He came home from school one day and his mother told him there was a visitor upstairs, he should go and say hello. The “visitor” was his older brother. The two had not seen each other since the family was separated upon leaving Africa. That was 10 years earlier.
His brother was now a man.
“He’s here? Now?”
So Tim Biakabutuka, whose last name means “born again,” walked the steps of his Montreal home to yet another chapter in his rather storied life. He opened the door, looked at the stranger. They did not hug. They did not kiss. They shook hands.
“It was a little cold at first,” Biakabutuka recalls. “The only picture I had in my mind was a different person, from back in Zaire, when he was a kid. But we started talking and I kept looking at his face and after a while, um .
He pauses, looking for the words.
“. . . the heart began to remember.”
This is not your typical college football player. For one thing, his nickname is Tim, but his real name is Tshimanga. Also, he plays for one of the most famous football schools in America, but came off a team in Longueuil, Quebec. Also, the classes he must pass are taught in English, his fourth language — he began learning it at age 17 — after two African dialects and French.
Also, when he gets on the headphones during a game, the first thing the coaches say is, “We can’t understand you!”
“I talk pretty fast anyhow,” he says, laughing, the French accent coating his words like syrup, “so when I’m excited they yell, ‘Slow down! Slow down!’
It is hard to imagine anyone slowing down Tim Biakabutuka. If you stand in front of him, he will plow you over. If you come from behind, he will leave you grasping air. He is the leading rusher at a school that loves to rush, he is coming off a game in which he racked up 205 yards, and yet the beauty of his story lies not in distance gained, but in distance traveled.
And why. Distant memories
“Butterflies,” he says, when asked what he remembers about Zaire.
“I remember chasing butterflies in a field behind our house . . . and I remember seeing someone kill chickens, and watching them run without their heads. . . .
“And I remember my sisters. Older sisters. We left when I was 6. . . .
“I have not seen them since.”
The sisters are still there, in Zaire, a place of rain forests and mountains, a place of revolution and political corruption, a place not so easy to leave anymore. It is complicated and expensive, and Biakabutuka’s father, a teacher, doesn’t earn that kind of money. His family has 11 children — and all but the two sisters have made it to this continent. As these stories go, that is pretty good.
But not good enough. When Tim Biakabutuka finishes a football game, he walks out through the tunnel and watches his teammates hug their relatives. He looks the other way. He has nobody like that here. His family is still in Montreal, and to this day has not seen him play a game at Michigan. Too expensive. Too many children to watch.
“That’s OK,” Biakabutuka says. He has a plan. If he can play NFL football, if he can get one of those chunky contracts, he will pay for all of them to be reunited, the two sisters from Zaire, the other children, all of them. And maybe then, they will come watch him play.
“You haven’t seen your sisters in nearly 14 years,” someone says. “You still feel that close to them?”
“Of course,” he says.
The heart remembers. The dream
So this is a dream that fuels Biakabutuka, this is part of what shoots him through the line as if rocket-powered, and keeps him on his feet when defenders are yanking him down like a window shade. He knows what he wants. He pushed himself from the day he attended a Michigan camp for high schoolers. He forced himself to learn English. He earned a scholarship, suited up and began to absorb everything he could from Tyrone Wheatley, the star ahead of him. Now Biakabutuka tells the coaches, “Give me the ball, I will get what we need.”
He usually does. Which leads to the question: Will he stay for another year at Michigan? He is a junior, age 21, good- sized, 6-feet-1, 210 pounds, if the NFL sings its siren song at the end of this season — in which Biakabutuka, despite injuries, already has 690 yards in six games — will he be able to resist?
“If I want to, I can. My parents’ goal is to see me graduate. My mother doesn’t even worry about football. She doesn’t even understand it. . . .
“But there’s other things I have to consider . . . my family back home, bringing them all here, helping with money. Even if that makes my mother mad, I have to think about it.”
Saturday, he takes all that into the huddle. Not your typical football story, is it? Biakabutuka has adjusted well here, he gets by in classes, has a small group of friends, remains amused at the fuss people make over football players in America.
But there is something churning inside, from the fields of Zaire, to the apartment in Montreal, to the grass of Michigan Stadium; the missing siblings, the dream of a better life, the reason he has waded through three countries, four languages and a cluster of flags. It is a running story, and it makes him run. The heart remembers. And it drives you like a demon.