Kouandjio's long road to Alabama
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Cyrus Kouandjio hunched over in his seat, an enormous, well-built man struggling to connect the dots of his past. Where does my strength come from? he asked, his wide smile vanishing behind the dust of old memories as he sorted through his family's struggle to survive.
Unlike most 6-foot-6, 310-pound offensive linemen, Kouandjio is not burdened by a heavy gut. His feet are nimble -- something he developed kicking around a soccer ball as a child. But the most impressive thing about him is his raw power. This season he's unveiled a new move -- "The Slap," as it has been called -- where he simply takes his right hand and whacks rushing defenders to the ground as if they were wobbly tackling dummies.
A junior left tackle at the University of Alabama, Kouandjio is still a baby to the game. He seems mostly unaware of his sizable presence, even as his grip overpowers yours in a polite handshake.
But there's a drive inside him that goes beyond just the will to compete at the game he loves.
"I went through a lot," he said. "I don't know what got into my head to push as hard as I did."
His family moved from Cameroon to the Maryland area when he was only 4 years old, and that in itself made him a target for bullying. Kids are naturally mean, he explained.
He remembers sitting in the school cafeteria, hungry and without anything to eat. Most students at DeMatha Catholic, northeast of Washington, D.C., were from well-off families, but he was there on financial aid, his father scraping together just enough money each month to keep him and his brother enrolled.
To get home, he'd take old bus passes and copy and paste them together to make them look official. The bus drivers knew, he said, but they let him on anyway.
"One time I had no way of getting home," he said, "so I started walking with all my football stuff on."
How did I do all that at such a young age, he asked, struggling to find where the motivation came from.
"It's like a mentality," he said, responding aloud to his own question. "I don't know why, though."
But then it hits him, and he's found his answer.
"It was innate. My dad has even crazier stories."
Jean-Claude Kouandjio was only a child when civil war broke out near his village in Africa, Cyrus said, careful to point out that he'd never told anyone his dad's story. "What they'd do is they'd come shoot it up -- everything, all the houses -- they'd shoot it all up. So [my father] ran into the woods and hid there for years in forests and stuff like that.
"He had his 2-year-old sister on his back hiding for years, surviving, just the two of them."
Wandering, they followed others who had abandoned the same village, but the larger group kept Jean-Claude and his sister at a distance, fearful that the baby's cries might alert the enemy, Cyrus said.
Somehow, some way, they survived. About four decades later, Jean-Claude, whose father was once the king of his village, would spend the last of his money enrolling his children in private school to learn English. He would leave behind a good job with the police to go to America, where he could give his children an opportunity for a better education and a brighter future.
Every day was a struggle in the United States, whether it was paying the mortgage, food or tuition. He would tell Cyrus that every night, he'd go to sleep not knowing what he'd do the following day.
"I don't know what my dad does. I don't know what his occupation is," Cyrus said. "He does construction here and there. He's about 60 years old and has the body of a 25-year-old through all the hard work he's done. He's just been struggling and fighting his whole life.
"He has a life of struggles. He was forged in pain and suffering. That's his mentality."
And that's the mentality he passed to his three sons, Cyrus the youngest, behind Arie and Michael.
"That's why it could be innate," Cyrus said. "What me and my brother went though was a mentality that, this is who you are and you've always been a fighter, and it's almost in your blood."
It's important to understand that their makeup is different, Bill McGregor said, laughing at the understatement. In 40 years of coaching football at DeMatha, the Kouandjios were one of the most unusual cases he'd ever dealt with.
"Their whole world background is almost like Third World," said McGregor, now an assistant coach at a school in Baltimore, "and that's why I loved them."
Arie Kouandjio came to McGregor first. He was a good offensive lineman, good enough to earn a scholarship at Alabama, but his younger brother, Cyrus, was even more impressive.
"It was like, 'Oh my gosh!' " McGregor said. "Arie was big, but Cyrus was big-ger. How can you have a younger brother bigger than you are? And then you watch Cyrus move as an athlete and you say, 'Holy mackerel! I've never seen anybody with that kind of athleticism with that kind of size.' "
But the game was foreign to thes Kouandjios. Jean-Claude taught his boys fútbol, not football. McGregor wanted Cyrus to lift defenders into the air, drive them 10 yards downfield and bury them in a cloud of dust. Cyrus wore jeans to his first practice. Putting on a helmet and shoulder pads was completely new.
McGregor once asked Cyrus who his favorite college lineman was; Cyrus didn't have one. McGregor then asked him for his favorite professional lineman, and Cyrus didn't have one of those, either.
"I thought, 'Joke's over, you're messing around with me,' " McGregor said. "He said, 'Coach, I really don't know football, but I can tell you my five favorite soccer players,' and he rattled off five soccer players like bang-bang-bang."
McGregor was unaware of the financial hardships Arie and Cyrus faced. Instead, he saw a unique set of challenges.
"They have different customs," McGregor said of the Kouandjios. "Like paying their electricity bill -- my wife gave them a ride home one night and Brenda came to me and said, 'Bill, I don't think they pay their electricity. There's never a light on.' They did, but they'd live in darkness like that. In their backyard they'd have roosters and they'd fly pigeons."
"Literally their whole background is different from how you or I was raised. I can't imagine having roosters in my backyard, can you?"
Cyrus wanted to be different. He nearly wound up at Auburn because of it.
When Arie went to DeMatha after one year at a public high school, Cyrus swore he'd never follow. When Arie chose to play offensive tackle, Cyrus wanted to play defensive end. And when Arie decided to go to Alabama, Cyrus wanted to go to rival Auburn. But the bond between brothers wouldn't allow for such differences.
"He'd chip his front tooth, I made fun of him and two weeks later … I'd chip the same tooth," Cyrus said.
Cyrus fought it for years, but destiny had a way of intervening.
When Cyrus, then the No. 3 overall prospect in the country, announced on national signing day that he would attend Auburn, everyone was floored. With Arie at Alabama, the Tide seemed like the obvious pick. And not five minutes after telling the country of his decision, Cyrus understood why.
While McGregor watched the seniors announce their college commitments, Cyrus came up and whispered, "Coach, we have to talk. I'm not sure I want to go to Auburn." After a few days, there was a family meeting. They all decided he'd stay by his word and go to Auburn.
"I went to bed and as I was resting to go to sleep -- and I don't tell anybody this story -- I had a sign and it basically said that something is going on and you need to go to Alabama," Cyrus said.
"That decision benefited me tenfold. I can say I've never played a down of football where we didn't end up in the championship game. I have two national championships and I just found out I'm a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy."
Together, Cyrus and Arie make up one side of the Crimson Tide's offensive line, Cyrus at left tackle and Arie at left guard. The bond between the two is unmistakable.
"We both got hurt at the same time," Cyrus said, referring to the two weeks that separated his and Arie's knee surgeries in 2011, "we both got through rehab at the same time and two years later we're both starting for the No. 1 team in America at the same time."
When Cyrus arrived at Alabama in 2010, he knew he was different.
"I came to college and one thing I realized was that guys here needed to get hardened a little bit because of the trials that come your way," Cyrus said. "It really affected them a lot more than it affected me and my brother. We already knew how to do what we had to do."
Their mentality, the innate drive Cyrus said runs through his and Arie's blood, would separate them and make them stronger. After games, the two brothers meet, drop to one knee, lock hands and pray, the intensity of their bond played out at midfield for everyone to see.
"Everything I put my heart into," Cyrus said. "It's like a magnifying glass, I focus so much on it that it has to burn. If it doesn't burn, I just go crazy."
Center Ryan Kelly said Cyrus definitely brings energy to the game.
"He's intense," Kelly said said. "But it's just part of how he gets everybody going. When he's up-tempo like that, it gives us momentum in the game."
"He has a lot of good football in front of him," coach Nick Saban said of Cyrus. "He's much more mature as a football player, let's say, even than a year ago. I do think he has a really bright future and a lot of upside and he's going to continue to improve because of the ability he has."
A surefire first-round pick in next year's NFL draft, Cyrus has at most three games remaining at Alabama: Saturday's Iron Bowl against Auburn; the SEC championship game in Atlanta; and, if all goes according to plan, a trip to the BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.
A third national ring would mean a lot to Cyrus Kouandjio, but the paycheck that awaits him in the NFL is something he can't imagine. After all he and his family have been through, the promise of a future free of financial concerns is almost too much to fathom. The ability to help his father out "means more than gold," he said.
"It means more than any riches, I swear. I've been through so much that to be able to ease the burden, it's going to be sweet to my soul."
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