Super Bowl Champion, Activist, Smile Maker: An Interview with our Newest Board Member

Mathias Kiwanuka knows the true meaning of greatness.

Mathias Kiwanuka visits a child in Uganda wearing a New York Giants hat.

Mathias Kiwanuka may actually be the most interesting man in the world. His grandfather, Benedicto Kiwanuka, was Uganda’s beloved first Prime Minister. A tireless voice for democracy and the rule of law, he was brutally murdered by the dictator Idi Amin for refusing to be complicit in his tyranny. In the wake of Benedicto’s killing, Mathias’ parents fled to Indianapolis, where he was born 11 years later and grew up as an all-American, hard-working, football-loving kid. He worked so hard, in fact, that he became a first-team All-American defensive end for Boston College, then a first-round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. Eight years and two Super Bowl championships later, he hung up his cleats to spend more time with his family and push himself to take on new challenges. Today, he is CEO of Wandering Wines and an active philanthropist. And Smile Train was recently honored to welcome him as our newest board member!

We caught up with Mathias to discuss his transition from football to philanthropy and business, why Smile Train’s model hits so close to home for him, how he is following in his grandfather’s footsteps to bring hope, freedom, and health to the people of Uganda, and so much more.

How has the transition from football to business been?

It was a learning experience, to put it lightly. It was difficult, it was exciting — it still is exciting! I think as a football player, you’re used to fast-paced action, but you also are used to schedules, so it’s on… and then it’s off. It’s on for a long time, and then it’s off. When you’re in business, it’s just this steady hum of on, on, on. You don’t know when something’s going to happen, you don’t know when a shipment is actually going to leave in Chile or California or Italy, so that was the biggest thing: understanding that I have to feel accomplished even if I didn’t do something that was physically exhausting.

In the past, if I wasn’t physically exhausted by the end of the day, then I didn’t feel like I had accomplished my goal. In business, it’s different. Now, I can wake up, get on a call, send out 10 emails, respond to every single one that comes in, and I still won’t feel accomplished. But then I go outside, run a couple of gassers, and come back in and I’m like, “Alright, now I did something!” So, I have to wrap my head around not being physically exhausted at the end of the day, just saying, “Hey, you got all these things done.” It doesn’t feel like a lot, but I have to realize I did do a lot.

Mathias Kiwanuka in a plaid shirt

How have you made time for your philanthropy work on top of all of that?

Philanthropy was a passion of mine even before I retired from the field; it’s where my heart was. While I was still playing, one of my teammates, Kawika Mitchell, and I did a little trade-off where I went to Hawaii with him and did a football camp, then he came to Uganda with me to help with my first project, which was building a well outside a school in a village. So, I didn’t really have to transition to philanthropy; the big transition was to business. Philanthropy has always been part of who I am.

How are football and philanthropy similar? What lessons from the gridiron have you taken to this next phase of your life?

We play a game, but, one of the things I loved most about playing with the Giants was how often people, regardless of their situation in life or anything else, would pull me aside and say, hey, my grandfather or my dad was a lifelong Giants fan and while he was battling cancer or some other thing, you guys won the Super Bowl, and that was the first time in years that we saw him smile, that we saw him cheer.

A similar thing happened when I noticed how many extreme Cowboys fans there were in New York, and how many of them were women in particular. When I would meet one and ask why she was a fan, she would say something like, “Well, my dad was a Cowboys fan, and I knew every Sunday he was going to be sitting on the couch in front of the TV, so I would just curl up next to him and watch the game.” I heard that so many times, and it made me realize: When people are passionate about it, when people really love football — the Giants specifically — we become a part of their family, a part of their life; it’s a ritual, it’s a tradition.

So, too, in philanthropy, I feel like you’re contributing something positive to someone’s life. Just because it’s not always monetary, doesn’t mean that it’s not a major contribution. For me, so much of philanthropy is just exposure. For example, when I’m talking to a kid playing at Boston College about the things that he’s interested in, he often doesn’t realize until I tell him that he’s in a position to give back to his community now and that it’s an easy thing to do. So, I’m inspiring another generation the same way the last generation inspired me. Everything I’m doing? I saw it from somewhere else — I still remember looking back at an older player and saying, “Wow! You went back to your hometown and you made so much good happen? That’s dope! I want to be part of that!“

Mathias Kiwanuka in Uganda with a child in a NY Giants hat
"American football star Mathias Kiwanuka visits Uganda" by U.S. Mission Uganda is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit Creative Commons 2.0

In both the organizations you support financially and those you’ve become more personally involved in, how do you choose which causes to support? How does your background, as the son of immigrants and a scion of such an important family in Uganda, inform your thinking here?

It’s hard for me to pass up any organization that does work in Uganda, specifically in Konge, the village where my mom grew up. I try to pick which causes I support strategically, and I have some questions I ask myself before getting involved: What can I afford? Do I have a personal relationship to their work? How is the board? Do I get along with them? Do their goals align with mine?

For me, it’s as much about how much good the organization is doing as how involved the people behind it are — are they just mailing it in, are they just doing it for show, or are the people who are high up going to be on the ground? I want to be on the ground. I want to meet people — COVID lockdowns have been terrible for me because I want to be out there shaking hands and seeing people. When you’re there, that means more than just sending a check.

Did you have any experience with clefts before joining our board?

Not personally. I heard stories growing up of people who had been born with a cleft, but it wasn’t something I had experience of in my immediate family.

Why Smile Train?

The model. The way Smile Train doesn’t drop in to places to set up a big photo-op then get out, that we actually train the doctors so that they can, in turn, continue their work indefinitely is similar to the learning experience that I had. When I went to Uganda and built the well at that school, I thought, “I’m going to build them a well and the well’s going to be good, then I’m going to leave, and things will be better.” Well, it didn’t work that way. The well became a drain on the school because everybody from the surrounding areas started coming there. But when I actually asked the villagers what they wanted, they told me what they really needed was another addition to the school building. Now, that’s something that’s going to continue to grow the school and is going to continue to help, and it made me realize the question to ask yourself is, “How sustainable is the help that we’re giving?” So when I learned about Smile Train’s model, I knew this was something that I really wanted to be a part of because everywhere this organization works, I know I can go back there 10, 15 years from now and still see the work being carried out, as opposed to, “This is what those people came and built here, and then they left.” That’s empty.

NY Giants' Mathias Kiwanuka signing footballs
"Mathias Kiwanuka" by alexa627 is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit Creative Commons 2.0

What’s something you’ve learned about clefts that’s surprised you?

Just how prevalent clefts are around the world. We in America tend to look at clefts as only a problem in the developing world, but they’re not. They’re a pretty common genetic trait; we just found a way to treat it quickly here. But what that really means is treating clefts is about getting the treatment methods we have here to people who don’t have access to them — and that’s exactly what Smile Train is doing. We’re not coming up with a new cure, we’re just giving access to people who need it. There’s no looking down on people with clefts here, and there’s absolutely no shame because we know it could have just as easily been any of us. And the same is true for our partner doctors: Smile Train understands that doctors in Uganda are no different from doctors in America, that they aren’t any less passionate or have any less skill. Like their patients, all they need is access to the best training and tools, and that’s what Smile Train provides for them.

This is very personal for me because my mom grew up in the village; I’m a generation away from being born in a village in Uganda. I know that my cousins who grew up there had completely different opportunities, but we have the same intelligence, we have the same physical skills, it’s just that for some reason, God chose to put me in Indianapolis and give me the ability to go to the schools and to have the experiences that I had. But there’s tons of people who, put in my situation, could be just as — if not more — successful. That’s why I think we have to take the blessings we have and appreciate them and understand that there but for the grace of God go I. Regardless of our station in life, we’re fortunate just by virtue of being born in the United States, or just by having the resources that developed countries have. We are blessed.

What do you feel is your unique contribution to Smile Train’s board?

Spreading the word and being there physically — this June, I am going to visit our local partners in Uganda. If I can go into the village where my mom grew up and help one person, that will bring tears to my eyes. That one person in my mom’s village — who, most likely, I’m going to be related to if I do the tracing — that person got helped. Why? Because I can run fast? Or I can beat people up on a field? You play a game, yes — now, what does that game afford you to do? If I can go to the village my mom grew up in or the village my dad grew up in and I can help even one person live a life similar to what I can provide for my kids here, then hey, I did something in life.

Where do you see Smile Train in 5 years? 20? What role will you play in making that happen?

I have big dreams. I have ideas and goals and aspirations, and I’m not afraid to speak up. But at the same time, I think part of joining an organization this big is shutting your mouth, listening, and learning where you can be the best fit, where you can be the most help. When you’re new, you have to get a feel for what the objective is, find out what the people who have been here for a decade have been trying to do. I need to contribute to their goals as much as they want to contribute to mine; I’m not going to come in and say, “Hey, I’m the football player, this is where we’re going, this is what we’re going to do.” No. My question is always, “What have we been trying to do and how can I help advance that cause?” Only then will we get to what I want to do. Because I’ll be here for a while.

Mathias Kiwanuka visits a sick child wearing a NY Giants in Uganda
"American football star Mathias Kiwanuka visits Uganda" by U.S. Mission Uganda is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit Creative Commons 2.0

What is your message to Smile Train’s patients? Their parents?

My message to patients is: I’m just like you. I am here to help; I am your friend. I am no better than you, I am no worse than you, we are all in this together and we’re going to be here. And if you need us again, we’ll still be here.

My message to parents is: God works and is here to take care of us. I have two children; I understand some of what it’s like. I know how it feels when your child falls down and bonks their nose. It’s jarring, you feel out of control. Up to a certain point, you can fix everything that happens to your child, but then one day they have a problem that you can’t fix and you just have to look at them and watch them cry and just be there for them. And that’s hard. They don’t give anesthesia to the parents during cleft surgery, so while your child might forget that pain, you never will. But I know your child is strong enough to get to the other side of this and that you are, too.