ORONO, Maine — Hockey-crazed Montreal isn’t home to many American college football players who were born in Africa.
University of Maine redshirt freshman inside linebacker Christophe Mulumba may be the exception.
He was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his family moved to Belgium when he was 6 months old and then to Montreal when he was 5.
Like many Canadian youngsters, he dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League, but when his hockey career stalled, his friends encouraged him to try football.
“I fell in love with the sport,” said Mulumba, who was 16 when he donned his first set of football pads.
Now, four years later, he is leading the Colonial Athletic Association champion Black Bears in tackles with 98. That’s good for sixth in the CAA. He has two of the team’s 14 interceptions and also has a fumble recovery.
He is on the list for the Jerry Rice Award given to the top freshman in the Football Championship Subdivision and has been chosen Rookie of the Week four times.
“He has been a great addition to the program and he’s still learning the game,” said Maine coach Jack Cosgrove. “He’s a hard worker and that really helps. He studies film. He wants to get better.
“And he loves playing the game.”
Maine defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Ferraro said Mulumba has “good instincts.
“Last year, during preseason, he did things I’d never seen a true freshman do at that position,” said Ferraro. “He does a better job every week reading keys and reading things that make you better at that position. And he’s what you’d call a gym rat. He’s around here all the time studying film, which is great. He does a great job using his hands to fight off blocks in the running game and he has really picked things up in the passing game.”
Mulumba, 20, got hurt during preseason last year and underwent knee surgery, which forced him to redshirt.
“At first it was really hard watching people practicing and playing from the sidelines. But then I realized that it was the best thing for me. I focused on my rehab and learned a lot from watching,” said Mulumba.
His passion for the sport stems from hockey.
“I love contact sports. Football is kind of the same thing as hockey. And the team concept is a big thing in football,” said Mulumba. “You have a lot of friends, they’re like brothers. That is another reason I love this game.”
Mulumba played high school football at Cure-Antoine-Labelle in Montreal before longtime Kent School (Conn.) head coach Todd Marble learned about him from a friend on Cure-Antoine-Labelle’s coaching staff.
Mulumba spent two valuable learning years playing for the Kent School.
“He could play any position,” said Marble. “He had a great work ethic and all the football instincts you would want. He was a leader. I told the Maine coaching staff that he would be a future captain. He loves life and he loves the game. He always looks like he’s having fun out there.”
He chose Maine over schools like Bucknell and Colgate because Maine was the only school that offered him a full scholarship. Bucknell and Colgate are in the Patriot League, which didn’t allow athletic scholarships in football at the time.
“He was under-recruited; inexperienced at the game and a raw-talent type-of-guy that is so much a part of our roster,” Cosgrove said.
Mulumba is surprised by his success but said “at the same time, I’ve worked hard for this.
“It’s nice to get a chance to play as a freshman and to have the coaches trust in me,” he said. “Even when I was hurt, I wasn’t worried about anything because I knew I would be coming back stronger. I put my trust in God.”
Mulumba gives a lot of credit for his development to senior linebacker Troy Eastman.
“Every time I’ve had a question, Troy is always there for me. He answers my questions and guides me,” said the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Mulumba.
He feels it is important to “watch a lot of film” to understand the opponents’ tendencies. He relays the defensive schemes from the sidelines to his teammates.
“You need to know the situation, the down-and-distance and everything,” said Mulumba, who owns the league’s season-high in tackles in a game with his 19 against Albany two weekends ago.
He said his older brother, Anaclet, has played a major influence in his life because his brother played basketball at Fairleigh Dickinson (N.J.).
Playing in his first game at Maine after sitting out a year is one of his highlights but he said the biggest one was last Saturday’s title-clinching 41-0 win over Rhode Island.
Maine was picked eighth in the CAA preseason coaches’ poll.
“That was like a slap in the face. But we worked hard and we have good leadership. That’s why we’ve played so well,” said Mulumba, who added that he feels more comfortable every week and is focusing on winning the Brice-Cowell Musket Saturday given to the victor in the annual Maine-New Hampshire game.