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November 16, 2010

Trinity's Masumbuko living American dream

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Neighbors killing one another. Explosions detonating. Houses burning. Bodies piling on the street.

This was the war-torn setting in Rwanda, the birthplace of Suleiman Masumbuko, one of the best defensive players on one of America's best high school football teams.

About 800,000 Rwandans died during the 1994 Civil War. More than a million others - including the Masumbukos - fled for their survival.

"When the bombs are falling and the guns are being fired," Saidi Masumbuko, Suleiman's oldest brother said, "you have to run for your life."

The Masumbukos escaped to refugee camps in Zaire and then Tanzania shortly after the conflict started. Suleiman was less than a year old. About three years later, they were placed in Texas by the United States government as U.N.-registered refugees.

"We are a blessed family right now," Saidi said, "to be where we are."

Suleiman Masumbuko, 17, has found a home at Euless (Texas) Trinity, the current No. 3 team in the RivalsHigh Top 100 rankings.

The 6-3, 280-pound senior and Baylor commit, anchors a defense that has give up just 109 points during an 11-0 start.

Trinity gets its biggest test of the season Saturday night, when it faces Allen (Texas) High in a second-round game of the Texas Class 5A, Division I playoffs at Cowboys Stadium.

For his Trinity teammates, it will be the second visit this season to Cowboys Stadium - a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime moment.

For Masumbuko, it will be just another moment in a life he and his family never dreamed they would have.

*****

Masumbuko didn't practice with his teammates this summer. But he had a good reason: He was visiting his parents in Africa.

Having accomplished their main goal of establishing a better life for their children, Hamisi and Zainabu Masumbuko moved to Uganda eight years ago with Swaibu, their youngest child. The other five children are scattered across the United States.

"They just wanted to go back to their birthplace where they belong," Suleiman said. "They feel comfortable with their children here. They're mature enough and ready to take care of themselves."

Suleiman lives with Saidi and Saidi's wife and two children. Saidi, 31, is his legal guardian.

Trinity head coach Steve Lineweaver enthusiastically approved Suleiman's trip. Missing workouts wasn't a worry.

"We didn't even blink because we trust Suleiman," he said. "We just said, 'That is awesome that you've got the opportunity to go see your mother and dad.'"

During his first visit to Africa in 15 years, Masumbuko enjoyed the beaches of Lake Victoria. But most significantly he reunited with his parents and saw his homeland.

"It was an incredible experience going back to my roots," he said. "I really have no words for it."

Hamisi and Zainabu Masumbuko did not return e-mails seeking comment, but Suleiman said his parents follow his accomplishments through articles and pictures sent by Saidi.

This summer, Suleiman said his father advised him to 'stay humble' and 'stay blessed' while representing the family in a positive way. In an effort to help, Hamisi took Suleiman to a Uganda boxing gym every day so that he could stay in shape.

But it was not the same as toting football pads under the Texas sun.

Suleiman, who left Texas as soon as school ended and returned the day before school started, could not totally replicate football conditioning.

"It looks like you've been eating African ice cream," Lineweaver joked upon Masumbuko's return.

Masumbuko said it took two to three games to knock off all the rust, but he played a major role versus Tyler (Texas) Lee in Week One.

Trinity - which regularly rotates eight to nine defensive linemen for its four starting positions - subbed for him a bit more than usual against Lee. But demonstrating his pure talent, Masumbuko excelled in extremely hot conditions despite practicing just three or four times prior to that Aug. 28 game.

"We didn't even know if he could play much at all because he hadn't been training with us," Lineweaver said before invoking some self-deprecation. "I'm not sure he didn't play better than he ever has right from the get-go, that first game. So it's kind of embarrassing. It makes you wonder how important our coaching is."

Masumbuko delivered one of the highlights during Trinity's 35-0 win. From his interior position, he rumbled through traffic all the way to the sideline to chase down a speedy Lee running back on a sweep, knocking the player's helmet off with a powerful tackle.

"It was just an impactive play that ignited the whole team," Lineweaver said.

*****

Saidi, a delivery truck driver, serves as a father figure to Suleiman.

According to African traditions, the eldest child often cares for the younger. Suleiman said they never engage in typical sibling horseplay.

"There's a different kind of respect for the oldest," Suleiman said. "We watch what we say and what we do."

Their life in Euless is comfortable but not quite the idyllic existence the Masumbukos led in Rwanda, where Hamisi ran a trucking and produce delivery business.

But that lifestyle took a dire turn when a civil war broke out in April 1994 after an influx of Tutsi rebels formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The death of the Rwandan president, a Hutu whose plane was shot down, helped instigate the conflict.

Genocide ensued as the Hutu, the majority people, slaughtered Tutsis and also Hutu moderates.

Suleiman's parents, though, are both of mixed ethnicity, causing the family to receive hostility from both sides.

They fled to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) when Suleiman was almost 1 and then to Tanzania - where the Masumbukos spent about two and a half years - less than a year later. But their existence as refugees was not much better.

Violence continued, and the Masumbukos were always on the move. They usually slept on the street. Basic necessities were difficult to come by; Saidi said they ate one meal a day.

"The refugee life is very, very hard," Saidi said. "It was a very terrible life."

In 1996, when Suleiman was almost 4, the Masumbukos immigrated to the United States. Hamisi found work at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, located less than eight miles from Trinity High.

The Masumbukos began fulfilling their American Dream.

"My parents really wanted us to come over here to start a better lifestyle," Suleiman said.

*****

Though moving, Masumbuko's story is not unique at Trinity.

With the close proximity of the airport - which provides many jobs including some that offer discounted airfares for trips home - and Euless' affordable housing, Trinity has become a popular destination for immigrant families.

The 2,317-person high school includes 224 Asians, 512 Hispanics and 94 Pacific Islanders. At the front entrance, a hall of flags showcases each of the student's home countries.

Trinity's diversity extends to the football team where the large presence of Tongans has led to a pre-game haka, a traditional Polynesian dance.

The mix of cultures serves as a comfortable environment for Masumbuko.

"We all come from different backgrounds, but at the same time all our backgrounds are built on morals and respect," he said. "I get along with everyone. I get along with the guys from the Island - guys from Hawaii, Tonga and Samoa - just as much as I do with the guys from Texas."

Masumbuko already has selected his next location: Baylor.

Masumbuko praised the school's ascending football program, the opportunity for immediate playing time and his bond with head coach Art Briles and defensive tackles coach Chris Achuff.

Despite rumors swirling that he has opened up his recruitment, Masumbuko reaffirmed his decision.

"It is Baylor all the way," he said.

Masumbuko's on-the-field talent and inspiring story likely will leave the same lasting imprint at Baylor as it has at Trinity.

"I'm already missing him," Lineweaver said, "even though we've still got hopefully several more games."

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