BRIDGEWATER – Sure, Bridgewater College senior linebacker Salem Nganga is disappointed that he won’t get a taste of the Division III football playoffs in his college career.
But, after the Eagles play their final game of the 2012 season today at Catholic University in Washington, Nganga will hardly say he regrets his college experience. It’s only the tail-end of his maturation from a child living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to his multi-faceted life at BC, including being one of the Eagles’ top defensive players.
From his boyhood memories of hearing gunshots around his neighborhood in the Congo, to feeling ashamed of his heritage after moving to Fresno, Calif., when friends would ignorantly mock him for, as he put it, “being from the jungle,” to briefly becoming impassionate about football in college, you could say that Nganga has undergone plenty of changes.
Nganga was born in the Congo – also the birthplace of his parents, Donald Nganga and Flakidi Ndindwa – and was raised in the capital city of Kinshasa until he was 8, an area known for constant political strife, war and crime. Nganga’s youth coincided with two national wars, including the beginnings of The Great War of Africa that began in 1998.
He doesn’t remember much from his experiences there and said neither he nor his parents were ever involved in any sort of violence. But there was always fear that they might be.
“As far as actual conflict and fighting in our area, I didn’t experience that, but it was all around,” he said. “It was always just constant and talked about. There were a few periods where I remember there was a lot of fear, just because people didn’t know what was going on, and it was pretty uncertain with changes of power and things like that.”
Thanks to his father’s job, though – one that involves peacemaking and coordinating relief efforts – Nganga’s family moved to Fresno when Salem was 8. After playing soccer in his African youth, he said, he was talked into trying football as an eighth-grader.
Meanwhile, though, he was trying to shed the stereotypes of being Congolese.
“I might have a friend who’s Nigerian, and I’m Congolese, and it’s like, ‘Do y’all’s tribes not like each other?’” Nganga said with a laugh. “Just a lot of different things.”
As a senior in high school, Nganga moved again – this time to Dumfries, about 100 miles east of Bridgewater. He enrolled as at Forest Park High School, and was recruited from there to BC.
Since then, though, his passion for football has waivered.
He almost quit after, like most rookies, he didn’t play his freshman season. Even through the rest of his career, football was only a small part of his life, as he’s also been involved in religious and service activities.
BC coach Michael Clark said that, while most coaches won’t admit it, every coach – even in D-III – wants a few players who prioritize football over school. Nganga wasn’t one of those players.
But, even as Clark asked Nganga to elevate his commitment the summer before his senior year, the 18th-year coach was willing to compromise.
“I said, ‘Salem, I know that football will never be your No. 1 priority – you have your faith, you have your schoolwork, you have your service – but how about making us a strong three or a high-level four?” Clark said.
Nganga agreed, and he’s been a defensive stalwart at inside linebacker in BC’s 3-2-5 scheme. He’s second on the team in tackles with 60, even after missing last week’s game with a groin injury. (He’ll play today.)
But, for the seventh straight season, the Eagles (6-3 overall, 3-3 in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference) still weren’t good enough to make the playoffs, making today’s game against Catholic (3-6, 2-4) a relative formality.
Nganga, though – like always – will move on.
“I never once in my mind ever thought that I would go through here without going to the playoffs or winning an ODAC championship,” Nganga said. “But sometimes things just don’t work out for you. … But that in itself doesn’t determine my experience here. Because I’ve just been able to grab so much and get so much out of it.”