ATLANTA — One New England Patriots player grew up on the game of football 30 miles north of Mercedes-Benz stadium, where his team will play the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. Another player picked up the sport on the fly just a shade under 40 miles south of Atlanta.
The former is center David Andrews, who not only grew up on football but around an NFL team. His uncle, Dan Reeves, coached the Atlanta Falcons from 1997 to 2003. Andrews fondly recalls his time around players like former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and linebacker Keith Brooking, a Georgia Tech grad who would tease the future center about all of the University of Georgia garb he would wear around the Falcons facility.
Andrews, 26, is in his 20th year of organized football. He can’t recall a time when the sport wasn’t in his life.
But this isn’t a story about Andrews. He’s simply the perfect contrast to the latter player, defensive end Ufomba Kamalu, who was born in California but was raised by his grandmother in Nigeria because his parents wanted him to learn the culture and Igbo language.
Kamalu summed up his time in Nigeria by saying that culturally, it was vastly different. But “society-wise” it was more or less the same.
“I had a PS2,” Kamalu said.
He didn’t have football, however.
Kamalu moved back to California, where his father was a professor at Cal Poly, SLO, for middle school. When his father retired, the Kamalus moved to Georgia within easy driving distance of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where they could get a direct flight to and from Nigeria.
Kamalu came to Fayetteville, Ga. as a skinny 6-foot-5, 215-pound soccer player right before his freshman year of high school. When a Starr’s Mill High School counselor saw Kamalu, he immediately called head football coach Chad Phillips.
“You have to see this guy. He’s big.”
Phillips asked Kamalu if he had ever played football. Kamalu nodded. But there was not only a language gap — Kamalu spoke broken English in Nigeria — but a culture clash, as well. You know where this story is going.
Kamalu thought Phillips was talking about the other football.
“So, it was a whole new world for him,” Phillips said.
Kamalu played on junior varsity in his freshman year while he learned the sport.
At Kamalu’s size and with his athleticism, he could have played nearly any position. Phillips put him in the front seven, where he’s played ever since. He’s gradually put on 5 to 10 pounds a year to the point where he’s nearly 300 pounds, with hardly a trace of fat.
“We run a version of … a Wing-T triple-option offense,” Phillips said. “And it’s really complicated. It takes kids years to memorize all of the play rules and what people do. So, that really wasn’t a good option for him because of the limited English and the time it takes to learn, so defensively we thought we could teach him enough of our defense and enough techniques, tackling techniques to be able to help us. He was so big, he was going to create a lot of space and fill a lot of gaps.”
After a year on junior varsity, Kamalu joined the varsity team but had to continue to learn the intricacies of the sport.
“He really didn’t start making huge plays until he was a senior when he figured it out,” Phillips said. “It really took him that long. It took him three years to get the whole concept of his job, leverage, making plays in space and then growing into his body. He was still pretty awkward when he was younger.”
That’s when he started to get attention from bigtime college programs like Georgia, Auburn and Georgia Tech. Kamalu only became academically eligible in the spring, however, so he went off to Butler Community College in Kansas, where he played under head coach Troy Morrell.
“I really think that we got him because of the tradition we had at Butler of producing good football players, defensive linemen and the academic structure we had,” Morrell said. “It was a battle, though. He was recruited by a lot of people.”
You might not have heard of the Butler Grizzlies, but you know its products. Bruce Irvin, Demarcus Lawrence and Damarious Randall went on to the NFL. Tony Allen and Stephen Jackson reached the NBA. Heath Bell went on to become an MLB closer. Zac Taylor, the Rams’ quarterback coach and the next head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, played QB at Butler CC.
Kamalu redshirted one season at Butler CC before playing in 2012. He relished his time at the community college because he was able to get 1-on-1 time with coaches to learn the game.
“I can remember a lot of time him just sort of standing there trying to process in his mind what to do and then also, ‘OK, I’m supposed to do this.’ And then he goes,” Morrell said. “That redshirt year was good for him to develop.”
Morrell compared Kamalu to another former Butler Grizzly, Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Ryan Schraeder, who didn’t play football in high school.
“In a way, both of those guys were just like sort of like taking a piece of clay and forming it the way that you wanted to,” Morrell said. “Ufomba was a very coachable kid. Between that redshirt year and his sophomore year and really the second half of his sophomore year, he really became a dominant player.”
Kamalu didn’t form any bad habits in youth football. He was only coached at a high level. He wound up at the University Miami for three years, where he was named defensive MVP as a senior.
“I do remember him playing his best at the end of his career,” former Miami defensive coordinator Mark Donofrio said. “He was really steady that year. He was consistent. I thought he was the most consistent guy that we had on defense and continued to improve which capped off his career playing the best football that he played while he was with us.”
Despite tearing up his pre-draft testing, Kamalu went undrafted. He spent two years with the Houston Texans before they released him this September. He briefly spent time on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad before the Patriots added him midway through the season.
He was signed to the active roster in late December and recorded a tackle for loss in his first snap with the Patriots.
Morrell believes Kamalu is still an unfinished product.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s still making adjustments,” Morrell said. “Any time you take a guy and deal him from team to team and the coaching, the schematics, the adjustments they have to make to the environment that they’re in, for any player that’s a challenge. And in Ufomba’s case, I would say he’s still learning the game. So, I still think he’s got a ceiling to learn and improve.
“And it seems like once he gets that confidence, boy, he’s unstoppable.”
“He’s still getting better,” Phillips said. “To this day, he’s getting better.”
Even the Patriots believe Kamalu has untapped potential as they try to figure out whether to use him at defensive end, defensive tackle or outside linebacker, where he played with the Texans.
“There’s definitely an element of rawness in his athletic ability,” Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly said. “I don’t know all of the history and background in terms of where he’s been played and in his evolution, to be honest with you. I know there’s a bunch of different spots. And I would say we’ve used him in a number of different spots, as well, trying to evaluate what is his best skill set, where is he best used?
“I would say it’s very diverse. And I can understand why he has been used in a number of different ways because he does a lot of different things well. How it best sorts out in terms of what he’s best able to contribute in terms of role, I don’t know if we’ve defined yet, I don’t know if anybody’s defined yet, to be quite honest. But he’s a great kid, he works his tail off. He can learn, he’s got length, he’s got good quickness, he’s got good power and plays with some leverage. There’s a lot of things to like. There really are.”
The Patriots might not actually know until they’ve had a full offseason with him.
“I think it’s still in the ongoing process because most people started when they were 6, 7 (years old),” Kamalu said. “I started when I was in high school. I’m still pretty much playing catchup, yeah.”
Kamalu is preparing for his first Super Bowl a quick jaunt down the highway from where he learned how to play the other football.
Andrews can’t believe it.
“I couldn’t imagine it, but I think that’s something so cool about football is you hear the guys that didn’t play until their ninth grade year or you’ve got guys like me who have never done anything else,” Andrews said. “That’s just what makes it such a cool sport. I think a lot of guys get the bug and can’t ever let it go.”
Thumbnail photo via Doug Kyed/NESN