From Quebec to South Bend, Armel Mukam always wanted to play for ND
SOUTH BEND — Armel Mukam had always been drawn to the sparkle and prestige of the Notre Dame helmet. But not for the Fighting Irish sport he's committed for, at least at first.
Growing up in Quebec, Canada, Mukam wanted to be a college athlete with his sights naturally set on hockey, and Notre Dame caught his eye.
Everything changed, however, when he received his first college football offer from William & Mary, an FCS program in Virginia.
“That was a pretty big moment because all of my life I wanted to go to college for free and play sports," Mukam told The South Bend Tribune. "That day when he (his coach) called, it was like dang, I made it.”
Mukam, a 247sports Composite three-star defensive end, continued down his football path and ended up committing to Stanford in June. Two months later, in August, he flipped his decision to Notre Dame, getting a chance to wear that gold helmet.
Mukam's recruitment wouldn't be as noteworthy if it wasn't for his crazy backstory. Mukam, 6-foot-4, 250-pounds, only started playing football a couple of years ago, when the French-first speaking kid moved from a 542,298-person province in Canada to a 12,000-acre campus at the private boarding school Woodberry Forest in Virginia, surrounded by little civilization, to get better exposure.
Jackson Matteo, Mukam's high school coach, described Mukam's first season at Woodberry Forest as a hockey player that showed up to play American football. Mukam was raw in technique, but had the physical tools and an innate ability to pick things up, like second nature.
"Quite frankly it was a little scary because the first time I saw him go against an offensive lineman, he was so fast, strong and explosive, I had to double take because it was hard for me to believe he was a hockey player just starting football because of how he looked, moved, his instincts, it was a little scary," Matteo said. "This kid was going to be really special and it didn’t take very long."
By year's end, Mukam was named an All-Prep League player and this season was named a team captain with more votes than any of his peers.
Mukam's meteoric rise came as no surprise to him or Matteo.
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It wasn't too long ago that Mukam, who's favorite hockey team is the Montreal Canadiens, was faking injuries so he could skip football practices and games to go play hockey with his neighborhood friends. But during COVID, his mindset changed from an athlete on the ice to one on the gridiron.
"I was watching film, waking up early in the morning, running, working on pass rushing and everything," Mukam said. "That’s when I was like I want to go to college and play football at the DIvision I level.”
That work-ethic immediately transferred to the football field, according to Matteo, even if Mukam's skill wasn't completely there at first.
“The only thing I could say about Armel is he has a motor I have never seen from a high school kid," Matteo said. "It is truly a relentless will to get to the football and make plays.”
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Matteo's best comparison for Mukam was former NFL edge rusher Ezekial Ansah. When Matteo played college football for Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia, the former coach would emphasize his talk of effort and relentlessness by showing a clip of Ansah, who played for Mendenhall at BYU, using his "other wordly" motor to run past defensive backs and linebackers.
Ansah, from Ghana, came out of nowhere to become a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions. Matteo isn't putting those same expectations on Mukam, who also has African heritage with his mother moving to Canada from Chad and his dad from Cameroon, and like Ansah, quickly made his name known on the recruiting stage.
Part of Mukam's decision to flip his commitment from Stanford to Notre Dame was rooted in his past. It was closer to Quebec. It had snow. It felt more like home, and of course had hockey.
Though, Mukam won't be playing for the Irish on ice, he said he plans to still attend games here and there. Only now, those opportunities will have to come in between his Notre Dame football practices and commitments, as Mukam pursues his new dream.