Gabe Nkumu attempts to tackle Linn-Mar’s Neme Siaway. Tork Mason/For Your Prep SportsBy Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – College football coaches are meticulous in their search for recruits and diligent in their research on prospective players.
So when college coaches showed up at City High to catch a glimpse of Little Hawk quarterback prospects Nate Wieland and Jared Taylor there were a lot of questions over one mystery player snagging passes from the senior quarterbacks.
At 6-foot-1, 200-pounds, a smooth stride and strong hands it didn’t take long for Gabe Nkumu to catch the eye of visiting coaches.
As Nkumu caught pass after pass recruiters had the same question for City High coach Dan Sabers.
Who is this kid?
“I know some coaches were looking at Nate (Wieland) this summer and even Jared (Taylor) and Gabe would be down there catching balls for them and coaches said ‘Who is that kid we don’t have film on him’,” City High coach Dan Sabers said. “I said, ‘no you don’t and here’s why’ but after they boy, they sure wanted to get some film on him.”
There is a good reason Nkumu was a mystery to college coaches.
Before this season Nkumu was an unknown to everyone as a football talent, including his own coach.
A long list of injuries kept forced Nkumu to give up football after his freshman season, seemingly for good.
Until this summer when Nkumu, at the urging of friends like senior defensive back Naeem Smith, found himself catching passes and the attention of college coaches.
Seven games into his senior season Nkumu is no longer a mystery, he’s a key playmaker on both sides of the ball for Class 4A fifth-ranked City High (6-1).
“It’s unbelievably great to have him because he’s been injured and I’m excited he gets to come out here,” Smith said. “He’s playing so hard and he’s playing great. I’m happy for him.”
City High senior Gabe Nkumu
Nkumu isn’t supposed to be playing football. If he listened to the diagnosis from doctors a few years ago he wouldn’t be playing sports at all. However, Nkumu wasn’t interested in giving up his athletic career before it could get going.
“I was told by two different doctors that I would never play sports again but me and my physical therapist we knew that wasn’t going to be an option,” Nkumu explained. We just kept working through it and the last doctor helped me and reconstructed (my knee) so I would be able to get back into what I love doing.”
Nkumu ticks off his injury timeline more like a list of homework assignments than a list of potentially career-ending setbacks.
With a smile, Nkumu recalled his battle with broken bones and surgeries that dates back to eighth grade.
“I’ve have three surgeries on my left knee and then my right leg I’ve broken once but I didn’t need surgery for that one,” Nkumu said. “My patella tendon pulled up on my tibia and then just basically splintered my bone. The last surgery he had to reconstruct my knee because it was beyond repair at that point.”
When questioned about a scar on his broad right shoulder, Nkumu chuckled and nonchalantly added one final injury to the list.
“Oh I had shoulder surgery too,” Nkumu laughed. “I forgot about that.”
His shoulder healed in time for Nkumu to play basketball last season. After making it through the season healthy he began to think about football.
It was a conversation with Smith about his future that got Nkumu thinking about football again.
“After basketball Naeem and I were talking and I was talking about how I wanted to play basketball in college and he said ‘you know with your size you could really do some things with football’,” Nkumu said. “Coach Sabers called me in and talked to me and I decided to do it.”
Before he took a snap in a varsity game Sabers saw the talent Nkumu possessed. The same talent college coaches saw this summer.
“We saw it early, he has the hands, he has the speed and the size, he’s very athletic for a high school kid,” Sabers said. “He plays a lot of football and he’s a guy that has an upside to him and people are starting to look.”
Nkumu has translated that talent to the field this season. He has made 24.5 tackles from his safety spot, good for seventh best on the team.
Strong enough to play at the line of scrimmage in the run game and fast enough to run with receivers, Nkumu has excelled in the Little Hawks’ hybrid safety role.
Nkumu ranks second on the team with two interceptions and has made four tackles for loss.
“If it dictates that he has to be out wide because they are spreading us out then fine but if not he is kind of a hybrid so he can go play inside because he’s 200 pounds and he’s pretty strong,” Sabers said. “That is a key role for us. We can lock him up man and he will be o.k.”
In his first season of varsity football Nkumu just keeps getting better. He had two tackles, with one going for a loss in a season-opening win over Linn-Mar. The next week he made six tackles, including two for loss in a win over Pleasant Valley.
“The first game I was a little nervous,” Nkumu said. “Once I got my first tackle then I was fine.”
Nkumu has been a key part of City High’s passing game revival over the last three weeks. After going without a reception in the first four games he has caught six passes for 202 yards over the last three games.
“The game is very new to him especially at this level it’s very new but he is getting better each week,” Sabers said. “He’s a great kid a great student. He’s a neat kid with a neat story of how he got to this point.”
Most importantly to Nkumu he’s healthy and happy back on the football field.
He has drawn attention from division II colleges as well as some smaller Division I schools and plans to make a decision on his future this winter.
Until then he’s making the most of his one and only season of varsity football and hopes to help City High return to the UNI-Dome for the first time since 2010.
“I feel 100 percent,” Nkumu said. “It feels great to be back out there because all my friends go out for football so I was one of the only other kids sitting in the stands watching. Once I got back I realized how much I really missed it.”