A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
The rivalry began on the front lawn of their four-bedroom house in Beltsville, Md. The two brothers—one was 10, the other nine—would search the yard for the longest, sturdiest sticks they could find. Then they would battle as if they were warriors. They wanted to fight until one fell and pleaded for mercy, but it was usually the high-pitched shriek of their mother, Georgette, standing on the front porch, that ended the swordplay between Arie and Cyrus Kouandjio.
Then the tussles would move indoors. The brothers would wrestle, punch, poke, kick—nothing was out of bounds—until blood was shed or a plaster wall was punctured. "Our dad got real good at fixing walls," says Arie, the older of the two by 15 months. "Then it got to the point where he told us that we had to start fixing them ourselves. But that's where our love of physical contact started."
October 7, 2013
A little more than a decade later, the brothers Kouandjio now wage battle on behalf of the Alabama offense. Cyrus, a 6'6", 310-pound junior, has allowed only 3½ sacks in 18 career starts at tackle and is likely to be a top 10 pick in next April's draft. Arie, a 6'5", 315-pound redshirt junior who won a starting job at guard this summer after recovering from multiple knee injuries early in his college career, will probably be a late-round draft pick if he chooses to leave this spring. Together on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, the 625 pounds of Kouandjios helped pile up 254 rushing yards in a 25--0 victory over No. 21 Ole Miss.
"They both love to quote movies," says senior right guard Anthony Steen. "If we're struggling, Cyrus will yell his favorite line from 300: 'Eat hearty, for tonight we dine in hell!' That will get us fired up. I've never met anyone remotely like them."
The Kouandjio brothers were born in Yaundé, the capital of Cameroon. Their father, Jean-Claude, worked as a computer engineer for the government, but his passion was soccer. Even as three- and four-year-olds, Cyrus and Arie played the game on dirt fields with wild turkeys running alongside them. "In Cameroon we play soccer as soon as we start walking," Jean-Claude says. In 1998, Jean-Claude moved his family to the U.S. so his four children—Arie, Cyrus, their older brother, Michael, and younger sister, Soleil—could receive a Western education.
"Soccer gave me a sense of how to use my feet," Arie says. "My feet are still my greatest strength." But he soon outgrew the game; by eighth grade he was so big his coach moved him to goalie, which he found boring, so he signed up to play youth football for the Laurel (Md.) Boys and Girls Club. Jean-Claude understood. Though Arie didn't know how to put his pads on or fully understand the rules, he quickly became a dominating lineman who sought contact. On every play it was as if he were battling his baby brother again.
In 10th grade Arie enrolled at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md. A year later Cyrus joined him. Both Kouandjios excelled on the offensive line, and it became clear to coach Bill McGregor that Cyrus in particular had the frame, quickness, flexibility and natural strength to be an elite tackle at a powerhouse university. One day he called Cyrus into his office and asked him which NFL tackles he enjoyed watching. "Coach," Cyrus replied innocently, "I don't know any NFL players." The only sport that was discussed—and watched—in the Kouandjio household remained soccer.
THE RECRUITERS showed up first for Arie, a four-star prospect who received dozens of scholarship offers. When Nick Saban visited DeMatha to recruit him, around 100 students waited a few hours after school to glimpse the Alabama coach. Arie saw his father in Saban: Both were strong-willed, direct and authoritative. Jean-Claude didn't attend many of his boys' games—"I don't understand American football," he says—but he frequently took them to his construction jobs during the summers and always demanded they work as diligently as the adults. The father also required his boys to study on weekends, which cut into their social life. "I always reminded them that we came to this country for one reason: for them to get an education and make a good life," Jean-Claude says.
Arie committed to the Tide, but Cyrus, a top five recruit, wasn't sure he wanted to follow. Based on his relationships with coaches, he narrowed his choices to Alabama, Auburn and New Mexico. On Signing Day, he announced on national TV that he was heading to Auburn, but he had immediate misgivings, and three days later he changed his mind. "A big reason Cyrus is at Alabama," says McGregor, "is because he finally realized how close he is to his brother."
After redshirting his first year, Arie played in two games as a reserve in 2011 before suffering injuries to both knees so severe that he considered quitting. "A lot of people in the [football] building thought Arie was never going to play again," says Barrett Jones, a former Tide center who was a fourth-round pick of the Rams last April.
Arie stuck with it, and after Cyrus tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the eighth game of his freshman season, the brothers rehabbed together. Six hours a day, six days a week, they could be spotted in the training room, encouraging each other, challenging each other.
Some of the Kouandjio brothers' favorite moments in Tuscaloosa this autumn have been the Sunday afternoons they've spent in their off-campus apartment watching NFL games. Sprawled out on couches, they'll watch the technique of NFL linemen, trying to divine ways to improve. They both want to reach the NFL for one reason: to make their father proud and his journey from Cameroon complete.
They are on their way. "Cyrus was tossing guys around in the Texas A&M game [on Sept. 14]," says John Middlekauff, a former scout for the Eagles. "He's built like a linebacker and has got long arms and good feet. He's a top 10 pick. Arie needs to prove he can stay healthy and hold up in the SEC. Right now he'd be a fringe guy in the NFL."
On a recent afternoon the brothers lumbered through the Alabama football offices, their spirits high. The O-line struggled in the season opener against Virginia Tech—each brother was flagged for a holding penalty, and the Tide only gained 206 yards in Alabama's 35--10 win—but since then Bama's attack has been ruthlessly efficient, averaging 446.7 yards and 35.0 points. "We're progressing," says Cyrus, sitting in a windowless conference room.
Then Cyrus was called into Saban's office. He rose and shut the door so hard that it rattled the walls. "I swear he doesn't know his own strength," the big brother said. Then, with a grin, Arie added in a hushed voice, "But as strong as he is, he never beat me in our sword fights. Never."
Cyrus Kouandijo is the 13th pick in SI.com's 2014 mock draft, placing him third among the six O-linemen projected to go in the first round. Here are the other five big uglies; for the rest of the top 40 go to SI.com/nfl
3 Jake Matthews
T, Texas A&M
5 Taylor Lewan
24 David Yankey
27 Cyril Richardson
32 Antonio Richardson
From now through the end of the college and pro football seasons, as well as leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED will regularly feature the most intriguing on-the-climb athletes across all its platforms. Look for a video feature on Stanford RB Tyler Gaffney on your computer or mobile device at SI.com/risingstars
Six hours a day, six days a week they could be spotted in the training room, encouraging each other.