A rookie’s journey: From Kenya to Jets, with a wrong turn that turned out right

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Helva Matungulu took a wrong turn on campus one day as a freshman and walked into a new world. It was a life-altering case of lost-and-found.

In 2011, he left his home in Nairobi, Kenya, to study molecular biology at Western Carolina University, a few hours from an aunt in Raleigh, North Carolina. He played some sports in his native land, mainly rugby, but his decision to matriculate in the United States was based purely on academics.

That changed when he was on his way to class and somehow wound up at the football field. Matungulu sat in the bleachers and watched the players run sprints. Not surprisingly, he caught the attention of the coaches because, let’s face it, you don’t come across too many 6-foot-5, 245-pound spectators with college eligibility.

“The coach came up to me and invited me to join the team,” Matungulu said after a recent New York Jets practice. “I never played football.”

His response?

“Sure, why not?”

What began as sheer “happenstance,” according to Matungulu, has turned into a potential career. He blossomed into a 298-pound defensive lineman, demonstrating the kind of natural power and athleticism NFL teams covet.

After three seasons and 31 career games at Western Carolina, Matungulu signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent, receiving a modest $3,000 signing bonus. He’s a project because of his inexperience, but it’s worth a shot because of his potential. Bill Parcells had a name for this sort of thing. He called it “The Planet Theory,” his way of pointing out that there aren’t many 300-pound men walking the planet who possess the skills to play in the NFL. If you see one, sign him.

“He has huge, huge upside,” Western Carolina coach Mark Speir said in a phone interview.

Speir was hired in 2012, the year after Matungulu was discovered in the bleachers, but he, too, was intrigued by his size, growth potential and athletic traits. They just had to, well, teach him how to play football. Matungulu sat out the 2011 and 2012 seasons, learning the game on the practice field. We’re talking Football 101: How to put on equipment, how to line up in a stance, etc.

“It was square one as far as the rules,” Speir said.

There was a period of trial and error. Matungulu started out as an offensive lineman. That didn’t last long. He was moved to tight end. That didn’t work. He was switched to defensive end. The Western Carolina staff didn’t think he had enough fluidity to play on the edge. So they slid him inside, making him a tackle in their four-man front.

In 2015, Matungulu played most of the defensive snaps for the Catamounts, recording 23 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. His most productive game came against Texas A&M, a five-tackle day that became his signature game.

When a raw talent from an FCS school holds his own against SEC competition, people notice — some people, anyway. He wasn’t invited to the scouting combine and had no private workouts before the draft. His only exposure to scouts came at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, an all-star game in California, and the Appalachian State pro day. Western Carolina didn’t have its own pro day, so Matungulu made the 140-mile drive up Interstate 40.

John Scott Jr., the Jets’ assistant defensive line coach, knew about Matungulu because Scott played and coached at Western Carolina. On the final day of the draft, he happened to be watching the tape of the Texas A&M game. He was impressed and called Speir.

“He was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe how he’s pushing around these SEC guys, just walking ’em backward,'” said Speir, recalling his conversation with Scott.

Matungulu will be hard-pressed to crack the Jets’ talented defensive line, but he has practice-squad potential. He’s known as a hard worker, and in a weird way, his lack of experience could be a blessing because he’s not stuck in his ways. He’s receptive to coaching.

“It’s going to take time,” the 24-year-old said. “I learn every day.”

There’s no doubting his intelligence. Matungulu graduated with a degree in molecular biology (2.7 GPA) and speaks three languages — English, French and Swahili. Someday, he wants to get a job that will allow him to focus on genetics and stem-cell research. Asked to explain his passion, he said, “Just a cell and how it works, how something so small could affect the whole organism.”

Absorbing the Jets’ playbook probably won’t be a problem.

Matungulu wouldn’t be the first Kenyan to play in the NFL. That distinction belongs to former rugby star Daniel Adongo, according to KenyaMOJA.com. In 2013, he signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a linebacker and played in five games before being released last season. One difference, though: Adongo had no previous football experience; Matungulu has a three-year edge.

“He developed himself from nothing into [a prospect] in a short amount of time, and I guess that intrigued the Jets,” Speir said. “He’s not going to come in there entitled. He’s going to do what he did at Western. He’s going to battle his butt off and prove the naysayers wrong. That’s what he’s going to try to do, anyway.”

ESPN