TAMPA —- If undrafted rookies are the NFL's true underdogs when it comes to making a roster, then this weekend's Bucs rookie minicamp features another 26 tryout players battling just for the right to such tough odds.
They are Bucs for a weekend, with three days to show themselves worthy of a spot on the 90-man roster — a player must be cut for each tryout player added.
They are overlooked players from major programs like Nebraska and Tennessee, and stars from small schools like Monmouth, Mercer, Tufts and Duquesne.
None can say they've traveled as far to get to Tampa as Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker was a four-year starter at Maine. His story starts long before he found the Black Bears as his only scholarship offer coming out of a Connecticut prep school.
Mulumba Tshimanga, 24, was born in the Congo, moved soon after to Belgium and then at age 5 to Canada, where he grew up playing hockey. After seven years as a defenseman, he took up American football at 16. He leaves Maine with 347 career tackles, and an unlikely shot at the NFL this weekend.
"That was the goal, to get an NFL invite, and I'm very happy for Tampa. That was the team that was most interested," said Mulumba Tshimanga, who graduated from Maine in December with a psychology degree.
He speaks English, French and a little bit of Lingala, a Congolese language spoken by about 12 million people. Stories back home in Montreal call him a "secondeur" — French for linebacker — and mention him playing with a star quart-arrière in the Bucs' Jameis Winston.
His parents learned football from the CFL and have adjusted to understand the college rules he played with at Maine. He flew into Tampa in January when he played in the Tropical Bowl in Daytona Beach, a showcase game for draft hopefuls, and spent this spring working on improving his measurables like his 40-yard time. "Numbers are very important in this world," he admits.
"I'm an old-school, hard-nosed linebacker. I'm downhill. I like to just smack linemen in the face," he said. "I like to play the run, stop the run."
His last name evokes Tshimanga "Tim" Biakabutuka, who like him went from Africa to Montreal to college football, starring at Michigan and playing six years in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers.
The Bucs have another player from Quebec on the roster. They signed tight end Antony Auclair, who played college football at Laval in Montreal. Mulumba Tshimanga and Auclair played together his first year of football in Montreal and trained together this spring in Tennessee.
Linebacker is as wide-open as any position for an undrafted rookie to make the Bucs roster. Tampa Bay signed three after the draft — from major-conference NCAA programs Mississippi State, Michigan State and Arizona — but a tryout player could convince the Bucs to add another this weekend.
That improbable path to stardom happened two years ago when Clemson receiver Adam Humphries went from a tryout to a contract to catching 82 passes his first two seasons. It seems a long way to go, but Mulumba Tshimanga is excited to find out if his journey can continue.
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"I hope that happens," he said. "That's what I'm here for."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.