CHASING A DREAM: Heading to NFL Combine, Heron Gate’s Jesse Luketa is writing a story of success – Ottawa Sun

“All the pieces are kind of falling into place, the stars are aligning.”

Jesse Luketa made the successful transition from linebacker to defensive end while at Penn State University.
Jesse Luketa made the successful transition from linebacker to defensive end while at Penn State University. Photo by Jesse Luketa /Handout

On the verge of being drafted into the National Football League, Jesse Luketa is an example of somebody who wouldn’t take no for an answer, somebody who pushed through adversity, shrugging off anything that threatened to get in the way of him chasing a childhood dream.

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It’s a story of perseverance and determination and grit and of a boy becoming a man. It’s a story that puts Ottawa’s Heron Gate neighbourhood into the spotlight for the right reasons. It’s a story and journey that has been scripted with a happy ending. And, yes, dreams really can come true.

Raised in Heron Gate near Walkley and Heatherington roads, Luketa will compete in the NFL Combine over the next few days in Indianapolis. Also ranked the No. 1 prospect by the Canadian Football League’s Central Scouting Bureau, the 23-year-old out of Penn State University will have his name called in the NFL Draft on April 28-30.

It’s all good stuff, but every bit of success Luketa has had he has fought for and earned.

Early in high school, he sent out emails and messages looking for an opportunity to grow his football skills. Not yet 15, he left St. Patrick’s High School after Grade 10, heading south to Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, Pa. He was just a kid, away from home. It was never going to be easy, but he knew that going in. It has always been pedal to the metal as he pursues something. Now, a professional football career many told him was not possible is on the horizon.

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“It’s surreal, it’s been my goal from the time I left home,” said Luketa, who speaks three languages: English, French and Lingala. “I had to grow up faster than the average kid. Coming from the south end of Ottawa, not many make it out. We’ve always been counted out. We’re kids who come from lower-income families. It’s a tough environment. That drives us.

“Kids are tired of struggling. They resort to finding ways to make financial gains. It was a reason I wanted to find a way to get out of Ottawa so early. If it wasn’t for football, who knows what I’d be doing? I had a lot of friends who were embarking down a path I thought would be detrimental to the dream I had. I didn’t want that life for myself. One foolish decision could have cost me everything. I wasn’t always the greatest kid … I got into my fair share of trouble. But I was given a second opportunity. I had mentors in my corner, they were able to slap me on the wrist and say, ‘If playing football is your ultimate goal, there are a lot of things you shouldn’t be doing.’ It allowed me to grow into the person I am. I’m authentic, I’m real. The grit I play with, it’s because of where I come from — the trials and tribulations and hurdles I experienced and had to overcome.”

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Scouts and coaches fall in love with Luketa, not just for what he does on a field, but for who and what he is: a kid with extraordinary skills and a motor that never stops running, but also with a conscience, a moral compass and a desire to excel at everything he does. It’s the way he’s wired. To figure him out, why he’s succeeding in football and in life, you need to look back at the humblest of beginnings. He’s one of eight children — five sisters and two brothers — to a single-parent mom, Rose.

A family photo shows football player Jesse Luketa (right) with this older brother Joseph as young boys. They grew up in Ottawa’s Heron Gate neighbourhood.
A family photo shows football player Jesse Luketa (right) with this older brother Joseph as young boys. They grew up in Ottawa’s Heron Gate neighbourhood. Photo by Luketa Family /Handout

“My mom emigrated from Democratic Republic of Congo in 1980 to give me and my siblings a better opportunity in life,” he said. “It was from her I learned what hard work and sacrifice truly entails. Who I am, that part of my core comes from my mother. She worked, she was a regular church-goer, she was very big on community, and she’s one of the sweetest ladies you’ll ever meet. She’s so unselfish. She’s my rock, she’s my why. People ask me, ‘What motivated you to leave home at such a young age? What motivated you to send those emails at such a young age?’ It’s her. She sacrificed so much for us. I was tired of seeing her struggle. I told her from a young age she wouldn’t need to struggle anymore, I was going to play in the National Football League. She’d smile … It brought her spirits up.”

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Early on in high school, Luketa decided he needed more to be able to pursue his dreams. He had also played for the South Ottawa Mustangs in the National Capital Amateur Football Association and started doing the legwork to see if he could play football in the United States. With some help from former Ottawa Redblacks defensive back Jovon Johnson, he found Mercyhurst. He later received 62 NCAA scholarship offers. He chose Penn State, often referred to as Linebacker U. While he played much of his college career at linebacker, he transitioned to defensive end last season. He has bulked up to nearly 250 pounds, and he’s 6-3. In his four-year NCAA career, he made 151 tackles, 61 of those last season.

“I worked on muscle mass,” Luketa said. “I came into the U.S. a little scrawny. I began to live in the weight room. I was a guy who was eager, hungry and determined. I clung to things for motivation. Hearing the naysayers and the doubters, it kept a chip on my shoulder. It kept me hungry. It was a reminder for me in the weight room. ‘I have to get stronger, I have to get faster.’”

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Along the way, there has been plenty of support from mentors who kept him pointed in the right direction.

“I brand myself as a son of the village,” Luketa said. “I wouldn’t be here without my family, my friends and the coaches who invested in me, people like Danny Nesrallah, who I viewed as a father figure from a young age. He took me to and from practice. He understood me, he understood the dynamics at home. He would take me to get food after practice, he’d get me food for the next two to three days. He’s such a genuine individual.”

Asked about his status as top prospect for the CFL Draft, Luketa said: “It’s an extreme honour to be ranked so high; I grew up a big CFL fan. To be in this position, I don’t even know how to express how grateful I am. But, right now, I’m excited to go through with this (NFL) process.”

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Penn State’s Jesse Luketa, who grew up in Ottawa, got to the NCAA through hard work and perseverance and is on the verge of taking his next step: to the NFL.
Penn State’s Jesse Luketa, who grew up in Ottawa, got to the NCAA through hard work and perseverance and is on the verge of taking his next step: to the NFL. Photo by Jaydyn Jenaya /Handout

Competing in the Senior Bowl, a post-season U.S. college football all-star game in Alabama earlier this month, Luketa turned heads. He had two sacks and a handful of quarterback pressures. What he did in that game and in the week leading up to it pushed him into the conversation as a possible third-round draft pick, maybe even better if a team is looking for his skillset.

“I was competing against the best of the best, so I knew I had to bring my level of competitiveness to a whole new level and find a way to stand out,” he said. “I continued to elevate and get better all week. Now, I’m looking forward to getting to the Combine and showing the scouts and coaches who I am.”

Asked to evaluate himself as a football player, he said: “Physicality is the first thing that pops out. I’m powerful, I’m twitchy and I have high energy. The one area I need to master is the art of getting home, my pass rush. That’s been a big point of emphasis for me.”

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On the verge of a huge moment, Luketa isn’t letting up as he nears the finish line. Two years ago, his friend Neville Gallimore was drafted in the third round by the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.

“All the pieces are kind of falling into place, the stars are aligning,” he said. “I’ve been preparing for this moment. This is for my community back home in Ottawa, to show the kids no dream is unattainable. I’ve been told ‘no’ my entire life. There were times I’d speak to my peers and teachers and tell them I wanted to play in the NFL and they laughed at me. To this day, that fuels me to be a better player, a better teammate and a better man. I wasn’t the perfect student. I didn’t have a 4.0 GPA coming out of high school. I was given the opportunity to elevate my grades when I transferred to the U.S. I worked at it and it allowed to be successful in the classroom. I went on to become the first male in my family to get a collegiate degree. I did it in 3 1/2 years. I’d promised my mom I would get the degree, so it was very meaningful. For the kids back home, my story isn’t one of perfection, it’s a story of resilience and hunger. ”

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Toronto Argonauts linebacker Henoc Muamba, a CFL veteran, says he sees ‘a lot’ of himself in Ottawa’s Jesse Luketa.
Toronto Argonauts linebacker Henoc Muamba, a CFL veteran, says he sees ‘a lot’ of himself in Ottawa’s Jesse Luketa. Photo by Adam Krueger, Toronto Argonauts /Handout

HELP FROM HENOC: Toronto Argonauts all-star linebacker Henoc Muamba says Ottawa’s Jesse Luketa is like a “little brother” to him.

Muamba, a nine-year CFL veteran who also spent time with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys, has long been a mentor to Luketa, who will participate in the upcoming NFL Combine and will be selected in the NFL Draft in late April.

“I see a lot of myself in him, in his journey,” Muamba said. “His family is from the Congo, just like mine. His parents went through the same struggles as my parents went through coming to a new country. We weren’t fed with a silver spoon. The dedication to hard work had to be there. His hunger has been one of the things that’s fuelled him. Beyond that, it’s his ability to have vision, to set goals for himself and to follow his purpose that’s all been astonishing. I’m excited to be a cheerleader.”

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Luketa messaged Muamba several years ago; the CFLer told his his wife, Jessica, about the youngster. Jessica said she was pretty sure Luketa was the brother of a good friend, Leslie. Sure enough, he was.

“He would reach out for advice, he’d ask me questions, sometimes it was just to congratulate me on something,” the 33-year-old Muamba said. “One of the things I knew very early on: He was very persistent, hard working, resilient and driven. Those are key characteristics that have allowed him to have the kind of success he’s had. He found a way. He told all of us he would do it … and he did it.

“I can give him advice, I can cheer him on, but, man, he had to do the work, he had to leave Canada to go to Mercyhurst, he had to get into Penn State and earn a starting job, he had to make plays, he had earn a spot at the Senior Bowl and at the Combine. I’m extremely confident in him, but that’s from the confidence in himself.”

Through his professional football career, Muamba has helped guide younger players along in their journeys. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he put together a mentorship program to help others.

“Mentorship is something I really strongly believe in,” he said. “The role I’ve been able to play (with Luketa), I’m humbled and honoured. When he does well, I feel like I’m doing well. I want to be able to impact other lives to be able to accomplish way more than I ever was able to. That’s my hope for my daughters, and that’s my hope for any younger person I mentor.”

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