Football has been an integral part of Henoc Muamba’s life for many of his 28 years.
But even the game takes a backseat to his faith.
“It has been the biggest constant in my life,” says the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ middle linebacker, who was presented with the Gord Barwell Award by Athletes in Action Canada during Grey Cup Week in Ottawa.
“In life, there are always ups and downs and, in the same way, my career has been filled with ups and downs — great times and not-so-great times, adversity, failure, success, happy times, sad times. But at the end of the day, my faith has always been there for me and I can always rely on it.
“It helps me move forward. It has helped me become the type of man that I feel like God has called me to be.”
The Gord Barwell Award has been presented for the past 20 years to a CFL player who exhibits faith, character and leadership on and off the field. The award is named after the former Roughriders receiver who helped establish the Athletes in Action ministry in the CFL. Barwell died April 21, 1988 after a battle with brain cancer.
Muamba has participated in AIA events throughout his seven-year career in pro football in hopes of reaching people and giving back. He also has served as a chapel leader with the Roughriders since joining the team last season.
“The strength in Christianity is in community,” says Muamba, who estimates there are “a dozen or so” Roughriders who participate in the team’s chapel services. “Sometimes guys get curious and they come in. They have that foundation (in their faith) and they’ve stepped away, but they want to come back.
“It has been awesome to have that community within the team, whether we’re at home or on the road, whether it’s game day or the middle of the week and we’re practising. It has been awesome to be able to focus on our faith and remember the real reasons for our blessings and why we do what we do.”
Muamba was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He smiles as he calls his parents “super-strong believers” who raised their family in a Christian household while living in the Congo, Montreal and Toronto.
“When I was young, both my brothers (Cauchy and Kelvin) and I were almost — well, I’m not even going to sugar-coat it: We were forced to go to church,” Henoc says with a laugh. “Sundays, Wednesdays, Mondays, Tuesdays — whenever the doors were open, you were sure to find the Muambas in there.
“When I talk to people about my faith, I always tell them that it was really when I left home and went to university that I feel like I took the biggest leaps in my faith.”
After high school, Muamba attended St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. Cauchy was at the school as well, but Henoc also connected with roommates and teammates who shared his beliefs.
That group combined to push Muamba academically, athletically and spiritually during his university days.
“Your environment will determine your direction — and I had the right people around me,” he says. “I’m not trying to say that I’ve always been strong in my faith, that I’ve always done the right things. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve fallen. I’ve failed before. But that’s the wonderful thing about Christianity and our faith.
“God is gracious enough to accept our repentance when we ask for forgiveness as long as we’re willing to grow and learn from our past mistakes. The foundation I had was huge and the next thing was having the right people around me.”
Muamba was named a first-team CIS All-Canadian in 2008 and 2010 and a second-team All-Canadian in 2009. In 2010, he received the President’s Trophy as the top defensive player in Canadian university football.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers selected Muamba in the first round (first overall) of the 2011 CFL draft and he made his debut in the league that summer.
After three seasons in Winnipeg, he spent the 2014 campaign with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts before returning to the CFL in 2015 with the Montreal Alouettes. He tried his luck in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016 but joined the Roughriders in October of that year after being released by Dallas.
He had one of his finest seasons as a pro in 2017, finishing with a team-best 82 defensive tackles and adding 11 special-teams stops, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. He was named the Roughriders’ most outstanding Canadian in balloting by members of the Football Reporters of Canada.
“God has placed this game in my life for a specific reason and it has made me the person I am today, not just on the field but off the field as well,” Muamba says. “The lessons that I’ve learned have made me a better person, a better husband, a better brother and a better friend to the people around me.”
Muamba and his wife, Jessica, are expecting their first child in February. But before their daughter arrives, Muamba will continue sharing his time and his story with anyone who’s interested in God’s message.
“My mom always told me, ‘You’re blessed to be a blessing,’ ” Muamba says. “I have been so blessed when I look back over my life, so one of my focuses over the last few years has been to be the same blessing to others as much as God has blessed me in my life.”