Tshimanga “Tim” Biakabutuka continued the tradition of solid running backs while at Michigan; however, his pro career was no reflection of his college greatness. This is his story.
Biakabutuka was born in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and he and his family moved to Montreal, Canada, when he was six.
At the age of 15, he was exposed to the game of football by Serge Benoit, a teacher turned football coach at John Jacques Rousseau High School in Montreal.
The school had racial tensions among the students, and the school’s administration believed a football team would ease the issue.
Biakabutuka often found himself in fights due to the racial divide; Serge saw this as an opportunity to channel that aggression and challenged Tim mentally to get him on the field.
“He (Benoit) told me I was going to get an opportunity to hit those guys I was fighting,” Biakabutuka said. “He kinda called me a little coward and stuff like that. He attacked my pride.” (The Tuscaloosa News)
Tim’s father was reluctant but would later accept his choice, after it became clear that he was very talented at the game.
His talents earned him the name “Touchdown Tim” while in Montreal, and soon he decided that he wanted to play college football in the United States.
To reach that goal, he in turn had to reach out to coaches in America. Montreal, after all, was no recruiting hotbed.
Biakabutuka had three schools in mind: Miami, Penn State, and Michigan. Benoit promised to make the call, but due to the international fees, he would only call one school. As we now know, Tim chose Michigan.
From there, the Wolverines invited him to their football camp; defensive coordinator Greg Mattison recalled being quickly impressed by Biakabutuka.
“You could see within five minutes what kind of talent he had.” (The Way It Looks from Here: Contemporary Canadian Writing on Sports)
The school offered him a scholarship, but due to Biakabutuka not taking the academic tests needed to enter Michigan, he had to spend a year at Vanier College. He would develop his game there and enroll at U of M in time for the 1993 season.
The beginning of Biakabutuka’s tenure with the Wolverines saw him as back up to Tyrone Wheatley. He would manage to rush for 5 touchdowns, but he had to wait in line.
Wheatley decided to stay for his senior year and was considered a Heisman favorite in 1994. However, before the season began, Tyrone separated his shoulder, which allowed Tim to receive substantial playing time.
At the end of the ’94 season, Biakabutuka would have 126 attempts and 783 rushing yards. He also scored 7 touchdowns.
The 1995 season saw a lot of change for the Wolverines: Head Coach Gary Moeller resigned after a disorderly conduct charge, and assistant coach Lloyd Carr was promoted as his successor. With Wheatley’s departure, Biakabutuka was promoted to the starting role for the Wolverines.
Highlighting the Big Ten in 1995 was Ohio State’s Eddie George, who would later win the Heisman award.
Biakabutuka was no slouch, though, and in the annual regular season finale between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, Tim would prove just that.
The Wolverines were underdogs heading into the clash, as the Buckeyes were ranked 2nd (AP/Coaches’) in the nation and were 11-0 when they entered the Big House on Nov. 25th. Michigan was 18th in the AP poll (2oth in Coaches’ poll).
All that stood in front of Ohio State’s perfect season, as well as a Big Ten and national championship title, was this game and the Rose Bowl.
However, the Wolverines would play spoiler on the back of Biakabutuka and the Michigan offensive line.
Tim rushed for 313 yards and a touchdown, which stands as the second-best rushing performance in Michigan history.
The Wolverines would topple the Buckeyes 31-23, upsetting OSU and putting a blemish on what could have been a season for the ages.
After the game, Biakabutuka was quick to give credit to his offensive line for his dominant performance.
“I’ve been playing football for six years and even in high school I never saw holes that big,” he said. “Anybody here could have run through those holes and gained all those yards.” (Source)
While this game cap-stoned Biakabutuka’s junior year, his performance throughout the season earned him team MVP for the 1995 season.
Tim’s junior year would be his last for Michigan, leaving a legacy at Michigan for the record books.
His 1818 rushing yards in 1995 still stands as the all-time Michigan single season record. He also stands as the Wolverines’ 11th all-time rusher with 2810 yards.
That number may have been higher if it wasn’t for splitting time with Wheatley and only spending three years with the Wolverines. But his talent was too much not to go to the NFL, where he was considered an early first-round pick.
Carolina Panthers general manager Bill Polian would select Biakabutka with the eighth pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, six picks ahead of George.
At least one draft analyst was surprised that he fell that low.
“The Panthers got a lot of help for Kerry Collins on offense. They were fortunate that Biakabutuka dropped to the eighth spot on the first round and then added a wide receiver and a running back with their next two picks. As Collins continues to mature, the Panthers should be able to upgrade their offense.” (Baltimore Sun)
Post-draft day saw a rift between management and Biakabutuka, as the two sides couldn’t reach a contract agreement, leading to a holdout.
After missing training camp (a total of 31 practices), Biakabutuka would sign for a seven-year $12.65 million dollar contract.
Tim was named the starter for the season opener, and would start the next three games before an ACL injury to his left knee would sideline him for the season.
Prior to his injury, Biakabutuka averaged 10.8 yards per carry, and became the second player in history to score two touchdowns of 40 or more yards in a game.
Injuries would become the theme in his lackluster NFL career. In 1997, he appeared in 8 games, only starting in two.
A rib injury cost Biakabutuka the 1998 season, and his starting job. Undrafted free agent Fred Lane would be the beneficiary of Tim’s injury issues.
This led him to approach coach Dom Capers in hopes of being released by the team.
“I am trapped,” Biakabutuka told The Charlotte Observer. ”I want to be somewhere where I’ve got the opportunity to play. But at the same time, you can’t look at your position and think it’s going to be better somewhere else. I can’t do anything about it, so I’ve just got to be patient.” (Associated Press)
The Panthers were bound to his contract, though, and he remained on the team until 2001.
While injuries were still a lingering issue, there were signs of progress in the ’99-00 season. In the 2000-01 season, his numbers would digress, but the injuries would remain.
The 2001-02 season would be the climax of Biakabutuka’s injury woes, when he broke his foot so badly that amputation was considered.
Ironically, before his injury against Washington, Tim was having his best game of the season, with 121 rushing yards and a touchdown. That all came to an abrupt halt after his foot was mangled in a pileup after a 1-yard rushing play.
“He played a great game. I was excited and happy for him. Obviously it ended in a disastrous way,” Carolina coach George Seifert said. “Not only did we lose the game, but I think we lost him, too.” (Associated Press)
Tim’s teammates carried him off the field, this would signal the end of his season and later his career.
“When I got into the locker room, my foot was sideways … I knew at that point it was over,” (Associated Press)
A comeback was attempted, but it never panned out, much like his career.
Biakabutuka would end his NFL career with only 2530 yards over six seasons, and never playing in more than 12 games due to injury.
The next chapter in his life, the life as an entrepreneur, seemed fitting for the man who always had something to prove.
Whether it was bullies in Montreal, playing second fiddle to Tyrone Wheatley, or being shadowed in his junior year by Eddie George, there was always a chip on his shoulder.
This made his transition from the NFL into the world of business an ideal one.
In 2005, with financial help from former teammates Muhsin Muhammad and Eric Davis, he opened a Christian-based jewelry store in the Charlotte, N.C, area.
“Baya Jewelry” would expand to have two stores total before he sold them to open a “Bojangles,” a fried chicken fast-food franchise, in Georgia.
As of 2011, Biakabutuka is the owner of “Three One Corporation, LLC.,” which has opened three Bojangles restaurants in the Augusta area. According to a LinkedIn account with his name, he is still the owner of the LLC.
Injuries led him to become one of the more notable draft busts of our generation, but it seems he has now found a calling in business.