BOULDER – It had been six years since Stephane Nembot had seen his family and his home country. Six years is a long time and can bring extraordinary change. Nembot saw it in his family and his family saw it in him.
But above all, there was great joy, all-encompassing joy, in his return to Douala, Cameroon in central Africa.
With an assist from his coaches at the University of Colorado, Nembot went back in mid-May. The trip was not easy. A travel snafu in Amsterdam forced him to reroute through Istanbul, delaying his arrival in Douala by nearly four hours and downsizing a large crowd that had gathered to welcome him home.
Nonetheless, about 70 relatives and friends remained. But had it not been for his massive size, he might have gone unrecognized. He had changed that much. His little sister walked by him, looking right, left and finally directly at him, then came back and told their mother, “It’s not him.”
But mothers know. Esther Nembot called his name, he answered, and she began saying, “That’s my son, that’s my son!”
Given another longer look by his little sister, Nembot’s bulk differentiated him from everyone else. “And she jumped on me,” he recalled with a broad grin.
Jumping on Nembot takes courage. He’s 6-7 and at the time of his return to Africa weighed 315 pounds. He’s a good fit to play right tackle in CU’s offensive line, but among his family and friends he stands out like a redwood on the Pearl Street mall.
“Most people didn’t (recognize him),” he said. “Because let’s face it, when I left I was not this tall – maybe 6-3, 6-4 at most. And I wasn’t this big. I was really skinny. Growing up I’d never seen anybody my size. It’s not impossible, maybe one of a thousand (in Cameroon) would have a chance. But no way with the living conditions, where you have to carry wood from one side of the mountain to the other. And with the climate, too; it’s tropical so you’re always sweating.”
But his new, expansive size might not have been the most noticeable change. Six years in America had taught him a new language – he spoke French, Spanish and nine African dialects but no English – and a new lifestyle.
Nembot’s across-the-globe trip home began taking shape over a year ago after one of his initial conversations with Gary Bernardi, CU’s offensive line coach. Bernardi asked Nembot how long it had been since he had been home. Five years.
“That’s just not right,” said Bernardi, who went to coach Mike MacIntyre and told him they needed to do something to make Nembot’s trip home happen.
They did, wading through the proper school compliance and NCAA channels to fund the nearly $3,000 fare. Nembot feels a tremendous sense of gratitude to his coaches.
“I’m very thankful for their help,” he said. “I appreciate it. Six years is a long time to be away from your family. I’m very thankful for that.”
WHEN NEMBOT LEFT CAMEROON and began the Maine-to-California odyssey that would eventually land him in Boulder, his father was doing what comes second nature to most of his countrymen – running. When Nembot returned, he found his father had been crippled in an automobile accident.
Richard Nembot’s right leg had been badly broken. At the time, his mother told him “it wasn’t that bad,” Stephane said. But it was.
“I guess maybe because I’m here and they probably tried to spare me,” he said. “If I had known the truth I probably would have wanted to go back home. My dad, when he talked to me, no matter how painful things were he would not tell me the entire thing. He would put some gaps in between; maybe I can find out later. That was the biggest difference – my family.”
Still, Nembot is grateful. “God has protected my family, keeping them alive,” he said.
Nembot’s family puts others first, a practice that astonished him when he was younger. It made an impression that has helped him set a long-term goal when he returns.
“With the help of God, I hope it’s no longer six years without seeing my family. That’s too much; I couldn’t do that,” he said. “My goal ever since I was a little kid was to build an orphanage in the name of God because my family – my mom and dad – is Christian. Every year I would see my mom in the months after Christmas had passed, we would cook a lot of food to go to a town where there are a lot of poor people.
“We would go there and give it to homeless people, mostly little kids because either they didn’t have a good Christmas because there was no one there to give them gifts. They don’t have a mother or father. Seeing my mom doing those things when we were already broke, I thought why is she doing this? We don’t have this kind of money.
“My mom was putting herself in debt just to do those things. One thing that I learned is that you don’t have to be rich to help other people. When I saw that it affected me a lot. I want to keep doing what my parents have been doing since I was little.”
In addition to the orphanage, Nembot wants to have a school built next to it. He has spoken with MacIntyre about starting a foundation to fund the project.
“It’s not something I can do by myself,” Nembot said. “I don’t have that kind of resources. Americans are very good at helping other people; they like giving and I like that about American society. So I hope by opening a foundation people could contribute.
“The money would go directly to the people – no interceptions before it reaches the people. It would go directly to the kids and help them. I learned that in studying international affairs the best aid is given directly instead of having to pass through a lot of other people. That’s my goal.”
A shorter-range goal begins next month on the CU practice fields. Nembot hopes to be a factor in the Buffs’ ascent in the Pac-12 Conference, where their three-year membership has produced four wins (4-23). CU hasn’t had a winning season since 2005 (7-6 overall, 5-3 Big 12) and last appeared in the postseason in 2007 (Independence Bowl).
Recruited by CU as a defensive end, Nembot switched to offense before the 2011 season-opener and redshirted that season to learn his new position. The learning curve is shrinking; after spring practice Nembot was presented the Joe Romig Award, signifying CU’s most improved offensive lineman.
STILL, SAID BERNARDI, NEMBOT is far from a finished product: “He did a good job in the spring and really got better. As he understands football he gets better . . . that helps him out an awful lot. He had never started any football games until last season (12 starts).
“He’s extremely smart in the classroom and knowledgeable in the world’s affairs and religiously, but in terms of football he was very raw, really raw. Now, he understands it better and understands how to watch film better, he understands what you’re talking about. And I think he’s done a good job in the offseason.”
Bernardi said Nembot’s footwork has improved, “But he gets those long legs tied up sometimes in some awkward and difficult situations. But this is the second time through for him now, so it’s easier.”
What remains difficult for Nembot is maintaining the weight required to play in a Division I O-line. While visiting Cameroon and its tropical climate, Nembot did as the locals do; he ran on the mountainsides with relatives and friends. The sweat flowed. And the water he drank freely as a youngster didn’t agree with him upon his return.
“You went to the source for your drinking water, to where the river water came out of the rocks,” he said. “I used to drink it without a problem. Now my stomach bothered me. My mother said my immune system had changed, so I have to now drink water from the store.”
The 95-degree heat, humidity and possibly some hydration issues cost Nembot 15 pounds during his stay. “I sweated the entire time I was there,” he said. “But people were saying it was cold. They asked me, ‘What happened to you? Right now is like the best time here.’ The heat is not here yet. What are you going to do when you reach August? I said, ‘I’m not going to be here in August.’”
The weight loss didn’t stop in Douala. After his return to Boulder, he got sick and lost another 15 pounds, dropping him to 285. “I’m still trying to recover that weight,” he said. “It took me like four years to get to that point (315).”
When August camp opens, Nembot hopes to weight at least 295 – about five pounds more than his current weight. While in Cameroon, he had to forego a weight lifting regimen, which he says he needs to reach a target weight and maintain it. “There are no gyms; you just run, mostly cross country,” he said. “It is rare to see people sprint. They run long distance and play soccer. From every angle you look there is a soccer stadium.”
Until his return home, Nembot didn’t think he had acclimated as well as he had to life in the U.S. When he lived in Cameroon, most of his friends called him Stephane or “Nestde,” a nickname derived from combining the first two letters of his full name.
But in mid-May his friends took a look at his size, how he carried himself and his mannerisms and “called me ‘The American,’” he remembered. “I said, ‘Whoa, have I gotten that far?’ (Friends, family) said you look just like them now. You’re big because you live in America. But you never forget where you’re from. I live here but I know in my blood I’m from Cameroon.”