When Michigan tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka carries the ball in
Michigan Stadium, Wolverine fans are twice rewarded. First they
get to watch his quicksilver slither through the defensive line.
Then--and this is the really good part--they get to hear his name
announced over a public address system designed for a crowd of
105,000. Even amplified by a zillion watts, the name sounds like
the song of an exotic bird. "Carrying the ball, number 21,
Tee-MON-gah Bee-OCK-ah-buh-too-kah!" announcer Howard King
proclaims. Typically, the crowd responds as though King had just
announced that pizza would be given away in the parking lot
after the game.
On the road, Biakabutuka's name is not always treated as
elegantly. Last season Notre Dame's press box announcer made the
birdcall sound like a duck that was shot in mid-quack.
"Bee-YAACK...for five yards," he said.
A year ago, while laboring behind eventual first-round draft
pick Tyrone Wheatley, Biakabutuka had four 100-yard games,
scored seven touchdowns and rushed for 783 yards, averaging more
than six yards per carry. The 6'1", 205-pound junior gets those
six-plus yards on two exceptional feet. "When he came to our
football camp three years ago," says offensive coordinator Fred
Jackson, "we could tell within five minutes that he had very
special feet. He makes moves much smaller guys can't make, and
he has an uncanny ability to keep moving forward as he cuts. He
gets his body back to north-south as quickly as anyone I've seen."
In other words, the defense might as well try to catch a
six-foot glob of mercury. Biakabutuka says he can count on his
hands the number of times he has taken a full-body tackle, which
bodes well for his longevity in a game he has been playing only
five years. "I just run for daylight," he says. "I like to hit
it as quickly as possible."
When a preseason shoulder injury to Wheatley gave him some
daylight in the lineup against Boston College last season,
Biakabutuka ran for 128 yards and a touchdown. The following
week, at Notre Dame, he had another 100 yards and scored
Michigan's first TD. Fans were suddenly finding that the
nickname Biakabutuka had picked up in high school--Touchdown
Tim--had a nice ring to it, too. Of course, many people just call
him Tim. "I don't mind, because I know it's easier to
pronounce," he says. "But it's not my name."
He's not sure how Tshimanga would translate into English, but he
knows Biakabutuka means "born-again" in Tshiluba, the language
he spoke as a boy in Kinshasa, Zaire, and still speaks at home
in Montreal. After his family emigrated to Canada in 1980, he
learned French, which he speaks with his buddies in Quebec. "The
hardest part of being in America is living in English day in and
day out," says Biakabutuka, who learned the language by watching
cartoons such as Bugs Bunny and Transformers.
Whereas he credits Bugs with his foundation for English, he
credits his parents and 10 siblings with his foundation for
life. "My father and all the people around me taught me how to
be strong and smart at the same time," says Biakabutuka. "And
when I come home, they are just happy to see me. They don't want
to hear about football. It helps keep me humble."
The game has never been a hot topic at the Biakabutuka family
dinner table. Five years ago, when 16-year-old Tshimanga asked
his mother, Misenga, if he could play football for his school,
Jean-Jacques Rousseau High, she agreed. "She thought I was
playing soccer," he says. "She couldn't understand why I came
home with a broken wrist and bruises all over my body." When
Misenga finally saw one of her son's high school games, she
applauded when he got hit and fumbled the football. "She just
didn't understand it," says Biakabutuka. "After the Colorado
game last year, she called to congratulate me on the win. I
said, 'No, Mom, we lost.' She said, 'Oh,' and changed the
subject. That helped me deal with the loss, because it reminded
me that there are people in the world who don't care about
Not many of them live near Michigan Stadium, however. "It amazes
me how much the fans love the team here," says Biakabutuka.
"It's a shock that grown people admire me and ask for my
autograph. What is an autograph? It doesn't mean anything. I am
not better than they are just because I play football here."
But even a guy who has spent the bulk of his life oblivious to
college football is subject to an occasional lapse in
perspective. Remembering the Wolverines' last-second, 26-24
victory over Notre Dame last season on Remy Hamilton's 42-yard
field goal, Biakabutuka's eyes shine. "The way it came down to a
kick, it was so exciting," he says. "Everybody was jumping
around, coaches were hugging players, there was no barrier
between us. It was the second-best miracle, after the birth of a
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG His native tongue is Tshiluba and he spoke French as a kid, but his nickname is all-American: Touchdown Tim. [Tshimanga (Tim) Biakabutuka holding up sign reading: "HELLO my name is: TSHIMANGA BIAKABUTUKA"]