On a warm September afternoon five years ago, Kubanai Ndumdi Kalombo was spotted in the halls of Herndon High School in Fairfax by a player on the football team eager to please his coach, Donald Noll.

The coach had told his players that if any new student seemed suited for football, bring him along to his office. Kalombo, who now plays on the North Carolina football team, shouldered his way through Noll's door. The coach smiled.

And that is how a native of Zaire who could speak four languages, had seven brothers and sisters and had played only soccer throughout his life became a football player. Or at least a passable imitation. In the beginning, Kalombo didn't know how many players were on a team and had no idea as to the rules of the strange game.

"He was square one," Noll said, laughing at the memory of Kalombo being towed down the hall to his office. "It was like teaching someone how to walk."

It helped that Kalombo, who lived in Zaire for his first 10 years and throughout Europe for the next five, was 6 feet 5 and 215 pounds and could run the 40 in 4.6. At Kalombo's second practice, Noll set up an offense-defense drill and substituted Kalombo at linebacker. "He just started knocking the tar out of people," Noll said.

Five years later, Kubi, as he likes to be called, starts for North Carolina at defensive end as a redshirt sophomore. To win that position, he unseated all-ACC defensive end Reuben Davis, who has been moved to defensive tackle on what may be the best front four in the conference. Kalombo is considered a future pro prospect at either linebacker or defensive end -- he has beefed up to 235 now -- and even professes to like the game he once hated.

"When we first came here [to America], my father would watch football every Sunday," Kalombo said. "He loves the game. And I hated it. I tried to understand it and just couldn't. What was the purpose of guys running around in shoulder pads and helmets and hitting each other?"

Kalombo's father, Kalombo K. Lukusa, is an ambassador for Zaire and currently is working in Moscow after a stint in Washington that brought his family to the United States when Kubi was 15. The tradition in Zaire is to make the father's first name the son's last name, hence Kubi Kalombo. Kalombo Lukusa named his fifth and last son Kalombo Kalombo to assure that the name would continue. "He's a smart man, my father," Kubi said.

Kalombo's background is radically different from most of his Tar Heels teammates, who generally grew up in southern towns where football jerseys are given to 2-year-olds, and peewee leagues abound. The Kalombo family speaks either French or the African dialect Tshiluba at home, and the talk is rarely about football.

Kalombo played soccer in the fields of Kinshasa, Zaire's capital, where the Kalombo family made its home until Kubi was 10. "It was very industrialized and modern," Kalombo said. "I never really saw the other part of Zaire."

Lukusa worked as an interpreter and host for foreign dignitaries who visited Zaire, and he often took his young son to the airport to greet them. Kalombo doesn't remember the names, only the impressions of pomp and circumstance that always accompanied the trips.

He said he loved going with his father and being with his family, which has become even more close-knit through its frequent travels. Kalombo returns to Fairfax often to see his family, which includes younger brother Bukusa, now a freshman scholarship football player at Miami of Florida.

"All the attention he's been getting lately hasn't turned him into a snob," said one of Kubi's sisters, 16-year-old Bitsilualua. "He almost takes over for dad now when he's not here."

Kalombo hasn't been visiting as often as he'd like lately, as the quick-starting Tar Heels have some people on campus talking more about the 4-1-1 team than the prospects for this season's basketball squad. Although he is firmly entrenched as a starter, Kalombo's progress through the Tar Heels' ranks has been gradual.

"We recruited him as an athlete," said defensive line coach Ted Gill. "The problem that he had at first was he still had to learn football. But he's so strong and quick."

Kalombo was redshirted his first year. He said he had a problem coping with his instincts. "In scrimmages, I did what I felt was right," Kalombo said. "I was supposed to go left, I'd go right, thinking I'd make a better play. Then the quarterback would go outside, and I'd lose him."

Kalombo got his chance in spring practice this season when Davis was injured. "I finally tried to sit down and listen to what the coaches were saying," Kalombo said. "Then I started executing."

The result was a starting position for the psychology major who wants to run an international hotel or play professional football after graduation. Kalombo has no desire to follow in his father's footsteps, however. "Politics is a dirty business," he said. "And I never did too well in government class."

But he would like to return to his homeland and live there at some point. "The last time I was back, I didn't want to leave," Kalombo said wistfully. "That's really my home; that's where all my relatives are. I'll always think of it as home."