Former Vanier mates butt heads in Big 12
Cornhuskers' Kabongo, Buffaloes' Hage wage trench warfare in top NCAA grid loop

by ARPON BASU, Freelance

When Marwan Hage broke out of the huddle and sauntered over to the line of scrimmage late in the first quarter of last year's annual Colorado-Nebraska Big 12 conference showdown, seeing a familiar face staring him down from across the line was good and bad.

"It was a lot of fun playing Patrick," Hage recalled in a telephone interview from Boulder, Colo. "It was weird, because I usually play players I really don't know."

Before Hage could get over the euphoria of lining up opposite fellow Vanier alumnus Patrick Kabongo in front of nearly 78,000 screaming fans in Lincoln, Neb., a daunting realization came over him.

Marwan Hage

"He is so big," Hage said of Kabongo, a 6-foot-6, 320-pounder. "He's huge. He gets in his three-point stance, and you can't even see the linebackers (behind him). He's one of the biggest guys I've faced."

Patrick Kabongo

Kabongo, a fifth-year senior who will probably start at defensive tackle for the Cornhuskers this year, and Hage, a four-year starter at guard for the Buffaloes, are the two most successful Vanier College graduates in the NCAA today.

Hage, raised in Town of Mount Royal, arrived in Boulder with 250 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. "All the offensive linemen here looked at me and kind of laughed," he recalled. "But I knew I could play."

And play he did, starting two games as a true freshman, a feat almost unheard of among offensive lineman. Three years and an additional 45 pounds of muscle later, Hage was named to The Sporting News' preseason All-American team.

"It's a lot of pressure, you know the whole nation is watching now," Hage said of the award. "It's good, though, every player wants that. I'd rather have that than be a nobody on the field."

Hage knows he's a definite somebody just by the way his phone is ringing off the hook.

"You get the sense the NFL's watching because you have like 500 agents calling every day," he said. "You want to meet some tricky people, talk to agents. They could sell ice to the Eskimos."

Hage comes from a strong football pedigree. His older brother, Elias, played defensive tackle at East Texas State and another brother, Rudy, was a promising defensive end at Colorado before injuries forced him to leave this year. Needless to say, having two defensive linemen for older brothers couldn't hurt Hage's development.

"We would practise all the time in our backyard against each other," said Hage, who has already earned his degree in business management. "They taught me a lot."

Kabongo's story couldn't be more different.

Born in Kinshasa, Zaire, he was a basketball star at Sun Youth before he was convinced to go out for their football team in Grade 10. Within only four years, the last two at Vanier, Kabongo was accepting a scholarship from the storied Nebraska football program.

"First of all, he was a great athlete," said Earl De la Perralle, who coached Kabongo and Hage at Sun Youth. "For a big man, he had natural quickness."

Kabongo, who is working on his masters in public administration after already earning a bachelor's in criminal justice, finished second among Nebraska defensive linemen in tackles with 62 in 14 games last year, and he said he hopes to improve on those numbers this season.

"I played a lot last year," he said, "and I played well last year."

To his surprise, the Ottawa Renegades selected Kabongo in the third round of the last CFL draft.

"I saw it on the Internet one day," he said. "I was like, 'Wow, I got drafted.' I think I've got a good chance (at the NFL) though, it depends on how well I do this season."

Hage and Kabongo will square off again this season when Nebraska travels to Boulder for a game on Nov. 25.

© Copyright 2003 Montreal Gazette