The whistle blew, as it does thousands of times on Friday nights in the fall. It was a first down for the offense. Men picked up the bright orange markers on the sideline and marched downfield.
Kevin Grier, dressed in the red and white of the Berkmar High School defense, trotted to the sideline as subs ran onto the field.
"Why did the chains just move?" a voice from behind said.
Kevin turned, looking up slightly at his teammate. "What?"
"Why are they moving the chains?" he said again.
Grier motioned to the offense. "They just got a first down."
The question was not unusual for a first-year player; most kids learn the basic rules of football in youth leagues when they first strap on a helmet. What is unusual, was a high school junior, in the heart of Georgia, to be a first-year player.
Jonathan Sanks, the head football coach at Berkmar High School at the time, heard stories of a kid dunking over people in the gym like LeBron James. Skeptical, he joined several of his fellow coaches to see for himself. Whether he knew it or not, Mamadou Soumahoro delivered.
"The first time I saw him, he went up between his legs and dunked the ball," Sanks said. "I had never encountered a kid like him. Never. I probably never will again."
Mamadou did not play organized sports at all growing up, let alone football. His parents would see high-speed collisions on T.V. and refuse to allow him to participate. Eventually, the pair relented after careful persuasion from coaches and Mamadou himself.
A modest 205 pounds, Mamadou did not exactly lift the roof off the weight room. Although he wanted to be a wide receiver or a tight end, his long arms and natural athleticism made him a textbook defensive end. It helped that he began wrestling around the same time, learning to escape holds and use his hands. In his second season as a wrestler, he placed fourth in the state.
By his own admission, he was clueless when he first began playing football. It took the entirety of his first season to get a firm grasp on his role.
"I really didn't know much about football at all," Mamadou said. "I still feel like I'm learning the sport."
He was gifted, however, in his ability to pick up skills quickly. To hear Coach Sanks tell it, he had a sponge-like mind and a supreme work ethic. He was a coach's best friend; any technique he learned would be nearly perfected by the next game. Mamadou took pride in mastering the small details of his game: eye placement, reading stances, quick hands. No detail was to be overlooked.
He continued to improve and even set a lofty goal to get 20 sacks during his senior season, his first year on the varsity team. He led the team with 12 sacks and was selected as an All-Conference player.
An Uncommon Route
Before Mamadou was born, his parents emigrated from Ivory Coast in Western Africa to pursue opportunity in the United States. He was born in New York and spent the early years of his life with his grandmother in Ivory Coast. When he was five, he returned to the U.S. to live with his parents in Lawrenceville, Ga., where his father worked as a mechanic. Once Mamadou was in high school, his father's work hours and mother's concern prevented the pair from watching him play football.
As the eldest of five boys, Mamadou's athleticism gave him the opportunity to become the first in his family to go to college. Still, he did not put much thought into pursuing huge Division I programs or even collegiate football at all.
The first college football game he ever watched was the 2013 Iron Bowl when Auburn defeated Alabama after the magical "Kick Six." He was amazed, but never imagined himself on that pedestal.
"Football was just a fun thing I was doing at the time," Mamadou said. "It didn't start growing on me until my senior year in high school."
He first learned about Berry after connecting with Nate Masters, the Vikings' defensive coordinator. The two met during wrestling season, which held the majority of Mamadou's focus at the time.
If he were to play collegiate football, Mamadou wanted a small, quiet school, in Georgia that fit his personality. After researching Berry on his own and speaking with Coach Masters, he was set.
The coaches then lost contact with him, not knowing if he was committed to the team.
"I had lost my phone, this little itty-bitty, cheap thing," Mamadou said. "I lost all my contacts and had no idea when camp started. We had to scramble to get through the process."
"I remember we were sitting in the conference room watching film and Nate got a call from Mamadou saying he was on campus. He wanted to know when he was supposed to show up for camp," Berry's head coach Tony Kunczewski said. "Nate asked if we still wanted to take him, so we put on his high school film and thought, yeah. We still wanted to take him."
He missed the entirety of his freshman camp, arriving on campus nearly a week and a half after the rest of the team had reported. Despite a hectic beginning to his career including not traveling for his first collegiate game, Mamadou was starting in game three of his freshman season.
Step By Step
Mamadou joined the Berry football team in the second year of the team's existence. The Vikings were coming off a 0-9 season and it was clear the team was in a building process. Yet as they went on to have a 2-8 season, coaches and teammates knew quickly that number 58 had rare talent.
"We knew the first time he stepped on the field that he had potential," Masters said. "It wasn't until the offseason of his freshman year that we knew just how good he was going to be."
During the offseason, the team would compete in some form of physical challenge to close out weight room periods. As Coach Masters walked the floor, he noticed that Mamadou had finished his set with time to spare, but was powering past his goal, trying to get in as many reps as he could. As time expired, tears rolled down his face. He stood out; not an easy task.
A player of Mamadou's skill is rare, but a player of Mamadou's skill and humility is nearly inconceivable. In an era of football where it is just as likely to see a front-page story on a team's touchdown celebration as the actual outcome of the game, players who don't perform choreographed dances at every opportunity are a dying breed.
"He's like a black cat," Berry's defensive line coach, Zack Smith, said. "He's not going to draw attention to himself, but he's the best football player I have ever seen in person. He's going to make the play, get the next call and get back in the huddle."
Mamadou improved his game one step at a time. During his freshman season, he was selected to the All-Conference second team. He set out to earn a first team selection in his sophomore year, which he achieved along with a D3football.com All-Region honor. Next came an All-American honor in his junior year, the first in Berry history. In his senior year, he was named an All-American for the second time and was selected as the D3football.com National Defensive Player of the Year.
Arguably the best game of his career came against Centre at the end of the 2016 campaign. The Vikings had put themselves in a position to secure the first conference title in program history with a win. Berry had never beaten Centre and the Colonels were coming into the game with one of the top offenses in Division III. It was the biggest game in the program's young existence.
Mamadou started that game nursing several injuries, most notably a strained oblique that affected him the entire game. Regardless, like much of the season, he was unstoppable, collecting four sacks, two forced fumbles and returned a loose ball 43 yards to give Berry an opportunity to score before the half. The Vikings set a program record with nine total sacks on the day, and came back from a 10-point deficit to win.
"That was definitely my favorite game," Mamadou said. "Those seniors were my brothers. I wanted to leave it all on the field for them. It was just a great feeling to send those seniors off like that."
One Last First
Over his career at Berry, Mamadou would become the D3football.com National Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time first team All-American (including the first honor in Berry history), a two-time SAA Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time All-Conference selection. He also led the nation with 15 solo sacks in his junior year, set every record in Berry history for a pass rusher, earned a regional Player of the Year award, was selected as a finalist for the prestigious Cliff Harris Award twice and a was a two-time conference champion. All of this he accomplished while balancing a full academic workload as a biology major and the work requirements for Berry's Gate of Opportunity program, the institution's premier student-work scholarship program. After graduation, he wants to continue playing the sport he began just six short years ago before attending medical school.
Despite being All-Everything, Mamadou will remember walking into the locker room after his Senior Day game against Trinity University as one of his favorite memories. Without his knowledge, Kevin Grier had reached out to Mamadou's parents and invited them to come to the game. As he walked into the locker room with his teammates after the win, he heard his dad call out his name. For the first time, his parents were in the stands to watch him play.
"My mom just dislikes the sport so much, but seeing her build up the courage to watch me was great. I loved that," Mamadou said. "My dad was able to close up the shop for that day and take up his day off to come see me," he paused. "It's just a great feeling."
Coach Kunczewski had a chance to share in the moment, meeting Mamadou's parents for the first time after their son had just helped Berry secure their second straight SAA title, a 10-0 season and a trip to the NCAA playoffs.
"That was an emotional moment for everybody," Kunczewski said. "His mom and dad were grinning from ear to ear and so was he. That was just a really special moment."
Of all the goals a defensive end could set out to accomplish over their college career, Mamadou has accomplished nearly all of them. Coach Smith noted how he inspired the players around him, but believes his impact on the school extends beyond the field.
"Mamadou made everyone on that team better. No doubt." Smith said. "But outside that, Berry College is fortunate to have had Mamadou."
Mamadou was escorted on Senior Day by his work supervisor, Milton Chambers (left) and his scholarship coordinator, Wendy Dahlgren (right). He did not know his parents were there until after the game.