The first year was easily the most difficult for Andy Mulumba.
It wasn’t that the 6-foot-3, 260-pound native of Congo wasn’t accustomed to change. When he was 12 years old, his family transplanted more than 6,000 miles to Montreal, Canada, because of growing government turmoil, safety concerns and corruption.
But here, on the campus of Eastern Michigan University, the teenager was suddenly alone. He was the outsider in a new environment. Barely able to speak English, he stayed quiet with an accent and life story unlike any of the other 20,000 students enrolled at the school.
Mulumba didn’t know it at the time, but the uncertain steps he was taking were the first toward his aspiration of a professional football career.
“It was a hard transition for me, especially for me when I get settled into an environment,” said Mulumba, now 23 and trying to make the Green Bay Packers’ roster as an undrafted outside linebacker. “It takes time to make friends because I come from a different background and people don’t really know me. It’s hard for me with my accent, so when I’m trying to say something I'm kind of laid back and give them the time to understand what I said.”
The journey to EMU came mostly by happenstance. The school’s new defensive line coach, Casey Creehan, had previously served as the linebackers coach of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. When he was hired by the Eagles, the Vieux Montreal High School standout came along for the ride.
In Michigan, the security blanket was gone, but the opportunity for the youngster to have his college education paid for was too good to pass up.
It was the same as it was for his father, Martin, who came to the United States in the early 2000s to earn his Ph.D. at Auburn before getting a job with the United Nations food program and eventually moving the family to Canada.
Mulumba’s mother and three younger siblings were the first to come over to escape the war-torn state, still embattled at the time with the Second Congo War, the deadliest conflict in modern African history that resulted in the death of more than 5 million people.
Mulumba, who lived with an uncle for eight months before joining his family, said their situation wasn’t as dire as many others in the country of more than 73 million inhabitants, but it wasn’t a comfortable environment to raise a family, either.
Roads weren’t safe to travel on. A scarcity of food and abundance of disease left parts of the country ravaged. Mulumba remembers the details like it was yesterday, but prefers to keep most of those experiences to himself.
“I saw that a lot. Life is hard over there and you do your best to survive, I guess,” Mulumba said. “The president had some controversy going on with the government. They had other countries, like our neighbor countries, they were trying to take over Congo, so they came in. Really, the things that happened I really don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to think about it.”
Mulumba began playing football as a 10th-grader in Montreal at the insistence of friends, first lining up at receiver, then tight end and fullback before finally switching to linebacker.
That transition continued after he landed at Eastern Michigan. Creehan left after one year to return to the CFL and Mulumba was moved from linebacker to defensive line.
As time passed though, he grew more comfortable with his surroundings and teammates.
“When he came in, the first thing you think about him is his physical attributes,” said former Eastern Michigan quarterback Alex Gillett, a classmate of Mulumba who’s trying to make the Packers’ roster at receiver. “He’s a big guy, no body fat. He’s just a physical specimen, but then he was also really quiet and really laid back. You have to kind of go to him to get him to talk until he really gets to know you.”
Although he worked on the defensive line, Mulumba often stood up as one of the Eagles’ primary defenders against the read-option. It was his responsibility to sniff out the play, deciding whether the defense stayed home or rushed the passer.
Dropping into coverage was never an issue. In 48 games played with 31 starts, he finished with 143 tackles, 4½ sacks and four forced fumbles. Nearly half of those numbers came his senior year when he registered 73 tackles (seven for a loss) with two forced fumbles and a sack to earn second-team all-Mid-American Conference honors.
The Packers, fresh off getting burned by the read-option in a 45-31 loss to San Francisco in the NFC divisional playoffs last January, were immediately intrigued by Mulumba, whose body type seemed to be a perfect fit for Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense.
Over the past four years, the Packers have fashioned a number of undrafted gems into competent NFL outside linebackers, including Frank Zombo in 2010, Jamari Lattimore and Vic So’oto in 2011 and Dezman Moses this past season. Mulumba wants to be next. In practice, he's constantly taking mental notes on four-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews.
“I’m not one to make a bold prediction on what’s going to happen,” Eastern Michigan defensive line coach Ken Delgado told Press-Gazette Media in May. “But I’m very interested to see how it unfolds, because Andy has the potential to make an NFL roster, especially with what they’re asking (outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme) to do these days.”
More than a decade has passed since his move from Congo, but Mulumba hasn’t forgotten where he came from. The $5,000 signing bonus the Packers gave him in April equates to the average income for nearly 22 people in Congo, which averages the world’s worst per capita gross domestic product ($231 per individual) based on a CNN Money report in 2012.
The byproduct of his travels has resulted in him knowing four languages (English, French and Congolese dialects Lingala and Tshiluba). He still lives in Canada in the offseason and was selected in May’s CFL draft when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — whom Creehan now works for as a defensive coordinator — picked him second overall.
As great as it is to have that as a backup plan, Mulumba wants to prove that playing in the NFL isn’t far fetched.
Sitting inside his cubby in the Packers’ new auxiliary locker room with a pair of earbuds dangling into his iPhone, Mulumba is still quiet and waits until being spoken to, but his growth is tangible.
He’s already made friends among the Packers’ rookies, proving that while his background might be a little different, he’s still just another one of the guys.
“Andy is one of those — I call him a silent killer because he doesn’t say much but he just goes out there and performs,” said Packers rookie defensive lineman Gilbert Pena, Mulumba’s roommate at St. Norbert College.
“He just brings it every day. I catch him in the room early, getting in that playbook, going over his notes. Just doing it. When he gets out on the field, he knows his stuff and he can just perform and does what he has to do. He’s a good player. He has a crazy story. He’s been through a lot. He’s here now, so I’m proud of him.”
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