Cyrus Kouandjio was sitting on an exercise bike after his first official professional workout Saturday when he opened up an envelope from the Bills that contained a few hundred dollars. It was meal money for the 6-foot-7, 322-pound rookie who enters the NFL a very hungry man.
Six years ago, Kouandjio was so new to football that he didn’t know even how to wear his equipment. He showed up for his first high school practice in jeans. He inserted knee pads into the pocket for thigh pads. His helmet was too big. His coach took one look at him, laughed and sent him to the locker room.
“I had to go back and change,” Kouandjio said. “I had a tough time my first couple years of football.”
Four years ago, when he was a senior at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., he often didn’t have lunch money. His parents spent every penny they could find on tuition. A few times a month, he was forced to sneak onto public buses because he didn’t have $1.25 for the fare home.
“I watched all these rich kids eat,” Kouandjio said. “I’d sit there with my stomach grumbling. All it did was make me work hard.”
Twenty years ago, Kouandjio was born in Yaunde, the capital city of Cameroon in central Africa. His father was one of 43 children. His paternal grandfather, chief adviser of his village, had nine wives. His maternal grandfather had some 75 wives, a fact Kouandjio found out only a few weeks ago from his mother.
His father, Jean-Claude Kouandjio, spent part of his childhood running from civil unrest and often lived in the woods with family members. He eventually married and started his own family. He saved enough money to move his wife and three sons to the United States when Cyrus was 4 years old.
Jean-Claude Kouandjio wanted his boys to have a better life and get an education that wasn’t available in a Third World country. Cyrus and brothers Arie and Michael grew up playing soccer because it was the sport their parents knew best. Plus, it didn’t require more than a ball.
Football wasn’t even considered until Arie’s size drew the attention of the high school coach at DeMatha. Cyrus was a year younger but slightly bigger, more athletic and no less competitive than his brother. Their parents were stunned when they blossomed into top recruits and started fielding scholarship offers.
“They were more concerned with education,” Kouandjio said. “They wanted a good foundation, which was education. Football, I guess the way they always looked at it, was a hobby. Then it got serious.”
Arie signed with Alabama. More than 60 schools offered Cyrus a scholarship the following year. He first considered New Mexico, not knowing it was a few notches below other superpowers in pursuit. When he announced that he was going to Auburn and a few days later signed with Alabama, he was unaware that he was jumping from college football’s Red Sox to the Yankees.
Cyrus initially picked Auburn because he didn’t want to compete with Arie for playing time at Alabama. He worried one brother’s success would come at the expense of the other. “We played the same position,” Cyrus said. “It was a conflict of interest.” Alabama coach Nick Saban solved that problem last season when he put Cyrus at left tackle and Arie at left guard.
And the Crimson Tide rolled. Alabama built one of the top offenses in the country and reached its third title game before losing to Auburn. In six years of football, the SEC championship game marked Kouandjio’s seventh loss – four at ’Bama and three others in high school. He declared for the NFL draft while Arie, a redshirt as a freshman, remained at ’Bama for his senior year.
Seven years ago, when kids in high school told Cyrus that he was going to the NFL, he thought they were crazy. He was a big kid who was learning the sport. You would think that Kouandjio (pronounced KWAN-joe), given his background, would have been thrilled after the Bills selected him in the second round. After all, he traveled a long way in a short amount of time and realized a dream.
In fact, he was furious. He didn’t crack a smile when his name was announced with the 44th pick overall. Kouandjio wasn’t upset because Buffalo took him, although that was reasonable. He was angry because all 32 teams ignored him in the first round, and 11 more followed in the second.
He understood concerns about his knee, which required surgery. But he was a two-year starter for a top program, a first-team All-American last season, an Outland Trophy semifinalist and a winner. For the first time in his career, he felt disrespected.
The Bills see him as a right tackle. He already has impressed the front office with his attitude and work ethic. He has the size and strength to contribute in the NFL. They believe he has first-round talent and will help in the running and passing games if he can stay healthy. Kouandjio vowed to show they made the right decision.
He’s no longer hungry. He’s hungry and angry, which is even better.
“It sparked a fire inside of me that I hadn’t felt in years,” Kouandjio said. “It’s that fire, that will to push myself past my boundaries, to do anything, just to prove people wrong.”