Ufomba Kamalu was big and confused.
Early in his freshman year at Starr’s Mill High School in Fayetteville, Ga., he showed up for a football practice in shorts and soccer cleats. No shoulder pads.
Kamalu, now an undrafted rookie defensive end for the Texans, had size that made him an intriguing football prospect to Starr’s Mill coach Chad Phillips, who encouraged the boy to join his team. He stood about 6-5 and weighed around 215 pounds. He just didn’t realize the football Phillips was talking about wasn’t the same one people play in Africa.
Kamalu thought Phillips wanted him to play soccer.
“Because I’m from Nigeria,” Kamalu said as an explanation for the confusion.
A different lifestyle
Kamalu was born in San Luis Obispo, Calif., where his father was a mechanical engineering professor. But he spent most of his first 14 years living with his grandmother in Umuocham, a village in Aba, Nigeria.
He and his two siblings mostly lived apart from his parents during that time. He learned Igbo, a language of southern Nigeria. He learned the culture of his parents’ home country. He draws on the experience today as an NFL rookie.
He calls the move “the best decision my parents made raising us.”
Stella and her husband, Ngozi Kamalu, debated over how soon to send Ufomba and his sister, who is a year older than him, to Nigeria. Stella wanted to wait a few years. Ngozi pushed for them to do it a year after Ufomba was born. The younger his son was, the father knew, the easier it’d be for him to learn the language.
Later, Ufomba’s younger brother joined his other two siblings. The parents initially visited their children for a month out of each year, then for a few months at a time. Ufomba said he’d occasionally come back to America when he wasn’t in school.
The children all lived with Ngozi’s mother. But the number of people who raised the Kamalu children, Stella said, is too large to count. Relatives live close together in Nigerian villages, she said, and work in harmony.
“I think that it takes a whole village to raise a child,” Stella said, taking a common saying a bit more literally. “My husband and I here, I don’t think we would’ve been able to … teach them and incorporate all that we wanted them to be by ourselves.”
Ngozi said he wanted his children to understand simple tenets of the Nigerian culture: respect for parents, one’s place among ancestors and the importance of accomplishing what an elder asks.
Ufomba would fetch water from a nearby river. He learned not to complain about cold showers or a lack of electricity when generators failed to work – which happened about four times a month.
The parents believe their children’s quality of life was comparable to what it would be in the United States. But there were fewer distractions, Ngozi said, and that helps Ufomba today.
“If he is focused on what he’s doing, he will accomplish a lot of things,” the father said. “This is probably the key in (a) child’s development, where if he focuses himself, he can really accomplish anything.”
Making the transition
The parents brought their children back to America for high school so they could still assimilate to the United States before adulthood. They wanted them to feel comfortable in both worlds. Football helped Ufomba settle into America.
He struggled at first. When he knocked a teammate down in practice, he’d pick him up before the play was over. He didn’t know what “y’all,” a word he kept hearing in Georgia, meant.
Though Ufomba seemed lost on the field, Phillips said “he immediately had 75 friends.” He learned English, slang included. He learned how to play the defensive line, which fit his size – 6-6, 297 pounds today – and required less processing of English than a potentially audible-filled position on offense.
He said it took “a good two, three years to really start understanding and be part of the States.”
And though colleges began recruiting him as a junior based on his size alone, it wasn’t until Ufomba’s senior year that he blossomed as a football player.
During his senior year, Starr’s Mill played a televised game against its rival. Ufomba sacked the quarterback and came up dancing. It was the first time Phillips saw Ufomba excited. The coach said the moment “kicked the first domino.” Ufomba began showing more emotion after that.
When Starr’s Mill lost that season’s state championship game at the Georgia Dome, Phillips found Ufomba with tears rolling down his face.
“At some point during the season, he completely understood,” Phillips said. “He completely bought in.”
Ufomba struggled to qualify academically for an NCAA program out of high school. He played at Butler Community College before transferring to Miami.
In three seasons with the Hurricanes, he recorded 111/2 tackles for a loss, including 81/2 sacks. Against Georgia Tech last season, he forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.
He stands an outside chance of making the Texans’ roster, but his parents believe because of a decision they made more than two decades ago, Ufomba will capitalize on his time in Houston.
“Having grown up there, having been there that many years and being here, he will seize opportunities,” Stella said. “That also teaches him that he needs to work hard in life and that when he achieves, it is not just him, it is not just Ufomba.
“Ufomba has his family, his village looking after him in America. And when he succeeds, it is not just for him, it’s for his village.”