BOULDER, Colo. (AP) The colossal Cameroonian right tackle for the Colorado Buffaloes is a raw talent with a big heart.
Stephane Nembot left his family and came to America as a teenager to play high school basketball, only to switch to football because he kept making people bleed whenever he pulled down a rebound.
Really, though, the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Nembot is a peaceful pass protector. He serves meals at a food shelter, collects used shoes for a charity to ship to Africa and someday wants to open an orphanage.
The 23-year-old junior also sends some of his stipend to his parents in Cameroon to help pay for his little sister’s schooling.
It’s the least he can do. After all, his mom and dad helped launch his career nearly seven years ago.
”My parents, they sold their house and everything they possess for me to come here,” said Nembot, whose team opens the season against Colorado State on Friday in Denver.
Each Sunday, Nembot checks in with his family. Just little updates on how his brother and sister are doing and how he’s getting along (he’s not a fan of American food, but does like pasta). He’s hoping that someday, before he graduates, they might even attend a game at Folsom Field.
He misses home. He misses them.
In May, Nembot went back to Cameroon for the first time since he was 16.
His sister didn’t even recognize him at the airport.
Nembot grew five inches and gained nearly 100 pounds since the native of in Douala, Cameroon, last set foot in the country.
”It was just fun to see my sister run around to look for me,” said Nembot. ”My mom used to complain how skinny I was, used to take me to the hospital to see if anything was wrong. I’m not (skinny) anymore.”
Nembot was discovered while attending a basketball camp in Cameroon. His parents scraped together enough money for a plane ticket and he was sent to prep schools in Maine (didn’t like it) and Illinois (too cold), before eventually landing at Montclair Prep School in Van Nuys, California.
It was there that he ran into Reggie Smith Jr., a football coach at the school back then. One glance at Nembot’s bruising strength on the court convinced Smith that football was more of his calling.
He invited Nembot to give the sport a try.
At first, Nembot took his lumps, once even getting flattened by a fullback almost half his size. But Nembot asked for another chance.
”The next play Stephane hit the fullback so hard the kid’s helmet swung around,” said Smith, the son of former major league All-Star Reggie Smith. ”That’s when we all said, `Yeah, he’s going to be all right at this.”’
The easygoing Nembot blossomed into a tenacious defensive lineman by his senior year of high school. He had 61 tackles and 11 sacks, earning his way onto some national recruiting lists.
USC was interested. So was UCLA, which wasn’t too surprising since Nembot’s cousin is Luc Mbah a Moute, a former Bruins forward who was recently traded to Philadelphia in the deal that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland.
”My cousin would call me when I was in high school just to say, `Hey, good job,”’ Nembot said.
The Buffaloes lured Nembot to town through one simple gesture – they actually called his mom and dad. That made a big impression.
He was redshirted in 2011 as he made the transition from rushing passers to blocking them. He started seven games at right tackle in 2012 and then soared last season, leading the team in knockdown blocks (45).
Nembot’s still very much a work in progress. Most days, he stays after practice to hone his footwork with offensive line coach Gary Bernardi.
”You have to understand that he never put on a football uniform until he was 17,” Bernardi said. ”That helps me be patient. He’s so athletic.”
Each month, Nembot carefully plans out his budget, making sure he has enough to cover rent. For food, he loads up through the new NCAA rule allowing schools to provide unlimited nutrition to student-athletes.
Any extra money he sends home to his family.
”I’m not rich. I’m proud to be poor, because money is not the source of happiness,” said Nembot, an international affairs major who speaks three languages along with nearly a dozen African dialects. ”I’ve got health and that’s a blessing.”
The gentle giant is all about generosity and his aim one day isn’t so much the NFL as setting up a youth center in Africa.
”That’s just who he is,” Smith said. ”He wants to take care of people.