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Hawaiian wildfires hit home for Kamu Grugier-Hill


CHARLOTTE — When it's an ocean away, sometimes it's easy to see the images on television or your phone and not feel connected to them.

But for Panthers linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, every scene of the destruction caused by the recent wildfires in Maui hit differently because he lives in Hawaii, grew up on those islands, celebrated lifetime milestones there, and has relatives he can name who lost everything.

That's why he spoke to the team about his passion for helping to rebuild and helping the people there. They're his neighbors and his family, so you take care of them.

"Tragedies and devastations happen all over the world; there's always something going on," Grugier-Hill said. "But it's a little different when it's your hometown, right? It's a little different when it's personal to you, when you know people, cousins, family members who are impacted.

"That's why. This is my home, this is the place I grew up. I have friends, family, cousins there. I live on Oahu, but all those islands are the same. We're one big family."

That's why Grugier-Hill is grateful to his teammates for partnering with him, wearing the Keep Pounding For Maui shirts before tonight's nationally televised game against the Lions, adding visibility to the cause. He's working to raise money for the Hawaii Community Foundation and Habitat for Humanity.

He was also grateful for the support of David and Nicole Tepper for their donation to Global Empowerment Mission through their foundation, as they responded in the immediate aftermath of the fires.

Keep Pounding for Maui

By using his platform to increase visibility, he hopes to help keep those people he knows on their land, to find temporary shelter and eventually new homes for them, to help rebuild schools, and to protect the community he knows so well.

When he was a young athlete starring at Kamehameha School and eventually Eastern Illinois University, he was befriended by former Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino, who became a mentor to a generation of young Hawaiian athletes. So, while Grugier-Hill's home was on a different island, his recent conversations with Victorino, who was born and raised on Maui, brought the tragedy home again.

"I was talking to him, and it's like, dude, this is our home, but this is specifically your home, right? How can we help?" Grugier-Hill recalled. "It's just all getting together and trying to use our platform as much as we can.

"Because this is one of those things, this isn't going to be fixed in a month or two, right? This is going to be years and years of rehabilitation."

Again, for Grugier-Hill, the images of scorched earth in Maui hardly seem real, considering his memories of so many happier times there. He recalled a particular evening last year when he went to dinner at Honu Oceanside on historic Front Street in Lahaina. It was a special evening for many reasons, not the least of which was asking Chris Cartrett for permission to marry his daughter. The fact that Keely Cartrett is now Grugier-Hill's fiancé should stand as evidence that everything that night was perfect.

But now, that perfect Lahaina neighborhood is devastated, like so many around it.

Maui wildfires

Grugier-Hill has been in touch with his cousin, Kawika Kinimaka, who has told the stories of families who have lost everything, with relatives crowding into whatever shelter they can secure, trying to hang onto whatever they can of their lives.

"They lost their cars, they lost their homes, they've got like 12 people living in one house right now just piling in because they have nothing. . . .

"It's tough, man, when you see that kind of stuff, and then you were just there, and now it's like, it'll never be the same."

When you listen to him tell those stories and share those memories, you can tell the connection for Grugier-Hill. He signed with the Panthers in April and has quickly made a connection here, too. He was one of the standouts of training camp and is emerging as a special teams leader who can also make plays all over the field on defense.

So when he stood up in front of his teammates Sunday to talk about the devastation and what they could do to help, his teammates were immediately there.

"He's our brother. So we're going to do anything to support him," linebacker Shaq Thompson said. "We know that's his home, and we know he'd do anything for us if it was our home to help us out. So we're there to support him.

"You can tell from his voice and the emotion that came out of it that he was devastated that it happened. We know our brothers; we know how you say things, what is real, and what's behind it. You could tell he was hurting."

Punter Johnny Hekker described that meeting as "heartbreaking" and said that because of the way Grugier-Hill has embedded himself here, the outpouring of support was natural.

"It's difficult to completely empathize with because that's not our home, that's not where we were born and raised," Hekker said. "But to put yourself in his shoes, his home state, a place where he spent his entire childhood growing up, a lot of people that he knows and loves in that community and now have absolutely nothing. So for him to kind of just bring it to our team, just showing us the action and responsibility he's stepping up to take part in, is admirable and something that you're really proud of him for.

"I think what's infectious about Kamu is just his spirit. I mean, every day on the practice field, he's working his butt off. He's a guy that's a real leader already in our special teams room. He's just embraced his role and has been himself. There's never been a day when, you know, he's been up or down; he's always been consistent energy, had a smile on his face, and has a real joy about him. Which, I think if you know anyone from Hawaii, that's pretty indicative of the Hawaiian culture and just the spirit of aloha."

Frankie Luvu, Kamu Grugier-Hill

For Grugier-Hill, he stood alone in front of a group of people he was still getting to know, but he said he felt that spirit coming back at him as well.

"I think since the day I came to this organization, I mean, this team has been nothing but like brotherhood and open arms, right?" he said. "I feel like I've played here for 10 years, with the relationships I've had so far.

"To see the team's attention, you could see that their heart ached with me, right? They were actually hurting for me, hurting for our families, hurting for the people there. And I've had multiple teammates come up to me after and just say, how can we help, how can we be a part? And that's huge to have that type of brotherhood and type of locker room is awesome."

So tonight, the shirts they wear as they warm up will be another symbol of that togetherness and their commitment to standing with Grugier-Hill and his family back in Hawaii, who are trying to hang on so the eventual rebuilding can begin.

"It's going to be a long road," he said. "But we're just trying to make sure that we can be there for the needs of the people for sure.

"I can wear that shirt whenever I want. But to have these guys wear the shirt, have this organization wear the shirt, it just shows me and the other guys around the league and especially the people in Maui that like we're here for them, right? That we are in full support of all of this, and we've got their back."

Kamu Grugier-Hill

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