Nate Kapongo represents the changing face of football at Portland’s public high schools.

Kapongo, 17, a junior at Portland High and a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had only watched the game on television before coming to America a few years ago. While many immigrant students at Portland and Deering steer their athletic skills toward familiar sports such as soccer and basketball, Kapongo saw football as the best fit for his size and strength.

“I really wanted to play football,” Kapongo said. “So once I came here, at school, the second day I asked if I can see the coach for football.”

In his second season with the Bulldogs, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Kapongo has quickly advanced from being a football novice to an all-Class A North nose tackle.

On Thursday, when Portland meets Deering for the 106th time on Thanksgiving, Kapongo is ready to add kick returner to his football resume.

“I think I can make a touchdown,” he said.

The annual Thanksgiving game kicks off at 10:30 a.m. at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Tickets are $5 for adults, and $3 for seniors and students. Portland leads the all-time series 58-40-7 and has won four straight games. Deering (1-8) hasn’t played since Oct. 27. Portland (4-7) advanced to the Class A North final, losing at Windham 42-6 on Nov. 10.

Other new immigrants have followed Kapongo’s lead and joined the Portland football team.

Obed Ntumba, a 6-3, 220-pound sophomore lineman from Angola, arrived two weeks before the school year started and saw varsity action on special teams. Yaseen Mohammed, from Iraq, and Herve Irakoze, from Burundi, are junior linemen in their first year of football.

“We’re an international team,” said Coach Jim Hartman.

Other players on Portland’s team and several at Deering are also immigrants, “but they’ve been around for awhile,” and were exposed to football before high school, said Deering Coach Jason Jackson.

Nate Kapongo, center, a Portland High junior, hopes to cap his season by fulfilling one more dream – returning a kick in the Thanksgiving Day game against Deering. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Kapongo, the youngest of 12 children, lives with his mother, father and two of his nine brothers. The family moved to the United States in 2015, living in Massachusetts for a year before coming to Portland in the spring of 2016.

While Kapongo had the athletic tools of size and strength, his first year of football was a challenge. Seemingly simple things, like becoming comfortable with a helmet, involved a learning process.

“He came in sophomore year and was the biggest kid already but he had no clue about football,” said Koa Farnsworth, a junior defensive tackle who lines up next to Kapongo. “He came in and had no idea how to get down in a three-point stance. It was pretty funny, actually.”

Kapongo is fluent in French, the national language of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and his ethnic language of Lingala. Last fall, as Kapongo was improving his English, he also was being asked to learn football-specific jargon.

“To understand the plays, I’m getting there,” he said. “I’m not there yet but I’m getting there.”

There’s also an off-the-field adjustment for immigrant players and their parents.

Nate Kapongo has the size and speed to be a football success. He stands 6-foot-4, weighs 240 pounds and is a master in the weight room, dead-lifting 500 pounds. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“It’s a radical change for some of these kids to just be on time,” Hartman said. “Some come with no clue what that means and they have to be taught.”

Both Hartman and Jackson said they have players who are counted on to handle adult responsibilities, such as holding jobs to help support the family and providing care for siblings or sick relatives.

Jackson said: “The biggest thing I notice is the language barrier with the parents. These kids are having to translate with parents and explain to them that, ‘No, these (coaches) aren’t trying to take them away.’ You think about some of the horrors these parents have seen and there’s an understandable level of distrust.”

Kapongo grew up in Kinshasa, a city with more than 10 million people. The Democratic Republic of Congo, once known as Zaire, is among the poorest countries in the world with a history of civil war and violence.

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” Kapongo said when asked why his family left for the United States.

“You can just say the country is not safe.”

For Kapongo, living in Portland has opened numerous possibilities. He works part-time at a grocery store. On Tuesday, he tried out for the Portland High basketball team. He recently told baseball coach Mike Rutherford, who is also Portland football’s defensive coordinator, that he would like to try baseball.

Nathan Kapongo, 17, heads out to Fitzpatrick Stadium for football practice a few days before the annual Thanksgiving game against Deering. Kapongo, a junior at Portland High, came to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and started at Portland in 2016. He joined the football team quickly after starting school because he said that he had always wanted to play the game. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Football has the potential to open other doors.

Hartman said Kapongo “absolutely can” play college football, adding that the University of Maine has “already talked to him.”

While Kapongo’s skills are raw, his ability to dead-lift 500 pounds five times on his first trip to the weight room shows his natural strength. When Kapongo got his hands on ball carriers this season, they often were stopped in their tracks.

“There are times when he’ll dominate games,” said Rutherford. “The (playoff) games we won at Lewiston and Oxford Hills, he dominated. We don’t get to the (regional) final without him.”

Kapongo said he had a brief conversation with a UMaine assistant coach when the Black Bears played Delaware at Fitzpatrick Stadium this fall. He’s unsure where that will lead but said he would like to play college football and “I think I can.”

“I just like the game,” he said. “You know, it’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty fun.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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Twitter: SteveCCraig