Nathan Kapongo of Portland is getting a head start on his freshman season with the University of New Hampshire football team, taking a summer class and working in the weight room. Photo by Steve Craig/Staff Writer

DURHAM, N.H. — His size and natural strength made Nathan Kapongo a coveted football recruit.

But it wasn’t just Kapongo’s 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame that convinced University of New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell that the Portland High product was scholarship worthy.

“He’s a very quick learner, a very anxious learner,” said McDonnell, entering his 21st season as UNH’s head coach. “He wants to learn. He has a high thirst. He wants to soak up all this stuff that we’re doing.”

“I mean, who doesn’t want to learn? I can do nothing but learn. And that’s the best way to be successful,” Kapongo said.

That’s why Kapongo, 19, is already on the UNH campus. He’s taking his first college course (“The New Pirates of the Caribbean”). In the afternoons he goes through weight-training sessions with older and considerably more experienced teammates.

His workout partners, Brian Carter and Elijah Lewis, two junior defensive linemen, are beginning their fourth year of college football.

Nathan Kapongo of Portland strains during a weight-training session at the University of New Hampshire. Kapongo will be a freshman on the UNH football team. Photo by Steve Craig/Staff Writer

Kapongo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is about to begin his fourth season of football at any level. He had never put on shoulder pads and a helmet until his sophomore year at Portland High.

So he keeps a close eye on Carter and Lewis, emulating their movements. After Carter throws a heavy chain around his shoulders while doing pull-ups, Kapongo does the same.

“He’ll be OK. He’s got his head on straight,” Carter said.

Since arriving in Portland in the spring of 2016, Kapongo has had to be a fast learner. The youngest of 12 children, he spoke French as well as Lingala, an ethnic language of the Congo.

“When they got here, he had no English, and he had to quickly learn English and jump into mainstream classes,” said Kimberly Holmes, an assistant principal at Portland High.

Despite the language barrier, Holmes quickly learned that Kapongo “thinks big and nothing is going to get in his way of thinking big.”

“Nathan said, ‘I’m going to play football and I’m going to play football in college,'” Holmes said.

By the end of his junior season, Kapongo was named to the Class A North all-conference team and the University of Maine began recruiting him. As a senior, with a firmer grasp of English and football, Kapongo began to dominate along the defensive front. He set a school record with 16 quarterback sacks. He also returned kicks and served as a formidable blocking back for 2,000-yard rusher Zack Elowitch, was nominated for the Gaziano Lineman Award and selected to the Varsity Maine All-State team.

Two days before the Feb. 6 national signing day, Kapongo announced he had verbally committed to New Hampshire. But unlike other scholarship recruits, Kapongo did not have the signing day photo opportunity, surrounded by family and teammates. His late start at Portland High had left him shy of the requirements for certification by the NCAA Eligibility Center. He needed to finish two English classes in the spring and retake a science credit.

Kapongo passed the English classes. He passed the science class. And he graduated. All the while, UNH stuck by him, keeping his scholarship offer on the table.

“The most important thing was to sign. And I did sign. And I finished school strong, so that was the key,” Kapongo said.

“Obviously signing day came and went and (UNH was) still committed to him,” said Jason McLeod, the new Portland coach. “I wish Nate could have enjoyed that quick moment of notoriety of signing day but at the same time, he’s not big on accolades and personal recognition.”

Under McDonnell, the Wildcats have become one of the country’s top Division I Football Championship Series programs. UNH made 14 consecutive FCS playoff appearances from 2004-17 before going 4-7 in 2018. McDonnell took the lead in Kapongo’s recruitment.

“Football is one thing but I want to make sure when you’re going to take a chance, or invest in a kid, that it’s well worth it,” McDonnell said. “And once you’re around him, you see he’s got a great personality and you’re drawn to him.”

Kapongo grew up in Kinshasa, a city of 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.

He is unwilling to discuss why his parents decided to leave their home.

“That’s a long story and I don’t really feel comfortable to talk about it,” Kapongo said.

McDonnell said he focused on “the here and now,” when getting to know Kapongo. McDonnell wanted to know how Kapongo learned, how he worked through challenges.

Paul Chapman, UNH’s director of strength and conditioning, is already seeing Kapongo’s willingness to improve.

“The biggest thing with him is, he’s an intelligent kid. He also is really, really dedicated toward getting better,” Chapman said.

Kapongo has already gained 10 pounds since his senior season.

“With that body, he’ll be a 305-pound defensive lineman for us eventually,” Chapman said.

“To do what he’s going to do is going to be special,” McDonnell said. “If he continues to work at it, it’s going to be a great, great partnership for both of us.”

McDonnell expects Kapongo to redshirt as a freshman, which is common, particularly for linemen.

Kapongo sounds like he’s intent on changing his coach’s mind.

“Definitely I want to play this year. I want to have some time on the field and definitely I want to be better in the class. Much better,” he said.