ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Many NFL players play the game not for only themselves, but to build a better life for their family.
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Andy Mulumba is also playing for a country, in more ways than one.
Mulumba is the first NFL player born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in nearly a century, pursuing a dream made possible by his family, and hopes his success makes life better for people half a world away.
The 6-3, 260-pound defender spent his first three seasons in the league with Green Bay. He had a strong rookie campaign, playing in 14 games and tallying 30 tackles and one sack.
Mulumba suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his during week two of the 2014 season. He returned in 2015 and played in six games, mostly on special teams.
The Chiefs signed Mulumba as a free agent in April. During training camp, he has worked at outside linebacker on the second team behind Dee Ford. Knee injuries to Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are proving an opening for Muluma, who has a long history of making the most of opportunities that come his way.
Mulumba was born Jan. 31, 1990 in Luputa, Congo. His father worked for the United Nations, as did his mother on occasion. When Mulumba was eight years old, civil war broke out in Congo. The Second Congo War, and its aftermath, is believed to have taken the lives of more than 5 million people.
Despite the war, Mulumba said his life was not bad. His family was well educated, but the environment in Congo continued to deteriorate.
In 2002 his father was studying in the United States, and worried about his family remaining in Congo. He arranged for 12-year-old Mulumba and the rest of his family to immigrate to Canada, settling in Montreal.
“We were fleeing the civil war in Congo, and then we were seeking a better education for the whole family, which we did,” Mulumba said. “It just created a lot of opportunities for all of us and I’m glad I can be here and pursue my dream.”
Although Mulumba grew up playing soccer in Congo, his friends in Montreal encouraged him to begin playing football in high school. His team won the Canadian national championship and Mulumba was named the defensive most valuable player.
Former Eastern Michigan head coach and current San Jose State offensive coordinator Ron English recruited Mulumba and offered him a scholarship.
“He was always a big, athletic guy, and always a very bright guy,” English said.
The native French speaker knew little English when he arrived on campus.
“It went well, it took me about two years to learn but it’s still a learning process for me,” Mulumba said. “I’m not perfect, it’s hard for some of they guys to understand what I said but I try me best. I try my best and I got a lot of room for improvement, but it was a hard challenge, but if you want to accomplish something, you put effort into it, you can do it.”
English said Mulumba was very raw as a college player but he developed quickly. His speed allowed him to play in coverage and he had the physical strength to rush the passer. He also had the measurables to give the NFL a try.
“Andy is a guy who physically fits the mold,” English said. “I think he belongs there and I think he can physically do it.”
Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Packers, Mulumba continued to pick up the game. He studied closely under Pro Bowler Julius Peppers. He also met Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Before Mulumba arrived in Green Bay, Rodgers had been introduced to the struggles in Congo by a friend, actress Emmanuelle Chriqui. She sparked a passion for Rodgers in Raise Hope for Congo, a non-profit campaign by the Enough Project dedicated to advocacy for human rights and an end to violence in Congo.
The armistice ending the war that drove Mulumba and his family out of the country did not end the violence there. Congo is home some of the richest mineral reserves on the planet, including the world’s largest reserves of coltan, which is used in making capacitors for electronic devices. There are are also significant quantities of gold and cobalt. Warring factions both inside and outside of Congo fight for these resources and uses proceeds of smuggling to fund more fighting.
“It is an issue that affects the world that we live in,” Rodgers said. “Getting to know Andy so well and becoming fast friends with him was definitely part of the impetus behind that because I could see that there was a need there and there was an opportunity to do something to impact people that you would probably never even meet in this world, and do it here in the states by limiting the buying of conflict minerals from that area in products that we use every single day.”
Rodgers got to know Mulumba well both on and off the field.
“Andy is one of my all-time favorite teammates,” Rodgers said. “He is a great guy, a great human being, a really hard worker, cares about it a lot, tough, strong and athletic. Unfortunately he had an ACL injury with us and that slowed him down a little bit. He is one of the most positive people you could ever be around.”
Mulumba recovered from his knee injury but found few chances on the field in 2015. He played sparingly, seeing action in just six games and picking one tackle and an assisted tackle.
The Packers helped Mulumba develop his ability to defend the pass, improving his field vision, route- recogniztion and coverage of receivers. Mulumba is working on improving his pass rush, which the Chiefs value from outside linebackers.
“I’ve still got a lot of room to grow,” Mulumba said. “I’m not where I need to be just yet. Out here you have great type of players in Tamba, Justin Houston, just trying to learn from them and trying to improve on my pass rush.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is impressed with that he’s seen so far from Mulumba.
“I think Andy’s done a really good job,” he said. “He’s an all-out player that busts his tail. He snaps off to the ball when it’s a throw and a run. You know we’ve been happy with what he’s brought. He’s a big strong guy and I just think he’s going to keep getting better and better.”
Mulumba has also found a friendly face with the Chiefs in Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. The right guard also grew up in Montreal and is glad to have a fellow French-Canadian on board.
“It’s good to finally have somebody to speak French with in the dorms and in the locker room,” he joked. “It’s funny because everybody’s looking at us like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ because nobody really recognized French at first.”
Rodgers is rooting for his former teammate.
“I am glad he is getting an opportunity in Kansas City because he is one of the great guys and teammates in the league,” Rodgers said.
While Mulumba pursues his dream of playing in the NFL, he continues to keep Congo on his mind. He’s grateful for all the opportunities he has had, so many of which stem back to his father bringing his family to a new home 14 years ago.
“He put everything together to try and bring us all together,” Mulumba said. “That was a big thing he did for us. We had a good life, we’re just to make a better life for us and for the family we have left back in Congo. That’s our way of giving back to our cousins and our people back in Congo.”