If we'd been born by State U we'd root religiously for the home team. If we attended North Carolina State, we'd be rabid members of the Wolfpack Nation. (Hopefully not literally rabid though. And nothing against North Carolina State per se, but one of the preview magazines ranked the top-50 college football coaching jobs, and Stanford was No. 49, and right next to North Carolina State. Now I'm sure that Raleigh's lovely, but really?)
Pointing out that it's mere circumstance we root for the Cardinal is not meant as a knock, if that's how you became a Stanford fan at first. (Goodness knows the program could use more of us fans, and that's this author's story besides.) However, most of us are able to transcend the fickle bonds of geography and, in due time, become genuinely attached to the Stanford community, its student-athletes and the incredible stories and character which so many of our students embody. It is for the latter fan that The Bootleg proudly presents 2011 defensive end Stephen Nembot, the most interesting recruit this reporter has interviewed, bar none.
The first thing you should know about rising senior Stephen Nembot is that he is Cameroonian. And not in the technical sense either, a that's where his ancestors are from and he visited there once story. No, while Nembot may now be living in the States, at his core, he is very much an African man. We'll let him tell his tale.
"I'm from Cameroon," he told The Bootleg in an interview last week. "I moved here December 2008. It was my first time in the US and my third time further than Africa.
"Usually I stay at school (Montclair Prep; Van Nuys, Calif.) because my school's a boarding school. When I'm not there, I'm at my house with my host family, who care about me and do so much. … My real family is all back in Cameroon -- my parents, my little sister and my older brother.
"I came all the way from Cameroon to play basketball, because I was too young and too tall." [As English isn't Nembot's first language – more on that later -- questions are sometimes misunderstood and the proper word may not be used, here "too" instead of "so". Still, somehow, Nembot always conveys his essential meaning, sometimes more cleverly than a native speaker.] "Many people come here from Cameroon and become superstars in basketball. I jump high and everything."
"Finally, last year, my school came and they asked me to play football, another coach asked me to play football. I said no, but he asked me to come and try and practice. For me, it was just fun, playing around.
"I came for basketball, but I'm playing football now. I can't stop playing basketball, I love it. I'm really important on the basketball team and important on the football team, and I'm lucky they're not in the same season, so I can play both.
"If I had to choose [between a football and a basketball offer for college], I'd choose a football school. That means I play football, and then I can play basketball. I choose a basketball school, then I can't play football, so I choose football, and then, to have fun, try out for the basketball team just because I love the game."
A high-major D-I basketball star truly playing for the love of the game – imagine that. It is as a football player that schools are recruiting Nembot, however, with the obvious comparison in New York Giants' defensive end Osi Umenyiora: a freak athlete of West African descent who didn't start playing football until high school. At 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, the DE/DT Nembot already has the 6-foot-3 Umenyiora outclassed, but like the high school Umenyiora, Nembot is incredibly raw. In fact, Nembot is the first to admit he has plenty of room for growth on the football field, and he is confident his work ethic will get him there.
"I'm really willing to work hard, I have no problem," he said. "That's why at school I'm always the last one in the gym, or on the field. I work hard and work with some of my teammates so we can all get better together and win the championship I want to win this year so badly. I know I'm willing to work hard this year. I know there's pain on the weight room and on floor to be like a football player.
"No more playing like a basketball player, scared to hit. Now I'm really going to play football, and not take care of my body like before. Before, it looked like I'd be a model, like those people making covers. I thought I'd be a basketball model. But now I'm about to play to play football, just because I have fun working now, because I love the game.
"I've practiced hard and now I go to camps. I want to go to the big-man camp with players bigger than me who have been playing their whole life. It makes me happy going against them, knowing I am the new guy."
Indeed, Nembot was scheduled to go to USC's lineman camp this past weekend, where he no doubt ran into plenty of big players, quite likely some even bigger than him. That Nembot is at USC dovetails nicely with his recruiting interests, as the Trojans are one of the schools he reports hearing from, along with much of the rest of the Pac-10.
"Right now, I have offers from Washington State, Washington, UCLA," he said. "I'm talking with USC and about to get an offer from USC and I'm talking with Stanford. [I have an offer from] Oregon State, about to with Oregon, and have one from Arizona State.
"The one that hasn't offered me yet is Stanford. Stanford wants to see me play, but before they see me play, I already give my commitment. And once I give a commitment, I don't change my word. My first school I will honor. … I want to make my choice before my first game this year, I will make it officially.
"The Stanford coach said he's about to offer me, but I don't know when. I call them and they're talking all the time. I really hope the offer comes soon, because if it doesn't, then I will put them out of my top choices and just choose between what I have now – UCLA, Washington State, Washington, Arizona State and Oregon State. I'm also talking to Nebraska and LSU, and some small schools like Fresno State, Texas A&M, New Mexico State. They really like me and want to offer me. I don't know. I haven't made my choice yet.
African culture values education highly, and Stanford has indeed done well recruiting players descending from Nigeria, the country immediately northwest of Cameroon. So while Nembot wants to keep his options open, should a firm Cardinal offer come, a Stanford education may prove especially alluring.
"To my parents, education is very important, so I'm still waiting for my SAT score to make my decision. After I get my SAT score, I will make my official choice.
Nembot thinks he did well on the SAT, and his explanation ties back into Stanford.
"All I know is my parents, especially my dad, was really, really, really good at math, and he had a scholarship, an academic scholarship to Stanford. Because of a family problem and everything, because he was the first one -- in Africa, the first one has to go get a job and take care of the youngest -- he let it pass by. He had all the paper and was supposed to go Stanford or Harvard. He had an academic scholarship. That is how I know a little more about Stanford.
"In my country, they don't know USC, UCLA, in my country. Most of my country knows Stanford and Harvard because they are excellent in education. We don't know other schools besides Stanford and Harvard. That means that person is really smart, someone attended Stanford or Harvard, it means he's very special because in my country, Stanford and Harvard are the schools of smart people.
"If Stanford gives me an offer, I have to come and visit. It doesn't mean I'll go there, but I put them as one of my best interests. I'm still looking around.
Were he to end up on the Farm, Nembot certainly appears to have the intellectual vitality to thrive, at least based upon his foreign language abilities. From an institutional perspective, where ever Nembot ends up at college, there is no doubt his teammates and peers will learn plenty from a gregarious teenager with an incredible personal story.
"Cameroon is divided in two, part only English and part only French. I speak French as my first language, but in the whole of Cameroon, there are 260 languages and I speak 10 of them. Ten dialects. My dad and mom are not from the same dialect, so that's already two. My first aunt and second aunt -- they are family too.
"My uncle, who is a king, he got many wives from different villages, so most of them have languages with my cousins. Then my mom's family dialects, different culture and everything. Also my dad, who travels, shows me other cultures and I learn the dialect. He by himself speaks 45. I get that from my mom and my dad.
The scholar buried somewhere in me should have continued the anthropological discussion, but wait, Stephan, you said your uncle is a king?
"He is a king on my mom's side. I ask my mom and she says he is not really a king because in Africa, to be a king, you have to be in a royal family. We are not kings but the people who protect the king. We have our own kingdom. So my grandfather was a really good and strong and powerful man with more than 300 wives. That is how he has his own kingdom, as the first protector of the ruling king. They tell me you are a prince because of where you are coming from."
That is a fantastical story to our Western ears, but from Nembot's same family also comes a stark reality. Money is at a premium, straining the family fabric and once again emphasizing the importance of education. When we asked Nembot for any final thoughts, he touched on these topics.
"Right now, how I feel is that I wish I had the support to be here and go back every summer," he said. "I don't have that much money to go back and forth. All I want to say is that I believe in myself, in God, and believe I am here for something. I know I will work hard to make it all come true. I have to find the right college and education first, because if it is a bad education, my mom won't like it. She doesn't care about sports. My dad cares about sports, but for them, it's education first. My dad says if you go with an education, no matter what, you have already learned what is in your brain. No one can take that from you. But if you go with football and break your leg or whatever, it's over. But your education is in your brain. I just want to go with a great education and a great football program."
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!