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Football helped Texans' Ufomba Kamalu acclimate to America as a teenager

HOUSTON -- The sentiment would coax a smile from Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien.

Ufomba Kamalu came to love football because of teamwork.

He started playing in high school at his father's suggestion. Kamalu was born in America but spent most of the first 13 years of his life in Aba, Nigeria, a city with a population of more than 2 million. He and his three siblings spent most of their childhood there, while his parents, Stella and Ngozi Kamalu, stayed in America.

He returned to America for high school. The culture was different. The language was different. Though Kamalu spoke English, the slang and idioms used by people in his new home in Fayetteville, Georgia, were hard to follow. And football was foreign to him.

But ultimately, football was part of what helped Kamalu feel comfortable in America. Now he's among the Texans' class of undrafted rookies hoping to carve a niche for himself on the roster.

Has what you've seen of the NFL so far been what you expected?

Kamalu: Honestly, yes. It’s exactly what I expected. I’m coming in learning the playbook. ... I expected the game to be faster. ... I expected not to have my hand held throughout the whole process. A lot of things will be new. The players will be good. Kind of what you would expect.

When did you start playing football?

Kamalu: I started playing my freshman year of high school. My dad really liked football. He thought it would open up a lot of doors for me in life. He came to the states for college. He met my mom here. They’ve been here since college.

What was behind your parents' decision to send you to Nigeria?

Kamalu: I was the second kid. They had my sister first and a year later they had me. They wanted their kids to learn the culture and know where they’re from. They had us live with my grandma in Nigeria for like 13 years. They would come visit four or five times a year from their jobs.

Is it common for Nigerian parents who live in the states to send their kids to grow up in Nigeria?

Kamalu: Yeah, any family that can afford to do that with their kids, they usually will do that. From my understanding it’s so we can learn the culture. My dad wanted to speak to me in our native tongue, Igbo.

What was growing up there like?

Kamalu: It was different but not so different. People were different. We didn’t really live in huts and stuff; we lived in a city. Just a different lifestyle.

Did people ask you if you lived in huts?

Kamalu: Some people used to, back in high school.

How was the lifestyle different?

Kamalu: You just learn to live without some stuff that you have here. The biggest thing may be electricity. Back in Nigeria, the lights might be out for a week, two weeks straight and they’ll come back for a couple days. We had candles, lanterns at times. Went to bed a lot earlier, woke up earlier.

What were your days like?

Kamalu: Woke up around 5:30, took a shower, had to be at school at 7:20, maybe earlier. We’d get done like at 5 p.m., I would say. ... Some days whenever the car was working, my auntie and uncle and grandmom would drive us to school. If it wasn’t working that day we would walk to school (45 minutes to an hour away).

Did you return to the U.S. for the opportunity to go to school here?

Kamalu: Exactly. My parents thought it was a good time to come to the states to live with them.

Was your size the reason your father suggested football?

Kamalu: No. I was really skinny my first year I played; I was a receiver. I was really skinny. He thought it was a good sport and if I ever got good at it, he thought it would open a lot of doors in the United States as opposed to soccer. ... He just thought it was better for me to spend my time practicing football than soccer.

Did you like it right away?

Kamalu: No. I didn’t want to do it. Soccer felt more familiar. I’d been doing it my whole life. I just kind of stopped playing soccer and playing football. I really started liking it my junior-year-slash-senior-year in high school. I realized football is a team sport. Everyone has to be on the same page every single play. You have this team and I was really good friends with my teammates. My teammates are probably the biggest reason I’m still playing football right now.

What was the most difficult transition in moving from Aba, Nigeria, to Fayetteville?

Kamalu: The English. We spoke English in Nigeria but it’s [different]. Depending on where you go in the states, everybody has their slang. In the South you hear "y'all." If you go up North you have a different accent. Lot of different slangs. It’s the same thing in Nigeria. Words people said, it didn’t make sense to me in a sentence. I knew what the words meant, but it didn’t make sense to me in a sentence.

Did football help you with the language barrier?

Kamalu: Yes it did because in football you have to communicate, and we spent a lot of time as a team. It helped my vocabulary.

When did you think you could be an NFL player?

Kamalu: My senior year of high school. We were really good and were beating teams we weren’t supposed to beat and we made it to the state championship. We kind of felt invincible that whatever we put our minds to we could do it. So surely I was going to go to the NFL eventually.

What is your mindset with the opportunity you have here?

Kamalu: I love it. It’s an opportunity. In life all you can ask for are opportunities.