Officially, Bronson Tiwanak’s martial arts training began at age 7.
In reality, the lessons started well before his first formal class.
"I’ve been around it since I was born," Tiwanak said. "Pretty much once you’re part of the family, you’re in."
HIs grandfather, Marino Tiwanak, founded the C.H.A. 3 Kenpo Association, which is now run by his father, Michael.
Through study and practice, Bronson steadily climbed the ranks to his current position as a second-degree black belt.
He’s similarly worked his way up the levels of the depth chart in two seasons with the Hawaii football team, though his ascent to the starting job was quite a bit more sudden.
A walk-on transfer to UH from Fresno City College, Tiwanak first had to try out for a spot on the roster. He then contributed on the scout team as the fourth-string center a year ago and became the top backup last spring. When Sila Lefiti suffered a foot injury in the Warriors’ final spring scrimmage, Tiwanak moved into the starting unit and hasn’t budged since.
Tiwanak enters Saturday’s senior night game against UNLV slated to make his 13th start for the 25th-ranked and Western Athletic Conference champion Warriors.
He’s now part of the nation’s top passing attack and an offensive line that opened the way for running back Alex Green to rush for a school-record 327 yards last week against New Mexico State.
"I can’t explain how much it means to me," Tiwanak said. "I couldn’t have imagined my senior year going this way. The way things turned out, I’m just grateful I had the opportunity."
Still a nonscholarship player, Tiwanak is UH’s nominee for the Rudy Award. The award is presented annually to "student-athletes who demonstrate exemplary character, courage, contribution and commitment."
When John Estes completed his UH career just about a year ago after three All-WAC selections, Lefiti was expected to step in after serving as Estes’ top backup. But Lefiti’s injury and subsequent surgery moved Tiwanak into a central role on the offensive line.
With Tiwanak’s first Division I start approaching and the nerves starting to mount prior to UH’s opener against USC, offensive line coach Gordy Shaw sat down with him to reassure him of his place with the line.
"I said, ‘I wouldn’t start you if I didn’t think you were ready,’ " Shaw said. "That’s the last time we had that conversation, and he’s done very well."
Shaw said Tiwanak’s consistency with the shotgun snap was among his main advantages, as well as the chemistry he developed with quarterback Bryant Moniz while both played for Fresno City. And firing that first snap against USC remains fresh in Tiwanak’s memory.
"There was so much adrenaline going through my body it wasn’t even funny," he said. "I just saw USC guys lined up across from me and I was thinking, ‘This is it, this is big-time college football right here.’ I said I have to step up, can’t let anybody down."
When Lefiti returned to action, Tiwanak continued to start, though the duo split playing time. Tiwanak graded out a tad higher while Lefiti worked through some rust, and Tiwanak has retained the job heading into the regular-season finale.
Tiwanak, a Damien graduate, turned down scholarship offers from a few small schools to walk on at UH and said his kenpo training has some crossover benefits when warding off defensive tackles in the interior line.
"Balance is key, being able to hold your ground," he said, "and as far as your hand work, striking, being accurate with your punches."
Tiwanak continues to train and teach at C.H.A 3 (short for Central Hawaiian Activities) in the offseason, and he hopes to continue to move up the levels in the sport introduced to him by his father and grandfather. But for now, his focus is trained on a strong finish to his college football career.
"His family will have a lot of great things to be proud of when this is all over with," Shaw said.
Note: Online voting for the Rudy Award began yesterday and runs through Dec. 13. Fans can vote at CollegeRudyAwards.com. Voting will factor into the selection of the three finalists for the award, which will be presented on Jan. 11.