At Augustana University, Kirby Hora sought community service to benefit others with the same passion and energy he displayed on the football field.
Pillar 1 student Kirby Hora chases down challenges, embraces responsibility and remembers an event that changed his life.
It had been a normal, happy afternoon in the life of 8-year-old Kirby Hora. He’d been outside in his family’s backyard, playing with his grandpa, when his grandmother burst through the back door and shouted that Kirby’s younger brother, Cody, had stopped breathing, and that she’d phoned 911. As Kirby’s grandpa hurried toward the house, followed by Kirby, the sound of approaching sirens was already audible.
On the floor lay the little boy, only six months old; his face colored an otherworldly, unnatural blue. Suddenly, strange people quickly entered the house. Emergency responders had arrived, and they knelt beside the small, still body, and began their efforts to resuscitate him.
Kirby studied the scene, then anxiously, nervously looked away until his eyes found the door. In a frantic moment he bolted outside, and he kept running, distancing himself as quickly as possible from the tension and the crisis, and from that painful sight of his helpless baby brother surrounded by determined adults.
Later, Kirby slowly, reluctantly shuffled home, worried to hear bad news, but ecstatic when he learned that his brother had improved and would recover.
The torment of regret can be transformative, or it can eat you alive. Several years later, while contemplating his frightened behavior and abrupt retreat during that distressing episode, Kirby decided he would never again withdraw from those in need. “I became committed to wanting to fix something if I saw it wasn’t right,” he recalled. “I realize now that not everyone reacts like I do, but I decided early in my life that I would rather run toward those who need help, and not away from them.”
Medicine Touches More Than the Body
It was a resolution that influenced practically everything for the young man. He viewed school differently, more seriously. He learned how to apply himself to assignments, and to his chores at home, and to getting better at sports. His parents noticed a maturity and a level of self-awareness that was unusual. His teachers and athletic coaches observed similar characteristics.
At Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls, Hora blossomed as a leader of his peers, captaining the school’s football squad during his senior season, and earning all-state honors as a linebacker.
“Kirby has always been mature beyond his years,” said his high school football coach, Kim Nelson. “We often had to remind him that not everyone was as committed and dedicated as he was. He always asked what he could do next. He felt like he never did enough, when in reality, he was a coaches’ dream.”
Hora knew from a young age that he wanted to become a doctor, remembering family health issues and the sensitive professionalism of caring physicians. “I remember realizing,” he described, “that medicine touches more than the body. It occurred to me, and it really appealed to me that medicine also touches the mind, the heart and the spirit.”
Playing football in college had been another ambition of Hora’s, and when he compared the athletic and academic opportunities offered by various institutions, he chose Augustana University, in Sioux Falls. “I felt that Augustana would help me prepare for medical school,” he explained. “I also liked the idea of playing college football in my hometown, near my family, and being able to continue volunteering alongside members of my own family to an organization, the Ghosts of Christmas, where we’d helped disadvantaged families in Sioux Falls for many years.”
By the time Hora graduated from Augustana in May 2019, he had built a resume exceeding the satisfactions of earning a biology degree, a 4.0 overall grade point average, and all-conference football recognition four years in a row. He’d grown into a young man who thrived on service to others, and he possessed the introspective wherewithal to push and prepare himself so he could improve his capabilities to lead and serve.
He’d learned about the values and rewards of community service from his parents while still a youngster, but at Augustana, despite the demanding schedule of a competitive athlete and a dedicated student preparing for medical school, Hora found himself volunteering for a variety of new causes. Not only did he continue serving the needy through the Ghosts of Christmas program, he became involved with Kids Against Hunger, Habitat for Humanity and the Banquet, where he helped cook and serve meals to the hungry and the poor. On every Friday before Saturday football games, Hora and several teammates would visit local kids’ clubs in Sioux Falls to read to children, play games with them, and facilitate educational programs for their benefit.
“I put myself into roles that have helped me grow,” said Hora. “At Augie, I was president of the student-athlete advisory committee, and that helped me understand that in order to be a leader you need to keep growing. At Habitat for Humanity, I worked alongside many different types of people, and we all learned to work together, cooperatively. I developed a better appreciation for what this world is really like, and how appreciating everyone for who they are is invaluable and proper. I believe our relationships with other people define who we are.”
One of Hora’s teammates at Augustana was C.J. Ham, now an all-pro performer for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. “What I admired most about Kirby,” said Ham, “was his determination to be at his best in all aspects of his life. He was a great football player and he poured his heart out on the field, but even more impressive was how he did the same thing in the classroom. His drive to succeed and help others will take him far in life.”
“It has been a tremendous honor to be a part of the amazing career of Kirby Hora,” Augustana head football coach Jerry Olszewski said. “Kirby is one of the most incredible young men that I have ever been blessed to share growth experiences with.”
Not long into his newest career as a medical student in USD’s Sanford School of Medicine, Hora learned that he was the recipient of one of 10 student athlete awards presented annually by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Hora had previously been named a Google Cloud Academic All-American, a national Football Foundation Hampshire Honor Society member and the 2019 Dr. William Britton Scholar-Athlete Award winner, which honors the Northern Sun Conference’s (NSIC) top male student-athlete of each school year. This award measured the academic standing of all male athletes competing in eight different sports at the 16 different colleges and universities comprising the NSIC.
The NCAA award was nationally notable. Hora traveled to Los Angeles in January 2020 to accept the award at a massive gathering and banquet brimming with high-profile figures. He was accompanied by Augustana President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the university’s football coach, Jerry Olszewski and Hora’s academic advisor at Augustana, Dr. Marcia Entwistle. Before the event, Hora acknowledged the importance of athletics in his life. “Being an athlete,” he said, “allowed me to be a better student because athletics brought a sense of accountability to me.”
Hora was called to the stage to accept the award, and during his short speech he spoke about the value of athletics and the overarching importance of learning and academics. He thanked those who’d helped him on his journey. “When I returned to the table where the Augustana group was seated,” he recalled, “My coach embraced me and I noticed he had tears in his eyes. So did Dr. Entwistle. That’s when it struck me that this was a really big deal, and not just for me. That’s also when I realized how important it’s been to have generous and sincere people looking out for me and supporting me. I’ve been lucky that way.”
“This award embodied the entirety of Kirby’s achievements,” said Jerry Olszewski. “Though his ability allowed him to be a four-year starter, a multi-year captain and an all-conference, all-region and all-American athlete, it is his leadership that was even more impressive.”
Hora enjoys comparing medical school to competitive collegiate athletics. “Sports can be transformative,” he explained. “For example, in football you must learn how to fit onto a team, and you must earn how to unite with a large group of people. That’s what medicine is; it’s interacting with other health care professionals and fitting in. In both, you need an awareness of your own – skills and limitations, and you need to know how to work with and rely on others. Being a physician and serving health care is a team sport.”
“I have sought out experiences during my life, like football and community service, and those experiences have taken me on a path,” described Hora. “Although I’m a planner and try to anticipate what lies ahead, I also appreciate confronting the unexpected. To do so successfully you need to develop a healthy sense of introspection and discover your inner compass. I’m so much more than a former football player. I’m a student, eager for learning and other preparations. I’m an aspiring physician.”
Hora’s only sibling, the little boy who nearly died on the living room floor, is now a student at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls. “He’s not interested in sports,” said Hora. “But that’s okay. Cody is passionate about other things, like theatre. And he’s super smart, much smarter than me. I admire him, and I still think about that day when I ran away and then returned. That event shaped me and propelled me. It was a big part of my life’s path, and my brother will always be a big part of my journey.”