‘I do as much as I can’: Kuony Deng’s power beyond football

Photo of Kuony Deng
Eliana Marcu/Senior Staff

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t’s no secret that Cal has missed its star starting outside linebacker, redshirt senior Kuony Deng, during its last four games. Deng, who has been out with an injury since the Sep. 11 match against TCU, started in all 19 games he has played in at Cal since the beginning of the 2019 season and anchors Cal’s defensive line. A struggling Cal fanbase grasping for any good news could easily view Deng solely as a vessel for Cal’s defensive success and overlook the ambition behind the man on the field.

But Deng has a lot more to offer the world than just his tackling skills.

“I love football. It’s the love of my life. I put a lot of work into it, and I think about it all the time,” Deng said. “But I also think about other things.”

Deng speaks with a meditative intelligence and humility far beyond his 23 years, and jumps at the opportunity to talk about his passions outside of Cal athletics, such as social justice, activism, community building and his identity as a member of the South Sudanese diaspora.

“I just believe in the empowerment of all African people,” Deng said. “I try to do whatever I can to lift people around me up.”

Deng came to UC Berkeley in 2019 as a transfer student. Despite the circuitous route that led him to the region, he immediately took to the Bay Area, invigorated by its rich history of activism and resistance.

“This is a great place to become increasingly politicized,” Deng said. “As a young Black man, I’ve taken to the area, I’ve fallen in love with it.”

As Deng has become increasingly politically aware, he’s become an active volunteer and organizer. He works with the People’s Program, an Oakland-based organization that mirrors the values of the Black Panther Party, according to Deng. The People’s Program distributes resources such as tents, clothing and food to local youth and houseless encampments. Recently, the program started a mobile clinic.

Deng is drawn toward leadership: He takes every chance he can get to volunteer with youth football programs, including Berkeley High School’s football team, the Berkeley Yellowjackets. And as a team leader for Cal football, he actively seeks out younger teammates who might want to get involved in this off-campus activism.

“I try to just do as much as I can,” Deng said. “It’s just self-love and love of community.”

Deng leads an organization called UC Berkeley Black Male Link Up, which meets regularly to discuss issues pertinent to Black men. It’s existence sheds light on the feelings of isolation and lack of community that many Black students on campus are forced to reckon with.

Beneath UC Berkeley’s guild of progressives values and promises of diversity lies a stark reality: Black students represent only about 3% of the overall undergraduate student population. And according to the campus-conducted My Experience survey from 2019, only 39% of Black undergraduate students report feeling respected on campus.

It’s no wonder that community building became a central pursuit for Deng.

While many of Deng’s teammates participate in UC Berkeley Black Male Link Up, the organization strives to create space for all Black men on campus, athletes and nonathletes alike.

“The worst thing we can do is just get stuck in our football social bubble. It’s important that we connect,” Deng said.

Deng recognizes that some pockets of Cal might feel extremely isolating for Black students; and UC Berkeley Black Male Link Up provides these students with a pathway toward community. They talk about topics that might not be breached in a formal academic setting: emotional intelligence, relationships, breaking down stigmas and more.

While he is steadfast in his commitment to the Oakland and Berkeley community, Deng remains situated within a diaspora of South Sudanese people. Deng’s family is from South Sudan — during the Civil War, they walked hundreds of miles through the war-torn region, bouncing from one refugee camp to the next, until finally fleeing to the United States in the early 1990s. Much of the Deng family remains in South Sudan, nearly 9,000 miles away from Berkeley. This inconceivable distance is bridged by phone calls with relatives he has yet to meet face-to-face.

“My generation of the South Sudanese diaspora, there’s so much hope in us,” Deng said. “We all feel connected, wherever we are, globally.”

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any of his teammates come from generations of American college football players for whom  football is the mainstay dinner table topic. While Division I football might be family tradition for them, for Deng, it’s an exercise in resiliency. He cites being “raised in purpose” as a defining factor in his character.

“All my family members always instilled in me that I am from a land that is not at peace. People made a lot of sacrifices for me to even be alive,” Deng said.

It would have been easy for Deng to give up on football long before he arrived here. While he has amassed 154 career tackles and is a staple to Cal’s defense, he was not highly recruited coming out of high school. He spent two years at the Virginia Military Institute playing both basketball and football alongside his duties as a military cadet, and then a year in Kansas playing for Independence Community College, patiently building his arsenal of impressive stats until finally catching the eye of Cal recruiters. For the defensive star, giving up never felt like an option.

“Understanding that it’s really about more than me has allowed me to deal well with pressure,” Deng said. “Who and what I come from has allowed me to have that resilience to always push through.”

Even now, six games out from the end of his NCAA eligibility and indefinitely sidelined, Deng could easily throw in the towel and call it quits. But a commitment to his team, his family and himself keeps him honest.

“It’s tough not being able to be on the field but I’ve found other ways to continue to lead. My role on this team hasn’t changed even though I obviously can’t play on the field,” Deng said. “I’m still actively engaged with the guys, providing support any way that I can, continuing to push people any way that I can.”

Cal fans will be hoping for Deng to recover before the end of the 2021 season, but if he doesn’t get better in time to finish out the rest of the season, he could be granted a medical redshirt and an extraordinarily rare seventh-year of NCAA eligibility. Either way, his goal of representing the South Sudanese diaspora in the NFL remains unchanged.

The 2020s have marked a paradigm shift in which athletes are becoming increasingly politically and socially outspoken. But even though this shift has just begun, athletes have always been more than their stats, their game-winning sacks or a name on a roster.

Wherever Deng lands next, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with — whether or not he’s in a football jersey.

Sarah Siegel is a deputy sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].