who Ridgevue really is,” Kai said. “We need to not beat ourselves. And that’s the one thing we’re working on. You can’t go into a game thinking you’re going to win for sure. And you can’t go into a game thinking that the other team’s going to be better than you. We remind each other of that every day.”
A successful season could also help Kai continue his dream of playing football. He’s already been in contact with coaches from the College of Idaho, Carroll College and Rocky Mountain College.
It’s a dream he almost didn’t have in the first place. But it’s who he is now.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t get adopted,” Kai said. “I feel like I would still be in that orphanage doing nothing at all. I know I wouldn’t be playing football and I wouldn’t have any friends. So I just can’t thank my parents enough for giving me everything that I have right now. Some people in my situation, don’t get so lucky.”