Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where You At? Tim Biakabutuka Edition

The "Where You At" series continues with a look at former Wolverine running back Tshimanga "Tim" Biakabutuka.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Tim Biakabutuka was the greatest Wolverine ever to be born in Zaire. Biakabutuka, who was born in Kinshasa, left Zaire for Canada with his family when he was four years old, and did not start playing football until high school. During what would be his senior year of high school, he played for Vanier College, a prep school in Quebec, where he earned the moniker "Touchdown Tim" for, well, obvious reasons.

Biakabutuka committed to Michigan in 1993 after his impressive senior year. Despite joining the football team during the prime of Tyrone Wheatley's career, Tim was able to push for playing time. He first showed his prodigious talent during the ninth game of his freshman season, when he rushed for 140 yards on only 26 carries in a victory over Purdue. Biakabutuka split time with Wheatley in 1994, tallying four more 100-yard games and finishing the season with 783 yards and seven touchdowns.

Finally out of Wheatley's shadow in 1995, Touchdown Tim put up one of the finest seasons in Michigan running back history. He posted 1891 yards on the year, a school record that still stands, averaged six yards per carry, and added 12 touchdowns. In the Big Ten finale against undefeated and #1 ranked Ohio State, Biakabutuka outshone eventual Heisman winner Eddie George and turned in one of the legendary performances in college football history. He rushed for 313 yards, the second-highest single game total in Michigan history, and scored a touchdown as Michigan upset the Buckeyes 31-23. Against a defense that started three future first round draft picks (Mike Vrabel, Antoine Winfield, and Shawn Springs), Biakabutuka could not be stopped:

Biakabutuka decided to leave Michigan after his junior season, and was drafted eighth overall in the 1996 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. Biakabutuka was set to be their back of the future, as the Panthers had only existed one season in the NFL before drafting him. After a lengthy holdout, Tim signed a 6-year, $12.5 million deal, and entered his rookie season as the starter. After only four games, however, he tore a knee ligament and sat out the rest of the season. The next two seasons, Biakabutuka spent much of the season either injured or playing behind Fred Lane (an undrafted free agent picked up in 1997), and ended up starting only two games.

Biakabutuka had his most productive NFL season in 1999, rushing for 718 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games, all of which he started. He showed flashes of the promise that made him the eighth pick in the draft, running for 142 yards and three touchdowns on only 12 carries in a loss to the Redskins, and averaging a solid 5.2 yards per carry on the season. He started 11 more games in 2000, picking up 627 more yards, but was far less productive than the previous year, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry.

Tim's injury-plagued NFL career would come to a gruesome end the following season, in a Week 5 game against Washington. After already racking up 121 yards and a touchdown during the game, Biakabutuka tore every ligament in his right foot while caught in a pile during a fourth-quarter run. The injury was so bad that doctors considered amputating the foot immediately, but luckily the foot was saved. His career, however, was over.

Luckily for Tim, he had taken an interest in entering the business world even before his NFL career ended. In December 2003, with NFL teammates Muhsin Muhammad, Steve Israel, Eric Davis, Anthony Johnson and Dee Brown, as well as longtime friend Velly Janvier as investors, Biakabutuka opened the Beya Jewelry store in Charlotte. He named the store after his grandfather and one of his brothers, and turned an initial $2 million investment into two stores in the Charlotte area.

Although Biakabutuka was admittedly not a very religious man growing up, he turned to faith during his trying NFL career. Beya advertises itself as the "world's premier designer of Couture
Christian Jewelry" and features their own line of Christian jewelry, as well as designer jewelry, and according to a piece in the Charlotte Business Journal, Tim is very involved in the day-to-day operations of the store. Although the stores operated at a loss after formation, Biakabutuka expected them to be profitable by the end of 2007, and was generating annual sales of over $2 million.

Touchdown Tim in front of one of his stores (Photo from Charlotte Business Journal)

Although Biakabutuka said he enjoys being a part of the business world, he is still disappointed with how his NFL career turned out.

He loves business and its challenges, but acknowledges the pain of seeing players in his draft class still active on NFL rosters. If all had gone right, Biakabutuka would only now be winding down his NFL career. Instead, he's winding watches.

Biakabutuka regrets the way his pro career was ruined by injuries. He never had a 1,000-yard season, never played in a Super Bowl. "You wonder why, but what can you do?" he says. "If I didn't have ability, it would have been easier (to leave the NFL). But injuries got in my way."

Biakabutuka was one of my favorite players at Michigan. I was at the 1995 Ohio State game, and even before then I loved to correct people as to how to properly pronounce his given name (it's Tuh-MONG-ah Bee-OCK-ah-buh-too-kuh). I always thought he would make a great pro, and there were many signs that, if not for injuries, he would have been a Pro-Bowl caliber back. Many NFL players never get over how their careers ended, and never have the financial and business savvy to prepare for a life after football. It is great to see that Touchdown Tim is not only surviving in his post-football life, but flourishing, and doing something he has a passion for.

Step in a new direction (Charlotte Business Journal)
Tim Biakabutuka Statistics (Pro-Football-Reference)
Biakabutuka makes a name for himself (Vanier College)
MGoBlue: Statistics Archive
Biakabutuka breaks foot, may miss season (CBC)
Beya Jewelry: Partners


oriental andrew said...

I always pronounced his name shi-Mong-guh, not tuh-Mong-guh. Pretty sure the former is correct. I've honestly heard it the way you say it. I mean, his name does have an "sh" in it.

roger said...

I forgot how good our O-Line was back then!

Anonymous said...

man.... i just wish I could have seen him make to to the his peak in the NFL. was nice having him in michigan. but such a shame and a loss heart goes out

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