Nov. 21, 2013
By: Todd Burlage
Prince Shembo's familiarity with the plight of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) comes only from stories his father has shared, what he has seen on the Internet, and the many philanthropic missions Oprah has been recognized for performing there.
Considered the epicenter of the "African World War," this central African country is rife with human rights abuses, government corruption, disease, famine and hopelessness.
Yet, despite all the hardship and with no immediate ties to the DRC, Shembo can't ignore the pull he feels to someday go and give to the war-torn nation which his father was raised in, but so fortunate to escape from in 1986.
"I don't know exactly when or in what way I'll be able to give back yet," Shembo explains. "But someday I want to visit my homeland and make a difference. Helping the people there is something that is very important to me, and something I always carry with me."
When asked what drives his motivation to visit and assist the people in a country halfway around the world that he knows very little about, Shembo said his passion stirs from the opportunities - sort of his own American Dream - he has found during his time at Notre Dame after a difficult childhood.
Until becoming more settled during high school in Charlotte, N.C., Shembo's upbringing brought instability and frequent relocation while his parents chased better employment and financial security. And just about the time life finally seemed where it belonged, the Shembos were dealt another unthinkable blow when Prince's 50-year-old father, Maurice, suffered a brain aneurysm in September of 2011.
Prince Shembo has endured more than any young man should ever be asked to. But to borrow a famous adage: "that which doesn't kill us, only makes us stronger," the Notre Dame senior has committed his future to giving back to others as a way of saying thanks to his family and his heritage.
"My mom and dad constantly preached to me about how lucky I was to get everything I have, and enjoy the opportunities that living in the United States provided," Shembo says. "I feel blessed. I have always wanted to go back and I just pray that when I go back, I'm going back to give back."
Shembo said much of his inspiration comes from wanting to follow the lead of former NBA center and DRC native Dikembe Mutombo, the 7-foot-2 shotblocking legend who has given countless volunteer hours and personal resource to build schools, hospitals and improve infrastructure in the DRC.
The Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, Inc., has raised millions of dollars to help millions of Congolese find a better life, or at the very least, increase their chances of survival and lower the alarming rate of infant mortality.
Following Mutombo's lead, Shembo hopes to someday make difference in a way that hits closer to his area of expertise - football.
Shembo is already in his Irish coaches' ears to start recruiting players from the DRC, and when the time is right, his hope is to take and teach football to the Congolese youth.
"Sports is the only way out of (the DRC) for some people," Shembo says. "And if I can help some young people find a way out, I would love to do that. I would love to make a difference in any way I can. It is something that is very important to me."
Nothing has come easy for Prince Shembo or his family.
After has father immigrated to the United States, the only employment opportunities for his parents were working menial jobs and odds hours at hotels, or perhaps wherever else provided any income. But for the Shembos, spending all night working in a hotel was far better than the alternative of suffering through the strife and hopelessness back in the DRC.
"You could go to school in Africa but when you were finished, what's next?" Shembo says. "There was nothing for them, and that is why I am so blessed to have a chance to get a degree and play football for a such a great university like Notre Dame."
The jobs and the pay have improved; Shembo's mother works as a nurse now. But with two college-aged children - Prince's 19-year-old sister Christelle plays basketball at Wake Forest - and with Maurice recovering but unable to work during aneurysm rehabilitation, the Shembo family still faces more than its share of hardship.
Shembo says his mother routinely works seven days a week - nine hours on weekdays and the overnight 12-hour nursing shift on weekends - a schedule that doesn't allow mom to see her son play in person, save for a handful of times during Prince's Irish career.
Gina was able to get to Arlington, Texas, to watch Prince and the Irish play last month against Arizona State. She also went to the national championship game in Miami in January. No mom could miss that!
"I went from coming home from high school and seeing my mom every day to seeing her very rarely now," Shembo says. "My mom is who pushes me to work hard every day. If I'm having a bad day or things aren't going my way, I think of my mother and she gets me through. The sacrifices she makes every day are unimaginable."
Some of the details of how fortunate Prince's father is to still be alive will never be known. Be it through perfect timing or some higher power, the father of teammate Lo Wood discovered Maurice unconscious in a South Bend hotel room when the aneurysm hit. Maurice was in town for the Notre Dame - Michigan State game when the malady struck and seconds meant everything.
The lasting damage from the aneurysm had been done, but at least Maurice survived long enough for medical care to arrive, and soon enough to hold hope for a steady recovery. Shembo's teammate, TJ Jones, lost his father, Andre, to a brain aneurysm only about three months before Maurice suffered his.
Family means more than anything to Prince Shembo, who missed the only game of his Notre Dame career that weekend to stay by his father's side.
"My father is the man who only wanted to find a better opportunity," Shembo says. "My father has done so much for me. He is the man that introduced me to football."
Maurice wasn't able to make it to South Bend today to help recognize his son during Senior Day, but Prince's mother, Gina, is here. And when a grateful son stands arm-and-arm on the field with a proud mother to celebrate all the hard work it takes to earn a Notre Dame degree, football will find a backseat to this special reunion.
"I won't be thinking about the game, where I am or anything else that will be going on," Shembo says of his final home game. "I'm just going to be thinking about having my mom here. It can't get any more special than that."
Shembo's dream of giving back to his family and homeland will take a big step toward reality this spring when he is selected in the 2014 National Football League Draft.
The athletic 6-2, 250-pound dependable bruiser is rated as the No. 11 draft-eligible outside linebacker, according to nfldraftdcountdown.com, and his versatility will be an obvious selling point to prospective NFL suitors.
Shembo has the size, strength and speed to play multiple positions at the next level. Yet, he has remained somewhat overshadowed during a career that has featured steady production and only one game missed in four seasons.
"The way he plays, the passion that he plays the game every single play, it's just so enjoyable," says Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "He's a throwback in a lot of ways with his energy and his toughness and the way he comes to work every day."
The coaches also rave about Shembo's work ethic and quiet leadership.
"He's a guy that is not going to say much but just his energy, his passion and his actions out on the field and the way he works," Kelly says. "You can see just by his uniform, it's drenched every day ... You've almost got to take his helmet away from him."
As for Shembo, he doesn't mind being overshadowed. He's not the type of player to crave the attention or headlines anyway. See, he's all about giving and giving back, be it in football, and in life.
"Honestly, what I do behind the scenes is really what drives me. I like to stay behind the scenes," Shembo says. "That's me. I just want to do my part and make the people around me better."
Some sincere words for a young man that hopes to help an entire country, and not just his football teammates.