This is the day to give Mom some appreciation, share some memories, spend some time, and that’s exactly what Father Ryan junior football player Elton Nkwembe plans to do.
The next actual face time? No telling.
It will have to be done via FaceTime on the iPad, though, and by mid-afternoon — his mother, Angelique Ngoy, lives in the Kasai-Occidental province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, seven hours ahead of this time zone.
“We’re working on it,” said Nkwembe, 16, who lives in Nashville with his 24-year-old brother. “It is hard on days like this, during Christmas and the holidays, things like that. We know the reasons why it has to be this way, but when you see people going with their parents to church and we’re by ourselves, it does make you think about it.”
Compelling stories dwell on every level of sports in this area, and this one was brought to me by Linda Bowers, a Catapult Learning educational instructor at Father Ryan. She told me she has taught many athletes over the years but hasn’t encountered one with “the unique challenges Elton has faced, with the positive outlook he carries each and every day.”
That’s how he has managed to become a near-perfect student who is earning recruiting interest from Ivy League schools. And he credits the long-distance nurturing of Mom and Dad, who live in Congo and probably will for the rest of their lives.
“They always told us, ‘Focus in with a clear vision of what you want to do, and believe in yourself no matter what anyone else says,’” Elton said of Angelique and Tresor Kapuku Ngoy.
They own a rock quarry, a business lucrative enough to send their three children money for bills and to pay the mortgage here. Tresor also is a Christian minister and the former governor of the Kasai-Occidental province.
Elton said he remembers that two bodyguards were always at the side of his father, and the family had to move after a threat on Tresor’s life. Imagine what that must be like for a preschooler.
He held that seat back in 2006, when he and Angelique finally decided their three children needed to leave amid civil wars in the African country, for an opportunity at a better life in the United States.
Angelique’s brother, Alidor Kaburabuza, lived in Nashville at the time and worked as a chef. Elton was 6 when he came with brother Christian, then 14, and sister Arielle, then 8, to live in Alidor’s apartment. Eventually, the four of them moved into the house purchased by Tresor and Angelique.
And soon enough, Elton discovered football. Soccer was all that mattered in his native country. Christian took to tennis at Overton. Eluding, and making, tackles thrilled Elton.
And as any football coach will point out, it provides dress rehearsals for real-life adversity. Elton doesn’t need much of that. Two years after the jolt of moving to the United States, he celebrated his 8th birthday — with Angelique in town to help him celebrate.
“It’s the sport I love,” said Elton, a starting running back and defensive back last season for a Father Ryan team that finished 4-7. “I just love having the ball in my hands, making plays. And it teaches you a lot of lessons. It teaches you about respect, toughness, leadership, being there for others. It teaches you to hold yourself accountable.”
The next day, on Jan. 27, 2008, Elton came out of his room to find his mother crying and talking to police officers. Alidor had gone out that night, apparently fallen asleep at the wheel, and died after crashing his car into a tree.
“It was pretty hard on all of us,” Elton said.
Angelique extended her stay as long as she could before returning home, and then it was on the kids to grow up even faster. They became U.S. citizens in 2010. Christian went to Alabama-Huntsville to earn an electrical engineering degree.
Another uncle, Didier Ndinda of Antioch, stayed with the kids when he could. Angelique visited when she could — such as when Elton broke his leg playing football in eighth grade and needed her there to make him feel better. Football injuries can have upside.
“Those are probably my favorite memories with her,” Elton said.
Now Christian is back and working with Catholic Charities of Tennessee, specifically helping refugees adjust to the move to this country. Arielle is a student at the University of Tennessee, majoring in business.
(And now a word on names. All three children have the middle name of Ngoy, which is their family name. But in their country, parents choose first and last names for their children. So their full names are Christian Ngoy Juru, Arielle Ngoy Mbulupeya and Elton Ngoy Nkwembe).
Elton is making money with a part-time job working the register and busing tables at a Brentwood diner, carrying a 3.9 grade-point average so far at Father Ryan. And he’s hoping his love for football will allow him to play it for a few more years.
Ivy League schools Princeton and Penn have been recruiting him, he said, along with East Carolina and Centre College in Danville, Ky. He has no offers yet, and at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, he doesn’t have ideal size.
But he said he feels a big year coming on at Father Ryan with new coach Brian Rector, who previously won big at Centennial and won a 2005 state title at Ravenwood. The ultimate goal is to be a successful entrepreneur, which starts with the best education possible.
That’s straight from Angelique, who met Tresor in college. One of her favorite lines is: “School lasts forever.”
Elton has accepted that he probably will never live in the same country with his parents — running the rock quarry is a major time demand, he said, and Tresor is planning another run for governor in 2019. All three children visited Congo two years ago, and while it was nice to be under the same roof for a short time, Elton said he also appreciated his daily life in the United States more after the visit.
Today that life will include family time on a small screen — not ideal, but not even an option a few years ago.
“It helps,” Elton said.
Reach Joe Rexrode on Twitter @JoeRexrode.