By Larry Fine
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Mathias Kiwanuka has ridden a remarkable rollercoaster over the last 19 months that has taken the New York Giants linebacker to new heights this week with a chance at winning a Super Bowl in his hometown.
"I've been on top of the world," Kiwanuka told Reuters on Thursday about soaking in the excitement with his family and friends in Indianapolis, site of the February 5 title game. "This is something that I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life."
Kiwanuka has fought back from a career-threatening injury that shut him down last season and the horror of his brother Ben's near-fatal motorcycle accident.
"The low to the high, it's been all over the place," said Kiwanuka, 28.
A 2006 first-round draft choice by the Giants out of Boston College, Kiwanuka played only three of his team's 16 games last year and faced an uncertain football future after suffering a herniated cervical disk in his neck.
That setback came four months after his brother Ben crashed the motorcycle Kiwanuka bought him into a car that pulled out in front of them when they were out for a ride during the player's visit home to attend the 2010 Indianapolis 500 motor race.
Ben flew some 30 yards into the air and landed in a crumpled mass of broken bones with Kiwanuka tearing his T-shirt off to use as a makeshift tourniquet on his brother's bleeding arm.
"It was the most painful experience of my life to be honest with you," Kiwanuka said. "Watching him throughout the entire process was tough and emotional, but we pulled through."
Ben credited his brother with saving his life, but Kiwanuka said he was haunted for weeks by visions of the accident.
"I was right behind him on my bike. I saw the entire process. I hit my brake. I was waiting for him to hit his and it didn't happen. As you see the car, you see him, see the smoke come out," said Kiwanuka. "That instant used to replay in my head and I would get a chill from seeing it."
Ben spent three weeks in the hospital where their mother, Deodata, had worked for 10 years as a nurse.
Kiwanuka was relegated to the sideline himself with his neck injury and after consulting with doctors across the country decided on rest and rehabilitation instead of surgery.
After being cleared to return to the gridiron, Kiwanuka signed an incentive-laden contract to return with the Giants.
"Coming off the injury last year, not knowing if I was going to be ready to play, still having my brother doing his rehab from the motorcycle accident, those were tough things emotionally that I brought into the season," he said.
Kiwanuka comes from a family accustomed to persevering through challenging times.
Benedicto, the grandfather for whom Ben was named, studied law in Britain and was elected the first prime minister of Uganda in 1961 when the country gained independence.
He was assassinated in 1972, a victim of the dictatorial regime of Idi Amin.
Kiwanuka, a key defender for the Giants after making the transition from pass-rushing defensive end to linebacker, honors his grandfather by sporting a tattoo on his back of Uganda's crest of two spears, a shield and a crane.
Kiwanuka, who helped the Giants succeed in the 2007 season but missed playing in the Super Bowl against the Patriots because of a broken leg, had dreams still to achieve.
"Just getting back out there was a big goal of mine, to stand out there on the field with the confetti coming down," he said about returning to the Super Bowl, which he watched as a spectator that night in Arizona. "I wanted to get back to the Super Bowl with this team."
Kiwanuka marveled at his turnaround of fortune.
"It's been a big year for me," he said.
"Having the opportunity to get my brother out here to some games after his accident, my fiancé and I are expecting a baby, being back on the field after last year, a lot of things have happened. Not just football wise, but my life in general has taken a turn for the better."
And now the Super Bowl.
(Editing by Frank Pingue; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)