Colorado turns to Finnish judo champion Chris Mulumba in rebuilding effort

There was a new player on Diablo Valley College's practice field in the summer of 2015, but safety Kyle Trego didn't recognize him.

"This guy was 260-plus with a six-pack," he said. "He didn't speak much English, and I honestly didn't know what position he played."

The physical specimen was Chris Mulumba, a former wrestler and three-time Finnish national judo champion.

Mulumba's football skills were still raw. But after seasons with the Helsinki Roosters -- a founding member of the American Football Association of Finland -- and Chabot College, he was beginning to translate the strength and hand skills developed in judo to defensive line play.

"He was always flying around the field, making plays," Trego said.

In 2015, Mulumba led Diablo Valley with 63 tackles, nine tackles for loss and four sacks in 10 games, inflicting enough damage that Trego, after transferring to Colorado, recommended him to Buffaloes defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat. Colorado, enamored by the raw potential that emanated from Mulumba on film, offered him a ticket to Division I college football.

"It's crazy," Mulumba said. "I barely spoke English when I came here, and it's been a while since I've been home. Now I'm here."

It's just the latest interesting twist in the 24-year-old's journey. In 1991, Mulumba's parents immigrated to Finland a year before he was born to escape conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mulumba grew up fluent in both French and Finnish while he dominated in both wrestling and judo as a youngster.

Then came Finland's mandatory military service, which featured survival training in the woods of that Scandinavian country.

"Winter was tough," Mulumba said. "It gets down to minus-20 degrees [Celsius, or negative-four degrees Fahrenheit]. It's rough. You have these tents, and there's a fire inside. It warms you up just a little bit. It doesn't help much, but at least you sleep."

When a friend introduced Mulumba to American football through the Roosters, he quickly saw it as an extension of a sport in which he already excelled.

"Judo is one-on-one," Mulumba explained. "But football is basically 11 one-on-ones. So I have to win mine on every down."

Mulumba says his understanding of leverage and how to use other peoples' momentum against them has translated directly to football for him. Jeffcoat, who recorded over 100 sacks in 14 NFL seasons for the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills, has noticed the same.

"You see why he would fall in love with football -- it's an aggressive sport," Jeffcoat said. "What's most impressive is that he didn't start playing until he was 19 years old. He didn't have the opportunity to play in high school. So the transition he's made from 19 is pretty impressive."

Mulumba has added muscle since his junior college days. He now checks in at 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, measurements that the Colorado staff feels are ideal for an edge rusher. The Buffs have a bevy of talent to replace, starting with all three starting defensive linemen from 2016 and pass-rush specialist Jimmie Gilbert, who was among the Pac-12 leaders in sacks and tackles for loss.

"I started watching them all of last season," Mulumba said. "[Their turnaround] is a great story. And then, with all the seniors leaving, a couple of spots opened up on the defensive line. I wanted to be part of it. I want to see how we can keep it up next season and do better."

A big part of the Buffs' plan to replace Gilbert, Josh Tupou, Jordan Carrell and Samson Kafovalu up front lies not only in Mulumba but also in fellow junior college transfer Javier Edwards, a 350-pound prospect who will also be expected to play immediately.

"The first thing you see is how well he runs for a big guy," Jeffcoat said of Edwards. "He's extremely active. A lot of nose guards that big aren't that way."

Both Edwards and Mulumba will look to veteran defensive lineman Leo Jackson -- a former junior college transfer himself -- for leadership.

"Leo's been down the same path," Jeffcoat said. "He can teach our system to the younger players when coaches aren’t allowed on the field in the offseason."

That's all welcome guidance for Mulumba, who has been praised by coaches and teammates alike as a quick learner. He credits the wealth of experiences that his young life has gone through for that ability. So far, there’s been a chance to master three sports, three languages and military service.

Between his Congolese parents, Finnish upbringing and American schooling, Mulumba’s development has been heavily guided by influences from three continents.

A bevy of family members -- most of whom he’s never met -- live in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mulumba hopes to make his first trip to the motherland soon, but adapting to Division I football is first on the agenda.

“I’m still trying to figure out everything about myself,” Mulumba said. “But as a football player, I'm growing up a lot."