ORONO — Khari Al-Mateen was only 17 when he showed up to play football at the University of Maine.

He quickly showed an ability to act both older and younger than his age.

“He had a little boy in him, which was kind of refreshing. He had a lot of energy,” Black Bears Coach Jack Cosgrove said. “But he never looked like he was ever homesick, which speaks to his maturity. He didn’t lack confidence in himself. I think that’s how he’s prospered.

“Some guys really immerse themselves not only in the (football) program, but in the campus. He’s done that.”

Al-Mateen redshirted as a freshman, was an important role player in 2011 and has been a team leader and starting safety the last three seasons.

And yet, as his Black Bear career winds down this month, it’s debatable whether his biggest impact in Orono has been as a football player or a campus leader.

Al-Mateen, a graduate of the prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, has taken every opportunity to make a difference in a community he said now feels like home.

The devout Christian has been a member of the football team’s bible study group. He sits on the school’s Athletic Engagement Committee, which tries to get the student body more involved in sporting events on campus. He is president of Strong Mind-Strong Body, a philanthropic organization that serves the university and surrounding communities. Its most recent project was a fundraiser for breast cancer research at the homecoming football game that raised $270.

When the university organized a march against domestic violence last week, Al-Mateen was one of the first football players to step forward. While other Black Bears were being interviewed about their upcoming game, he could be seen in a hallway at the athletic complex filming a public service announcement for the march.

“I think it is important to be involved in on-campus things and with different people. The more people you work with, the more connections you make, the more your network grows, and I think that’s something that will prove valuable to me in the future,” Al-Mateen said.

Maine’s football team had a bye Saturday. This is a foreign concept to Al-Mateen. He will get his degree in management next month and needed to take only one course this semester. He took three, adding two classes in entrepreneurship in case he wants to open his own business someday.

“I couldn’t just sit around and take one class,” he said. “Besides, it’s not like its hard.”

Al-Mateen spent his summer interning for Learfield Sports, the multinational marketing entity that owns broadcast rights for dozens of American universities. He also was helping organize youth summer camps through Strong Mind-Strong Body.

He still found time to work on his biggest deficiency as a football player – tackling. Cosgrove said the one negative NFL scouts have always commented on when evaluating Al-Mateen was the number of opposing runners who seemed to elude his grasp.

He is tied for fifth on the Black Bears this season with 34 tackles. He has three games remaining to state his case to the NFL and is planning to pursue that path for as long as he can. Then, he foresees a career in sports management or maybe human resources. He is good at bringing out the best in people, he said.

Whatever happens, Orono will always be a home to him, Al-Mateen said. It is a sentiment echoed by his close friend, cornerback Axel Ofori Jr., another senior from Maryland who felt transformed in remote Maine.

Both point to the time they moved into an off-campus apartment together three years ago as the moment they became cemented in Orono.

“When I was younger, I always wanted to go home, I needed a break,” Ofori said. “When I got older, I realized this is where I needed to be. It’s more calm and relaxed. It’s what’s prepared me for my future.

“It took me a while to grow up, but this place made me a man. It got my priorities straight.”

Al-Mateen, a fifth-year senior, is still only 21. He carries himself as someone much older. Cosgrove has long leaned on him to deliver messages to the team on the day before games. He always hits just the right tone, Cosgrove said.

When Al-Mateen is asked how he wants to be remembered in Orono, though, he mentions nothing about the sport that brought him here.

“I want to be remembered as someone who loved everybody,” he said.

“I just want them to hear Khari, and smile.”