Wearing Stevenson's green and gold, Njongmeta fits right in

 
 
Updated 9/29/2017 4:23 PM
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  • Stevenson linebacker Maema Njongmeta is a first-generation American from Cameroon.

      Stevenson linebacker Maema Njongmeta is a first-generation American from Cameroon. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Steve Lundy/slundy@dailyherald.comStevenson starting linebacker Maema Njongmeta is a first-generation American from Cameroon.

    Steve Lundy/slundy@dailyherald.comStevenson starting linebacker Maema Njongmeta is a first-generation American from Cameroon.

Some of the best defensive players in high school football might get a handful of sacks over an entire season.

Stevenson linebacker Maema Njongmeta is averaging 2 sacks a game.

That is crazy impressive.

But what is even more impressive about Njongmeta, who has an uncanny knack for also regularly recovering or causing fumbles and making tackles for loss, is that he started playing football about five minutes ago.

OK -- he might not be quite that green.

But he's pretty darn green.

How green?

"I just figured out what PAT (point after touchdown) stood for about a year ago," laughed Njongmeta, a 6-foot, 195-pound junior who has recorded 2 sacks and 2 tackles for loss in each of the last three games. "And I didn't really know what a safety was until I got one last season."

He's not kidding.

The learning curve for Njongmeta has been sharp. As good as he is, he is still learning about football, the intricacies as well as the basics, every single day.

After all, he started playing football only two years ago as a freshman. And it was just a short time before that that he associated the word "football" with the game that we Americans know, rather than with the game that uses feet and a soccer ball, otherwise known internationally as futbol.

Futbol is king in Cameroon.

Njongmeta, who grew up following futbol and not football, which he thought "was stupid," is a native of Cameroon. But he is also a first-generation American. His parents grew up in Cameroon, a scenic west African country known for its chocolate exports, and he was born there. But he came to the United States when he was 3 years old.

He is very Americanized, but also very tied to his roots. A handful of his teammates can relate.

Interestingly, Njongmeta is one of a dozen players on the Stevenson varsity football team who were either born abroad or are first-generation Americans with strong ties to their native countries.

The others are: defensive back Arnav Chaubal from India, offensive lineman Anand Batbaatar from Mongolia, running back/defensive back Andrew Park from South Korea, defensive back Bevin Buan from the Philippines, lineman Ross Wilson from Jamaica, lineman Nick Orihuela from Greece and Bolivia, running back Michael Iancau from Romania, running back Jean-Marc Etienne from Haiti and the Philippines, offensive lineman Ivan Gleyzer of Russia and Serbia, wide receiver Kylan Abuaita of the Netherlands and tight end/defensive back Rafay Noor of Pakistan.

"We're from the world," Stevenson football coach Josh Hjorth said of his players. "It's pretty special."

Few schools in the suburbs are as diverse as Stevenson, let alone few football teams.

But Stevenson's demographic melting pot is one of the main things that attracted Njongmeta's parents to the area in the first place. The family moved to the area when Njongmeta was about 10. It was their second stop in the United States after their move from Cameroon. The family started in Texas because Njongmeta's mom Linda got a scholarship to go to Texas A&M for her PhD work. That was the impetus for the move from Cameroon in the first place.

"Then, my mom got a job at Kraft (in Northbrook) and my parents were looking for a good school," Njongmeta said. "But they also wanted a place where I would fit in. They wanted somewhere really diverse.

"I think the football team really speaks to the diversity of Stevenson. With 4,000 kids, you're going to get a lot of interesting individuals. The cool thing is, no matter what race you are, what religion, what country you're from, we're all brothers on our team. We're a team of brothers."

The brotherhood of football is one of the things Njongmeta enjoys most about his newfound sport.

The physicality that comes with being a linebacker is another.

"When I first started playing football, I thought I wanted to be a running back because I thought it would be so cool to score touchdowns," said Njongmeta, inspired to give football a try after meeting former Stevenson star wide receiver Cameron Green (now playing at Northwestern) when Green visited his middle school a few years ago. "But I didn't quite have the speed for it. They put me at linebacker and I wasn't sure about it, but I realized pretty fast that I really like the hitting part of it. I've always been a bigger kid, a physical kid, so I like the physicality of defense.

"I kind of feel like it's better to be the hammer than the nail."

Even Njongmeta's mother, who was once dead-set against her son playing football, appreciates the aggressive and hard-nosed way her son plays the game.

"My mom is pretty funny. She still calls tackling 'holding those guys,'" Njongneta said with a laugh. "She'll say, 'I really liked the way you held that guy and pushed him down.'

"My mom and dad (Lee) come to all the games and they know the basics, like what touchdowns are and stuff like that. But they're more about being there for the support. They still don't understand everything about football. They're still learning."

As is Njongmeta.

His ceiling is high, considering that he is so new to football and is still learning basic techniques and good lifting habits.

"Maema has great explosiveness," Hjorth said. "We saw that when we first got him in the weight room and we were testing him with squats. We'd be like, let's start at 135 pounds. That was no problem. Then it was 175. No problem. 250. No problem. And so on. The kid is very strong in his legs. But he's also pretty raw. He's still learning."

While football is still a work in progress for Njongmeta, everything else Americana is not. He assimilated right away when he moved to Texas, making friends quickly and transitioning smoothly into school.

Njongmeta now makes all A's while taking five advanced placement classes: calculus, Spanish, English, U.S. history and biology.

He also spent years in school bands playing the trumpet and recently earned his Eagle Scout through the Boy Scouts.

"I love American fashion, too," Njongmeta said. "I'm really into streetwear (clothing derived from skateboard, surf, hip hop and retro 80s and 90s)."

Then again, Njongmeta also has an extensive collection of native Cameroonian garb, which is bright, colorful, traditional African clothing. He wears his Cameroonian fashions to church and family parties and gatherings, where all kinds of good Cameroonian food is served and Cameroonian music is played.

"I love the traditions and the culture of Cameroon," Njongmeta said. "I am very much a mixture of two cultures, the Amercian culture I see every day and the Cameroonian culture that is at home.

"Back in 2012, I went to Cameroon for the first time since I left there to come to the U.S. I remember loving it so much. I fell in love with the culture and the country. I tried to convince my parents to let me stay and go to school there. That would have been really cool, but I'm kind of glad I didn't do that."

In Cameroon, Njongmeta could have played futbol, but not football.

And now that Njongmeta knows how much he loves football, that would have been a problem.

"I'm glad I didn't miss the opportunity to play football," Njongmeta said. "It's become such a passion for me. It's funny because I never gave football much thought. There's no football in Cameroon, and when I lived in Texas for six years, I was growing up in a huge college football town but I never even went to a game. I just wasn't interested. I knew nothing about it. I didn't understand it.

"But once I actually tried it, I just fell in love with it. I didn't know what I was doing, and sometimes when I come out of the game, my coaches are still like, 'What are you doing out there?" And I'm like, 'I'm not sure.' But I like learning and I like playing. I would have never thought that I would say that about football."

It helps that Njongmeta became an impact player almost immediately this season.

In Stevenson's first North Suburban Conference game, a 23-0 shutout victory over Lake Forest in Week 3, Njongmeta registered 2 sacks, forced a fumble and helped the defense make some other big plays.

"That was kind of a breakout game for me, like I made a statement," Njongmeta said. "That was my 'Welcome to Varsity Football' moment. That was where I could say that I really belonged and that football was my thing."

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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