Rwabukamba has more to accomplish at Duke

Native of Rwanda wants to go from 0-12 beginning to a bowl game

Staff WriterAugust 23, 2010 

  • Duke cornerback

    Ht/Wt: 5-10, 175

    Born: Rwanda

    Hometown: Windsor, Ontario

    Noteworthy: Started the final 10 games of last season and finished sixth on the team with 46 total tackles. ... Also had a sack, seven pass breakups, one caused fumble and one fumble recovery. ... Chosen in the fourth round of the CFL draft (27th overall pick) last May. ... Currently enrolled in Duke graduate school for Master of Arts in Liberal Studies.

    Source: Duke

— Duke cornerback Chris Rwabukamba was studying for final exams last May when a friend called to tell him he had been drafted in the fourth round by the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

The then-redshirt junior grinned and went back to reading his microeconomics notes.

"[Getting drafted] was definitely a great accomplishment for me, and the people who helped get me here ... but I just didn't feel like I was done here at Duke," the Blue Devils' most experienced player in the secondary said. "We're on a mission here to change things."

Rwabukamba (the 'W' is silent) was a freshman on the 2006 Blue Devils team that failed to win a game, so to go from 0-12 to what Duke hopes will be a trip to a bowl this season - and then play in the pros, be it the CFL or NFL - would be quite a tale to tell his extended family one day.

But it's only one chapter of the story of how he got here in the first place.

Rwabukamba was born in Rwanda, a landlocked country in east-central Africa where mass genocide in 1994 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 people.

Several of his family members died in the massacres. But he, his mother and his sister had fled the country three years earlier, when he was 3 years old.

"My father was at UNCG at the time, and my sister, my mom and I were back in Rwanda, and we knew that the genocide was going to happen - maybe not to the extent that it did, but there was a lot of turmoil in the country," he said. "So we were really fortunate in that we were able to leave ... and join my dad."

The family stayed in North Carolina briefly, then moved to Detroit, and then eventually across the lake to Ontario. Rwabukamba's dad, who passed away when he was 6, wanted to settle there because of the country's health care system. After he was gone, his family stayed. And his mom, Jeanne Uwera - who still often speaks to her son in their native tongue, Kinyarwanda, stressed the importance of education and opportunity, especially after what had happened in their native country.

"She did talk to us about Rwanda, and I still couldn't comprehend it growing up," Rwabukamba said. "I still can't totally wrap my brain about it, something that awful happening to so many innocent people."

Rwabukamba studied hard, and until the eighth grade, his first athletic love was basketball. But a funny thing happened when he passed by football practice that year: A friend's father talked him into signing up.

"Turns out I was pretty good," he said, grinning.

So good that by his senior season, he was rated the 78th best cornerback prospect by, and also had scholarship offers to play at Michigan State and Illinois. He almost chose Stanford, where his friend O.J. Atogwe played before he was selected in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft. But ultimately, Rwabukamba wanted to step out of Atogwe's shadow and make a name for himself.

Which he is starting to do at Duke.

After being granted a hardship waiver in 2006, he played mostly on special teams in 2007. Then, after new coach David Cutcliffe took over in 2008, he worked harder in the weight room and made the starting lineup.

Last year, he started 10 of 12 games, and Cutcliffe has been impressed by the 5-foot-10, 175-pound athlete's development.

"What you watch with Chris, is every rep he takes in practice he gets better, because every rep he takes is full speed," Cutcliffe said. "And right now, he is a really good cover corner; I suspect a lot better than most folks might imagine. He just doesn't get the rep.

"...It's been very strange my whole career, the [cornerbacks] that are all-this and all-that, and we look at tape and go after them. Robo's one of those guys you look at tape, and you respect him."

Rwabukamba, who is working on his Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, hopes to gain even more respect on the field this season - by helping improve the Blue Devils' defense and building on Duke's five victories from last season.

He would like to play in the NFL one day (or with the CFL's Tiger-Cats, who will continue to hold his rights). Eventually, he'd also like to return to Rwanda to visit the cousins he's only "met" on Facebook and learn more about the history he was lucky to escape.

In turn, he hopes to be able to share a turnaround story of his own.

"When I was a freshman, everyone knows that [2006] season we didn't win any games," Rwabukamba said. "My goal, as well as all the seniors, is to take us to a bowl game and to help move the program ahead. That's one of the main reasons I came back."

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.comor 919-829-8944

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