Tshimanga Biakabutuka was 16 and resting on the sidelines at a soccer game in Montreal when a phys-ed teacher asked if he wanted to try out for the football team that Biakabutuka's high school was forming. "What? A lot of guys running into each other like fools?" Biakabutuka recalls responding in French. "I don't want to play that."
"You scared?" asked the teacher. "You think you're not man enough to play?"
That would have angered many adolescent males, but not Biakabutuka, who is black and fought skinheads from time to time just to get to and from his predominantly white school in Montreal. Since immigrating to Canada from Zaire with his parents and 10 siblings when he was six, Biakabutuka had been taught by his father, Mulenga-Wa, that "nothing matters until the guy in front of you proves that he is stronger than you."
Tshimanga smiled at the teacher and said, "I'll be there."
The first day, recalls Biakabutuka, "we practiced for five hours in the heat. It was hard, but I was doing good—just running all over the place. So I just kept on going and fell in love with the sport."
In 1992 his high school football coach brought him to Ann Arbor for Michigan's summer camp. The Wolverines' offensive backfield coach, Fred Jackson (now their offensive coordinator), was impressed with what he saw. "You wouldn't believe what he could do with his feet, the ability to change direction at high speed with very few steps," says Jackson. "And the ability to go east and west without having to chop his feet. Tshimanga can shake his shoulders and get his feet underneath his body as quick as anybody I've ever seen."
Last year, as Tyrone Wheatley's backup, Biakabutuka rushed for 783 yards, including four 100-yard games. He also scored seven touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. He got a reputation as a slithering finesse runner, which he doesn't like. "I'm a tough runner," he says. "I don't think people always see that, because I'm only 6'1", 210. Most of the time I try to go around people. But when I've got no choice, I'm going to punish somebody."
The rest of the Wolverine offense appears capable of dishing out punishment, too. First-year coach Lloyd Carr, promoted from defensive coordinator to replace Gary Moeller, who was forced to resign in the off-season, has enough diverse weaponry to keep the pressure off redshirt freshman quarterback Scott Dreisbach.
On defense an already strong front will get even more help from speedy redshirt freshman tackle Juaquin Feazell. But the secondary, which gave up 15 passes of 30 or more yards last year, lost its best cover man, Ty Law. Whether Michigan returns to the Rose Bowl after a two-year absence may depend largely on how well the secondary develops.
That and how often Biakabutuka's nimble feet take him north and south to paydirt.