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B.C. Lions' Jeremiah Johnson, right, is tackled by Montreal Alouettes' Henoc Muamba during the first half of a CFL football game in Vancouver, on June 16, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Henoc Muamba has emerged as one of the CFL’s top defensive players, but he didn’t always enjoy the physical nature of football.

In fact early on, the Montreal Alouettes star linebacker went to great lengths to avoid contact. Muamba’s first love was basketball and when he took up football in Grade 10 in Mississauga as a running back he actively steered clear of getting hit to save himself for the hardwood.

“I hated the contact ironically enough,” Muamba said in an interview during Montreal’s bye week. “I had some success my first year because I ran in fear trying not to get hit.

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“But the more I played, the more I started to love the game. It was challenging the first year I picked it up and remains that way today. Embracing challenge teaches you many lessons about life and gives you the right attitude for life as well.”

Muamba, 29, was a quick study. The 6-foot, 230-pound native of Kinshasa, Congo, was three times an All-Canadian at St. Francis Xavier and Canadian university football’s top defensive player in 2010.

Muamba, who grew up in Montreal before his family relocated to Ontario, was selected first overall by Winnipeg in the 2011 CFL draft. Since then. Muamba has been with the Bombers (2011-13), NFL’s Indianapolis Colts (2014-15) and Dallas Cowboys (2016), Montreal (2015, 2018) and Saskatchewan Roughriders (2016-17).

Muamba was the East Division’s top rookie in 2011 and a ’13 CFL all-star. He’s currently tied for third overall in tackles (22), one of four Alouettes in the top six, including league-leader Chris Ackie (27).

Muamba has also experienced adversity, most recently in February when released by Saskatchewan. But unlike past years when he only had himself to worry about, this time Muamba had to also consider his wife and 5 1/2-month old daughter regarding where he’d play next, ultimately choosing Montreal, partly because it was close to Southern Ontario.

“Before getting married last year, it was like, ’Hey, Henoc, where do you want to go?’” he said. “I’d have a conversation with myself and decide.

“Now, it was a completely different decision to make. It puts many things into perspective and teaches you to be selfless and I think it’s a lesson that takes you far if you can master it in life.”

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Muamba said his family went to Montreal also for cultural reasons.

“Having the ability to speak French is something I’ve always cherished,” he said. “My wife is learning it as well and we want our daughter to be able to speak.”

Muamba said time has taught him to accept football’s harsh business realities.

“You learn to understand the world you’re in,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from football, not just on the field and Xs and Os.

“I think you’ve got to focus on the lessons that are kind of hidden in the game. I love finding these gems and sharing them with teammates. I think football is so parallel to life. If you focus and look deep enough within your life I think you can learn on a daily basis.”

Muamba said the off-field uncertainty hasn’t diminished his desire to play football.

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“I still throw up before games,” he said with a chuckle. “I tell my wife until I lose that passion I’m going to keep playing.

“That’s when I’ll know it’s time.”

Muamba hasn’t yet won a Grey Cup but has experienced something precious few in the game have. During his CFL career he’s played with his brothers, defensive backs Kelvin (24) and Cauchy (31).

“That’s absolutely a highlight, not many people can say that,” he said. “It kind of brought the whole family together.

“My career really has been a dream come true as has my life. I never, ever take it for granted.”

Cauchy Muamba won two Grey Cups (2011 with B.C., 2015 with Edmonton). A CFL title remains Henoc Muamba’s goal but not for the winner’s cheque or to flash a gaudy championship ring.

“You want to win a championship because you play the game to win,” he said. “It’s the ultimate, the pinnacle, you’re on top when you do.

“But I’ve talked to people who’ve won multiple championships and ironically it’s not the rings that are most important, it’s the experience. Coach Stubler (Montreal defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler) has won many rings but says the memories he’s built and created on those journeys are the ones he cherishes the most so I’d definitely put the journey and lessons at the top. But obviously you still want to win.”

Eight years of pro football have taught Muamba plenty and he’s always eager to share his experiences with younger players.

“When you’re young, you think you’re invincible,” Muamba said. “You focus all your energy on games and practices and that’s not bad but you have to broaden your perspective sometimes.

“I tell young guys football is going to take so much from you, and I can say this having gone through multiple surgeries and sacrificed so much time away from my family. You’ve got to make sure you take something from it, but the game won’t give it to you, you must work for it. There are many hidden gems in football that you really have to open your eyes to see and pay attention to in order to take them away from it.”

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