She demanded a spot on the football field as a young elementary student, starting at running back until her middle school years alongside the boys her dad, Kenny Sr., coached.
She brought an ultra-competitive edge into an All-American career as an outfielder at Nebraska, hitting over .400 in her final two seasons as a Cornhusker while starting all but two of her 235 career appearances.
She dove headfirst into a caretaker role in 2008 when her mom, Odester, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, teaming with her younger sister Kirsten to serve as nurses and handle anything that came their way as the family matriarch fought.
Toughness has defined Kiki throughout her 26 years, and perhaps nowhere has that grit shined through more than when she took the toughest step of her career on opening day of the 2020 season. She walked away from a team she had given five years to; that called her name in the first round of the 2016 National Pro Fastpitch Draft.
KIKI HAS ALWAYS BEEN A LEADER.
“Everybody always wanted to do what Kiki was doing when she was younger,” Odester remembered. “Even when she was more reserved or didn’t say much, it just seems she’d seize the moment and have people always looking to her for answers.”
That natural ability to bring people under her wing was important during her time at Nebraska.
“I didn’t have to do a lot of pulling the team together when Kiki was on the field,” Nebraska head coach Rhonda Revelle recalled. “She said whatever needed to be said before I had to. That type of peer leadership really helped our team."
That’s not to say there weren’t growing pains as she came into her own.
Before offering the above-mentioned stories of Kiki’s huddle conversations and on-field leadership, Revelle spoke on the lessons learned in her early years as a Husker.
As a true freshman, Kiki had the talent to start in centerfield for the Big Red, but would run into communication problems alongside senior captain, and right-fielder Brooke Thomason.
“Kiki knew she was good enough to get the ball if it came between the two of them, but wouldn’t communicate and the two would run into each other,” Revelle remembered.
Thomason eventually laid a “her or me” ultimatum in front of the staff after collisions continued, and Kiki was moved to left field.
“She might have been grumpy about hearing the message early on, but later in her career she never let an opportunity to communicate or gather her team while running off the field go by,” Revelle said.
Kiki’s leadership has been important through her two years as an assistant coach at South Dakota State, as well. Head coach Krista Wood remembered moments from the 2020 season where a young team found itself “flat, or going through the motions,” before the energetic assistant stepped in.
“She’d take the huddle late and our team would really feed off her energy,” Wood said. “She is great at flipping our mentality when we need it and moving us in a different, positive direction.”
Stories of publicly taking a stand are powerful. They expose true character and strength, invoke emotion and bring a sense of pride to those who know the subject. They’re also only part of the story.
While Kiki’s outward expression was an example of strength, internally there was pain. In the private moments, the heartache spilled over.
“She called me when it happened and was immediately crying,” Odester shared. “My first thought was, ‘okay, what did you break?’ because the pain was so real, it felt physical.
"the pain was so real, it felt physical."
Tears flowed freely over the next few days, as did intimate conversations with family, friends and mentors, along with numerous team meetings as those who followed her posed the question, “what’s next?”
The now-former Scrap Yard team met privately the night of the tweet, and Kiki once again spoke from the heart.
“It was late, but we knew we needed to decide what we wanted to do, and Kiki stood up at the meeting and said, ‘This sucks, but my career as a softball player isn’t going to end this way,’” Sam Fischer recalled with a touch of emotion. “It was really impactful for us, and I think we were all kind of like, ‘hell yeah, let’s play ball!”
And with that, a new team was born.
“Control what you can control. Never make a decision out of emotion,” Odester said.
“Whatever you do in life, be professional. You don’t call people out. You do things with humility, and you do them the right way.” Kenny Sr. said.
“Strong leaders stand up for what they believe in, but do it in a respectful, tactful and diplomatic way,” Revelle said.
“Meeting people where they are, sharing your beliefs with passion and listening to others is a great place to start making a difference,” Wood said.
Like many others, Kiki has been blessed with strong influences along her path. Parents, coaches, siblings Kenny Jr. and Kirsten, friends and teammates who have spoken into her life; mentors who made an impact in the moment, though the impression may not be felt until years later.
One of those lessons, the importance of prayer and faith in God, was on display early and often. Odester prayed immediately for, and with, her daughter in conversation, and Kiki found herself looking for the strength to forgive.
“I think the day after the tweet was sent was the worst day, when I had to sit back and think about if I was doing anything or saying anything outside of my character,” Stokes remembered. “I also needed to make sure that I dealt with the fact that I couldn’t hang on to the anger and frustration forever, and I had to have some forgiveness in my heart and move on.”
This is Us, the new team name, focused on three words: Awareness, Empowerment and Unity.
Awareness of what was going on not only in the softball world and injustices within the game, but outside of the game in the black community worldwide.
Empowerment of women and providing an opportunity for voices to speak up.
Unity for bringing people of different backgrounds, social status, ethnicity and more while working towards a common goal.
Kiki signed with Nebraska with an enthusiasm coach Revelle has never seen again, as the youngster dove across the desk when a scholarship offer was presented.
The All-American was drafted to the professional leagues as the No. 5 overall pick in 2016 and committed to an up-and-coming team with enthusiasm and made an instant impact.
The young coach was hired as an assistant at South Dakota State in the summer of 2018 and immediately bought into a culture of GRIT: Growth, Resilience, Integrity and Trust, helping the team to its second-consecutive postseason appearance in the National Invitational Softball Championship.
Success has followed Kiki, as has the opportunity to make an impact.
This is Us played six games against the USSSA Pride before COVID-19 officially ended the 2020 summer softball season. What happened between the lines, however, wasn’t the point.
“We won that first game back, which was really cool, but after the game I remember going into the locker room and telling everyone, that being a part of this was ‘the proudest moment of my life as a softball player,” Fischer shared.
A life-altering event that wouldn’t have happened without Kiki’s courage.