ORONO — To say that Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga took an unusual route to both the University of Maine and his favorite sport would be an understatement.

He was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then lived in Belgium as a very young child. His family moved to Canada when he was 5, settling near Montreal.

There, like any Canadian kid, Mulumba Tshimanga played hockey.

“I was a defenseman, I was pretty good,” he said with a chuckle. “Yeah, I was pretty good.”

At 16, he was persuaded by his friends to give football a try. Good thing for the Black Bears. Mulumba Tshimanga, a 6-foot-1, 245-pound senior middle linebacker, enters Saturday’s game against Bryant University as Maine’s leading tackler, with 36 tackles in three games. He had a season-high 14 in a 31-20 loss to James Madison last week.

“Christophe is a different beast,” said sophomore rover linebacker Sterling Sheffield, who is second on the team with 22 tackles. “Mentally, but especially physically.”

And Mulumba Tshimanga is still learning. Now 23, he has been playing football for only seven years.

As a freshman, he was the Colonial Athletic Association and ECAC defensive rookie of the year, finishing with a team-high 118 tackles. The next year, he was an all-CAA first-team selection, again leading Maine with 95 tackles. Last season, injuries limited him to just eight games. He made 37 tackles with an interception.

Corey Hetherman, Maine’s defensive coordinator, said Mulumba Tshimanga can get better.

“He understands formations. He understands leverage,” Hetherman said. “And then his natural instincts take over. And he’s got that nose for the football.”

Hetherman said there is another reason Mulumba Tshimanga is so good – he knows how to use his hands. (Sheffield said they are “the biggest on the team. His forearms too.”)

“When guys get to him, he’s so physical, so violent, with his hands that he sheds blockers with ease,” said Hetherman. “Whereas a lot of younger linebackers, when guys get up on them, they struggle to get off, or they just try to go make the play rather than shedding the block. He’s so good at using his hands and defeating the block. That’s where he excels.”

Mulumba Tshimanga said football has come easily to him.

“It’s all based on being athletic,” he said. “And there’s the mental part. If you’re athletic enough and know how to move well and are mentally tough, I think that helps.”

In addition to hockey, Mulumba Tshimanga played soccer and tennis growing up. But he was no stranger to football.

“When I came to Canada, I was pretty young, but I started watching the CFL, the Montreal Alouettes,” he said. “That’s what my family did. We were watching hockey, every other sport that was on television. So I was watching the CFL when I was 6 or 7 and thought I knew everything about football.”

His friends kept telling him he would be a perfect linebacker. So when he finally tried out, and his coach asked what position he wanted to try, it was linebacker.

He played hockey for one more year, then gave it up when he saw how good he was at football.

“I loved hitting people,” he said. “Hockey was the same, but football was more physical.”

After high school, Mulumba Tshimanga attended the Kent School in Connecticut. That’s where Joe Harasymiak, now Maine’s first-year head coach, discovered him while working as an assistant coach under Jack Cosgrove.

“He was my first signed recruit,” he said. “He was a physically bigger kid who could run. And you could tell from meeting him that he had a passion for football.”

Maine was the only school that offered him a scholarship. But Mulumba Tshimanga didn’t need much convincing to come to Orono.

“I felt home, to be honest,” he said of his visit. “I was like, this is where I want to be. I didn’t have to wait on any other offers.”

Hetherman said Mulumba Tshimanga is a much better player this year because of better conditioning.

“He was a little heavier last year. He did a good job of eating right and taking care of his body,” Hetherman said. “He’s faster. He covers more ground. You can see it on film. He’s a different player.”

Mulumba Tshimanga has become a mentor to younger linebackers like Sheffield, whom he calls “a little brother.” The two spent the summer in Orono, watching film and pushing each other physically.

“It helped tremendously,” said Sheffield. “I wish he had a couple more years with me, with the team.”

But Mulumba Tshimanga has big goals. He wants to play professionally and it doesn’t matter if it’s in the NFL or CFL. “Wherever I can play, I’ll play,” he said.

He still loves hockey, rooting for the Montreal Canadiens – he was devastated by the team’s trade of P.K. Subban – and sometimes skating at Alfond Arena.

For now, he hopes to help the 0-3 Black Bears get on track.

“I think we can turn it around,” he said. “We have a lot of potential. Even though the results haven’t been there, we know how good we can be. It’s the little things. And we have to finish the game.”