PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It wasn’t always easy, but it was always good.
“My mom did a real good job of making sure we didn’t know we were poor. It’s not until I look back on it now that I know because we were always having fun, like we were going camping, we were going on walks, runs, we had dogs so we never knew we were down bad, we always thought we were good.”
Jefferson High School senior Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge grew up the child of single mom.
His parents met while his mom was studying abroad, in France. His father, Christian, was a security guard on a visa from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“They had their own love story,” Rawlins-Kibonge said with a smile.
The journey begins
Christian, who is on a visa that doesn’t allow him to leave France, has stayed abroad while Teresa raised Nathan in the United States.
They bounced around for his early years, moving from Denver to Eugene and Springfield.
“You kind of just got used to not being in one place,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “It really taught me how to talk to people. It taught me how to be fluent in my speech, it taught me how to really present yourself and first impressions are a big thing.”
It wasn’t just moving around that taught Nathan how to talk to people. As the son of a teacher, school was always in session for Nathan.
“She had a sticker on her car that said ‘I’m the grammar snob of whom your mother warned you about,'” Rawlins-Kibonge said with a smile. “If we said something wrong grammatically, she’s on it, she’s on your head.”
No matter where they moved, there was always a gym, and it’s there Nathan could always find peace.
“It just was a safe place,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “I felt like no matter what anybody said about me, when it came to basketball I always had a place, I always had something to go to.”
What drove him to the gym
One of the hardest things Nathan heard said about him was about his skin color. When Nathan and his mom first moved to Eugene, they stayed in their trailer outside a friend’s home and sometimes stayed in an extra room. Until it all fell apart.
“They didn’t really like me, because you know,” said Nathan, gesturing to his mixed-race skin tone. “We had to move out. We were living in front of my school so I didn’t have to walk.”
It’s part of what drove Nathan to the gym. He started playing basketball, with Mom as his biggest fan.
“She knew nothing about sports but she was always in my ear, like keeping me going,” he said.
While he shone on the court, a piece of him longed for the football field. But on that, Mom had put her foot down.
“I took her to see ‘Concussion,'” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “That was my first mistake.”
The 2015 film starring Will Smith depicting the dangers of contact football and the long-lasting effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE as it’s commonly known, slammed the door on Nathan’s dreams of playing in the NFL for much of his life.
“She was like, ‘You’re never playing football, it’s never happening.'”
His first scholarship
Instead, he focused on basketball, earning a scholarship to Washington State University. It fulfilled one of his mom’s and his biggest goals.
“My mom’s always harped, like, it’s education, it’s education and so if I can use my body and my skills to get an education I feel like I’ve succeeded.”
Everything seemed set for Nathan to become a Cougar, until Jefferson head football coach Don Johnson approached him before his junior year, asking him to join the Demos football team. Nathan still wanted to play, but needed mom’s permission first.
“She was like, ‘Well, you’re getting older, you’ve got to make your own decisions. You can play football.'”
Becoming a defensive end
Nathan didn’t give her a chance to change her mind. He hit the football field with undeniable intensity, slotted by coach to play defensive end.
“On the basketball court, I’m kind of aggressive,” Nathan said. His 6-fee-7, 240-pound frame was built to wreak havoc on offensive lines and quarterbacks, and Nathan took to it immediately.
“I like the technique and how it’s kind of like subtly not noticed,” Rawlins-Kibonge said of playing defensive end. “I feel like defensive ends are really the best athletes on the field at times because you have to be big, you’ve got to be fast but you also got to be skilled. I feel like they’re the most athletic, hardest-hitting, the toughest guys on the field.”
It took all of eight quarters of high school football for Rawlins-Kibonge to land his first college offer to play football.
Scouts were quickly singing his praises, calling him “explosive” off the edge, and saying he showed a “quickness” to the quarterback. Rawlins-Kibonge racked up more than a dozen NCAA Division 1 offers, with each of the Power 5 conferences represented.
With all those options, Rawlins-Kibonge committed to the University of Oklahoma, choosing them not just for the sports, where he hopes to play both football and basketball.
“I wanted to go where I was going to be at home the most,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “It was really just the coaching staff [that made him feel at home]. One, they’re really diverse. I feel like they understand where we’re coming from (as black athletes), I feel like they really understand us. They really embraced me, that’s big for me, I really love being embraced by people.”
‘Going to give her everything’
He loves being embraced. He also wants to do the embracing.
“Growing up, especially with a white mom,” Rawlins-Kibonge said. “I’ve seen the white side of my culture a lot and coming to [Jefferson] I got to see the black culture a lot. That’s what my mom harps on me. She says, ‘You have a power to unite people because you’re of two people.'”
“So that’s what I really try to do. I try to keep that power within myself and relate to two people because that’s something that not a lot of people have.”
Rawlins-Kibonge’s dreams have shifted from the NBA to the NFL, but his motivation to succeed never has.
“She tells me every day, ‘I don’t want nothing from you,'” Rawlins-Kibonge says of his mom. “But she doesn’t even know I’m going to give her everything.”