The difficult case of Clement Mubungirwa

Kakule Clement Mubungirwa’s story already is one of triumph over tragedy.

Before he was 12 years old, Mubungirwa’s father went missing and was presumed to have been murdered.

He was born in one African nation and lived with his mother and six siblings in refugee camps in another, surviving malaria and a broken leg that was splinted with reeds and treated with herbal remedies.

Yet the 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior at Episcopal has displayed determination in the classroom and on the field. Mubungirwa works countless hours to make up for lost years of schooling. He is on track to graduate in 2015.

But for his story in athletics to continue, Mubungirwa and Episcopal must overcome a decades-old Louisiana High School Athletic Association rule that prohibits athletes who turn 19 before Sept. 1 from competing the following school year. That request has created a firestorm for the school and the LHSAA.

“Through the years, I’ve been involved in and seen appeals,” Episcopal Athletic Director Myra Mansur said. “But I’ve never had one that has affected me the way this one does. I know the rule, and I understand the intent of it. You don’t want to put mature men on the field with 14-year-olds.

“To me, this case is different. I’d feel that way regardless of whether Clement scores another touchdown or another goal. Where is the compassion?”

The LHSAA has never overturned its rule regarding 19-year-olds, though it has been tested many times. On March 26, the LHSAA’s executive committee denied Mubungirwa’s appeal by a 12-8 vote, one of the closest margins ever.

On Wednesday, Mubungirwa’s bid for eligibility moved from the LHSAA office to the State Capitol. The Senate Education Committee passed SB633 proposed by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, which would require third-party arbitration for cases like Mubungirwa’s.

Several steps remain before Claitor’s bill can become law, but Mubungirwa, accompanied by his mother, Masika, received a standing ovation following the vote.

Mubungirwa, who became a U.S. citizen a year ago, views all of this with mixed emotions.

“It’s been a gift from God for me to be here because of the things I’ve learned,” he said. “The people here have never given up on me, and that’s motivated me, and so have sports.

“Education is my everything. Football and soccer are my release, and they help motivate me to keep going and working. What disappointed me the most about the (LHSAA) appeal process is that I didn’t feel some of (the committee members) really looked at my situation.

“I felt like they were saying, ‘He’s just another kid.’ I’m 5-foot-9. Who am I going to hurt?”

Coming to America

Mubungirwa is 55 days too old to be eligible under LHSAA rules. He never played on an organized sports team or received a formal education until he was 12 and in Baton Rouge.

Survival, not athletics, dominated early life for Mubungirwa, the middle child in a family that includes three older brothers who are in their 20s. He was born in Goma, Congo.

Documents that Episcopal presented with its appeal indicate his father fled when Rwandan rebels came looking for him when Mubungirwa was 3, and that the father was believed to have been murdered.

The family fled to Uganda in 1999. Mubungirwa’s three older brothers were separated from the family but were later reunited — something he believes is a miracle. The family sometimes moved from camp to camp under the cover of darkness.

“All we had were family and friends who were close to us,” he said. “We slept on the cold, hard ground with no blankets. I have friends and family I know I will never see again.”

Mubungirwa’s family arrived in Baton Rouge in late 2007, courtesy of the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The local placement was a fluke because the family was originally slated to go to Buffalo, N.Y. He was placed in seventh grade at Kenilworth Middle School despite having the equivalent of a first- or second-grade education.

A turning point came soon after the family arrived. A chance encounter changed two families — the one Mubungirwa had and the one he gained.

“Our oldest son (David) had gone on a missionary trip to Honduras the previous summer, and there was supposed to be a get-together for the group around Christmas,” said Jeanne James, who recalled how she soon became like a second mother to Mubungirwa. “The leader suggested that instead of having this get-together, why not go greet this single mother and her children and welcome them to this country?

“So we bought gifts for the children and food. One of the gifts was a soccer ball. And when the children opened it, there was Clement. Our two younger boys, Will and Carter, were about his age, and they bonded immediately over the soccer ball.”

At the time, the James and Mubungirwa families lived close to each other. Mubungirwa and his younger siblings came over to play, and he eventually joined a youth soccer team with the James’ children.

Episcopal’s Mansur likens Jeanne James’ role in Mubungirwa’s life to that of Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose adoption of eventual Ole Miss and NFL lineman Michael Oher inspired “The Blind Side.”

“The situation really touched my heart,” James said. “It made us appreciate what we have. I remember dropping Clement off one time and it was cold outside. I peeked in the bedroom and saw there were no blankets, only sheets. So I drove to Wal-Mart and came back with blankets.

“Clement’s mother works very hard. To me, she’s a hero. I think about what she did to keep them together in Uganda. She works nights because she has to be there for the younger children during the day. We do everything we can. Our boys think of Clement as their brother.”

When James and her husband, David, say everything, she’s not kidding. At Episcopal’s home football games, Jeanne James wears a jersey with Mubungirwa’s number on it.

Long before that, she visited Kenilworth Middle to advocate on Mubungirwa’s behalf but was told the school was limited in what it could provide. So James approached the principal of the school her children attended, St. Aloysius’ John Bennett. Bennett saw Mubungirwa as mission-type project for the school. He has a younger sister who’s an eighth-grader there now.

But there were conditions. He had to repeat the seventh grade and agree to intensive tutoring. When other students had recess or breaks, Mubungirwa was tutored in multiple subjects and taught English. He was not allowed to participate in athletics.

‘He worked at it’

Most boys from St. Aloysius attend Catholic High, but Mubungirwa was not part of the class accepted. The Jameses were told to check into Episcopal because of its smaller class sizes, which was something they also were seeking for one of their sons.

Episcopal admitted Mubungirwa but, after evaluating him academically, the school told his mother and the James family that he needed to repeat the eighth grade to handle the school’s college prep curriculum.

“In our physical education classes, we encourage all our students to be part of some sports team,” Mansur said. “We teach them about different sports. He wanted to try football, but because he was 15 we knew it would be difficult for him to do that. That’s why we sought a first hardship, thinking he could at least play soccer that year.”

The LHSAA does not sanction junior high teams. But based on its school configuration that allows eighth-graders to compete on the high school level, a 2010 hardship was granted, allowing Mubungirwa to compete with a subvarsity or a high school team. Mubungirwa played soccer as an eighth-grader and also played in a handful of eighth-grade football games when opponents agreed to let him play. Mubungirwa quickly developed a passion for football, too.

“The first time I saw football, it was on a video game,” he said. “I didn’t understand the game or the terminology. I saw ‘HB’ (halfback) and didn’t know what it meant.

“But I fell in love with it. I got invited to go to a couple of LSU games. There’s nothing like it with all the people, planes flying over. I’d never seen anything like it.”

As a freshman, Mubungirwa was a backup defensive end and played on special teams. He played some running back as a sophomore and exploded on the scene last fall, rushing for 1,358 yards and 19 touchdowns. In soccer, he was part of an EHS team that won a Division III state title in 2013 and helped the Knights to the quarterfinals this season with 33 goals and 11 assists.

“When Clement came out for football, nobody knew what to expect,” Episcopal football coach Travis Bourgeois said. “We knew his focus had to be on academics, but we wanted him to be able to play.

“At defensive end and on special teams, he could use his speed and natural instincts. When it came to learning plays and the terminology, he was lost. Clement took it upon himself to put in extra time to learn the game and terminology. He wanted to be a football player, and he worked at it.”

Privilege and passion

Since the LHSAA turned down Mubungirwa’s appeal, Class 2A Episcopal has been accused of using affluence and influence to keep a star athlete in the lineup.

Episcopal students launched hashtag #LetClePlay, which surged on Twitter, garnering support from rival schools. Former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown and others have joined the cause.

Skeptics also question how Mubungirwa’s family can afford to send him to Episcopal. Mansur noted that families apply for financial aid at Episcopal and that it is distributed by an outside company that evaluates each application before awarding funds. The LHSAA passed a new bylaw in January that will require all private schools to do this in 2014-15.

Mansur also said that when Mubungirwa applied to attend Episcopal, he was evaluated academically. Athletics, Mansur said, were never discussed.

“People are going to say and think whatever they want,” Mansur said. “We can’t control that. Our point is that Clement’s case is unique. I don’t think the LHSAA will ever see another case exactly like his, so there wouldn’t be a precedent set.

“Other states allow all 19-year-olds to play, and students born Sept. 1 or later can play here. Why not grant eligibility to kids like Clement who have extreme hardships?”

According to research Episcopal found by going through the National Federation of State High School Associations, Mubungirwa would be eligible in 15 other states. There are eight states, including Texas, in which 19-year-olds can apply for a hardship ruling.

The LHSAA does not allow 19-year-olds or those who have completed the maximum of eight semesters of eligibility to go through its hardship program. Those appeals go straight to the LHSAA’s executive committee.

The 19-year-olds rule has remained the same in the LHSAA’s handbook since 1955. Episcopal’s research also found 269 19-year-olds born Sept. 1 or later were registered to play at LHSAA schools in 2013-14. The documentation also states Episcopal had no 19-year-olds among its athletes in 2013-14 and if granted eligibility, Mubungirwa would be the school’s only 19-year-old next year.

Executive Commissioner Kenny Henderson points to the 2010 hardship the LHSAA granted Mubungirwa and adds the school stated in a letter that it knew he would be ineligible as a senior.

“We’re not denying any of that,” Mansur said of the first hardship. “At the time, Clement was 15 and couldn’t play against eighth-graders. I’ve never dealt with a 19-year-old appeal before. I’ve served on the (LHSAA) executive committee but never heard one of those appeals. I didn’t know it was possible to have an appeal for a 19-year-old until someone on another committee I serve on told me you could.”

Mansur and others at Episcopal say playing athletics provides a motivation for Mubungirwa to keep up with his course work, which now includes Algebra II and biology. They see an athletic scholarship in football or soccer as a means for Mubungirwa to attend college and major in a sports management/business field.

Claitor’s proposal

Sen. Dan Claitor’s bill is one of two pending aimed at Mubungirwa’s case. The other — HB1174, by Rep. Neil C. Abramson, D-New Orleans — mentions the LHSAA by name and has not yet been heard. Abramson is an Episcopal graduate.

Because he sometimes attends church at St. Aloysius, Claitor was aware of Mubungirwa’s situation.

Claitor’s bill would require cases like Mubungirwa’s to go to a third-party arbitration to be resolved.

“Families who have the financial means can hire a lawyer to challenge the LHSAA,” Claitor said. “There’s really no other avenue for middle-income or low-income families to challenge a ruling.

“I actually see it as a way to help the families and the LHSAA. They won’t have the cost of having to defend lawsuits, which could save them money.”

Like many others, Claitor said Mubungirwa’s story and the positive works done by the Catholic Charities, St. Aloysius and Episcopal are an illustration of Louisiana at its best. Because the courts ruled the LHSAA was a private organization in 2012, there are questions about how much control the legislative bill will have.

The LHSAA’s Henderson fires back, noting the broad scope of Claitor’s bill.

“All it says is it would go to arbitration,” Henderson said. “It doesn’t say what kind of arbitration or will it be binding. Would it be possible to then go to court after the arbitration?

“Right now, all appeals are free of charge, unless it’s an emergency situation where we bring people in to hear it. If this passes, we can’t guarantee that. Anytime you get lawyers involved, there is a cost.”

Abramson’s bill also has a broad scope. It would require all 19-year-old seniors who are academically eligible in 2014-15 to remain eligible for athletics regardless of their birthday.

Kevin Pond’s story

The lone exception to the LHSAA’s 19-year-olds rule came in 1995 and was based on a legislative act. At the time, the LHSAA was considered a quasi-public body and was required to follow the mandate that made Covington High kicker Kevin Pond eligible.

The bill, submitted by two legislators, listed Pond by name. Pond and his family were victims of a violent crime when he was a child, and it affected him academically and emotionally. The LHSAA executive committee denied his appeal 19-1.

Now a businessman and father of three, Pond agreed to testify on Mubungirwa’s behalf at last week’s Senate Education Committee hearing. When asked how being able to compete one more year altered his life, Pond doesn’t hold back.

“Think back to 1995,” he said. “There was no such thing as TOPS then. My family couldn’t afford to send me to college. Playing that year helped me get an athletic scholarship and a college degree.

“If that hadn’t happened, I probably would have either gone in the military or taken a very different job than the one I have. I don’t think I’d be able to provide the way of life my family has if I hadn’t gotten to play that last year.”

Pond said the lessons he learned from his appeal are ones he applies today, and he hopes Mubungirwa will someday do the same.

“I think he should be able to play,” Pond said. “There should be exceptions to rules.”

The LHSAA sees it differently. Louisiana High School Coaches Association Director Gary Duhe won more than 700 games as a basketball coach and worked many of Dale Brown’s camps at LSU; he also was an assistant to Brown at one point. He fielded a call from Brown about Mubungirwa’s case.

“We talked about it for a while,” Duhe said. “I reminded (Brown) that he always said that he thought the NCAA had some crazy rules he didn’t agree with, but they were the rules. The same thing applies here. You may not agree with it, but this is the rule.”