Henoc Muamba won’t be playing in this year’s Touchdown Atlantic but that’s okay, he says. He’ll still get to renew acquaintances with the place and the people that mean so much to him.
Of course he’d rather be on the field this Saturday when the Toronto Argonauts take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders in at a sold out Huskies Stadium, in Halifax. But a knee injury that has kept him out of the Toronto line-up all season long will do so once again in Week 8.
“We’re in a good place,” says Muamba of the state of the Argos, who top the CFL overall standings with a record of 5-0, “so I have no complaints at all.”
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Speaking of being in a good place, that’s how Muamba feels about heading back to a part of the country he considers so special – Nova Scotia – even if he’ll be limited, once again, to being glued to the Toronto sidelines and wearing civvies, instead of patrolling the middle of the defence at linebacker.
The current flows both ways. Muamba is excited to head back East, and those old friends who’ve remained there over the years are excited that he is returning. That the CFL is returning.
“It started in the off-season,” says Muamba, noting that his phone lit up when the CFL first announced details of Touchdown Atlantic for 2023.
“I had people texting me ‘Henoc, I’m coming to the game, I’m looking forward to it.’ I got a bunch of texts already this (past) weekend. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with certain people and meeting a whole bunch of new people as well.”
Muamba may have been born in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa, and raised in Mississauga, Ontario, but he also spent four very important and formative years in the Maritimes, a star linebacker for the St. Francis Xavier University X-Men, in Antigonish.
The university, the city, and the province would become very important to the man who would go on to be named both Outstanding Canadian and Outstanding Player in the 2022 Grey Cup. The atmosphere stuck with him.
So did the people.
“People just aren’t in a rush to go anywhere,” says Muamba, himself a fearsome force on the field but a relaxed and friendly one off it.
“They’re taking their time, they want to get to know people. People wanna be nice to others. It’s completely different from a lot of places in the country. It’s definitely unique over there.”
From 2007 to 2010, Muamba built his football reputation with St. FX, leaving the university as the school’s all-time leader in tackles, with 149.5. Twice he was named the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) Defensive Player of the Year. In 2010, he was honoured as the best defensive player in all of Canadian university football.
It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be that way. In high school, Muamba was a mostly a running back and a defensive back. His coach at Father Michael Goetz Secondary School in Mississauga, Gary Waterman, had also moved over to St. FX, joining the team as defensive coordinator prior to Muamba’s arrival. Waterman soon had an idea about where Muamba’s development would take him.
“We knew he had tremendous potential and once he got to this level, you could see that as his body was filling out, linebacker was the spot where he was going to excel the most,” says Waterman, who has been head coach of the X-Men since 2009. “And so we made that switch and got him at linebacker and he fit right in.”
“It was an amazing time for me,” says Muamba, who would become the first St. FX player ever to be selected number one in the CFL draft, taken by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2011.
He learned a lot, he says, about hard work and dedication during those years. And about the brotherhood of a football team, too. His gratitude for that time, and that place, though, touches on aspects beyond the gridiron.
“The environment itself was huge for me to become who I am today,” Muamba says of his time in Nova Scotia. I fell in love, completely with the game of football. But beyond that, man. The people there are amazing. Super welcoming. I grew so much as a human being.”
“Going from Mississauga to Antigonish was a huge culture shock and so I had to learn, literally, how to communicate with people differently and effectively.”
And the football fans down East?
“They were super-passionate, man,” says Muamba, reverentially.
“Go to the different places in Nova Scotia,” he continues. “You see how passionate they are about the game of football. I know that CFL has been exploring the opportunity of expanding into the East Coast. I think that it’s going to be amazing for the country, amazing for the CFL. Because those fans are truly special.”
If it’s true that the people of Nova Scotia had a profound effect on Muamba, Waterman thinks the young football player from Ontario already had some qualities inside him that Maritimers could appreciate, and so the reciprocal energy just fed on itself.
“You talk about East Coasters,” begins Waterman, “they’re gonna give you the shirt off their back and they’re gonna open their doors and arms to you. And they’re gonna be very gracious. And all you all you need to do is just be respectful and be a good person.”
“Which he was, obviously.”
Last year, Muamba did get to play in the Touchdown Atlantic game, the Argos scoring a 30-24 win over Saskatchewan in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
That trip was a bit more of an extended one than this one will be and the 34-year-old veteran of ten CFL seasons enjoyed it immensely.
“I’ve always appreciated the scenery,” Muamba says. “It’s amazing to sight-see, like Peggy’s Cove and being on shore. Going back last year, I was absolutely amazed at the variety of foods and the diversity there is. In Halifax, in particular.”
Muamba is hopeful that he’ll be in the Argos’ line-up again, soon, and the team would, of course, love to have him back. In the meantime, both Jordan Williams – himself injured and out of the line-up since Week 4 – and Jonathan Jones have held down the middle for Toronto.
While he can’t fully take part in Touchdown Atlantic this time around, Muamba will still revel in being down East once again, enjoying the game, the people and the culture that were so important to him as a maturing young man.
And once again, no doubt, the current will flow both ways.