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Jesse Luketa’s arrival on the National Football League’s doorstep feels like destiny.

It’s the result of a journey he set in motion as a child, growing up as the youngest of eight in the south end of Ottawa, begging his mother, Rose, for an opportunity to play football.

Once enrolled in youth football, Luketa immediately began calculating how he would get himself to the highest levels of the sport to make his dreams come true.

“At the age of 10, I would literally send emails every single day to institutions across the United States, introducing myself and basically explaining my financial situation and my aspirations of playing football at the highest level,” recalls Luketa. “Some schools responded, others did not.

“I would send emails to NFL agents as well. My brother laughed at me, but he said that was the day he knew I was different. I sent about 100 emails to agents and there were like, three agents who responded. They laughed at me and said, ‘When you’re ready, come contact me again.’”

Luketa is ready, although he’s no longer in need of representation. He signed in January with Klutch Sports Group, the agency founded by Rich Paul, close associate of NBA superstar LeBron James, following four years at linebacker for the Penn State Nittany Lions, the team the 23-year-old chose for himself when he was just a child.

Luketa was fascinated by Penn State’s tradition of great linebackers and dreamed that one day he would join a list that includes LaVar Arrington, NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee, and Paul Posluszny.

When the recruiting process heated up while he was in high school in Erie, Pa., he accepted just one official visit – Penn State.

“I’ve always been that kid, from a very young age, that when I set myself to something I was going to do it,” Luketa said. “I may not have known how I was going to do it, but I knew I was going to get it done.”

This week Luketa is in Mobile, Ala., taking part in the Senior Bowl, the top college all-star event for four-year college players in the lead up to the NFL Draft. It’s the final step in a college career that saw Luketa serve two seasons as a team captain while being lauded for his leadership and maturity.

On the field, Luketa garnered attention this season playing mostly at defensive end while still taking turns at both inside and outside linebacker, a versatility that should serve him well in the NFL. He finished his senior season at Penn State with 61 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss, earning him third-team All-Big Ten honours.

Where does he see himself playing at the next level?

“Playing defence,” Luketa said. “It doesn’t matter where you put me, I’m going to be disruptive.”

Considered to be a mid-round selection for the upcoming draft, the 6-foot-3, 247-pounder can solidify or improve that projection as teams learn more about him.

“If I’m an NFL executive, this kid is going to be a leader in your locker room, and the fans are going to fall in love with him,” said coach Jeff Root, who coached Luketa for three seasons at Mercyhurst Prep in Erie.

“His football skills are what they are, but they are going to get so much more than just a football player. That’s the key. There are no red flags with this kid. I mean, zero. I couldn’t be a bigger fan.”

Root’s sentiments reflect those of Penn State head coach James Franklin, who said after Luketa’s final college game that he would “pound the table” with NFL GMs and coaches to get him attention.

Luketa’s drive stems from a combination of the passion he developed for football at an early age and the struggles he watched his mother endure as a single parent, taking on extra jobs to support her family.

“I was so tired of seeing her struggle and I would tell her that every day,” Luketa recalls. “It would bring her joy and it would make her smile, but she didn’t realize how serious I was until I continued to progress with football.”

That progress wouldn’t have been possible, he insists, without what he calls his “village of supporters,” the friends, family and coaches who invested in his dreams as much as he did.

That includes a couple of Canadian Football League players – both former league defensive players of the year – Henoc Muamba and Jovon Johnson.

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Muamba, currently a linebacker for the Toronto Argonauts, was playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2012 when he received a direct message via Twitter from a young man in Ottawa whose family background, like his own, was from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Luketa idolized Muamba and was seeking advice on football, but he got a whole lot more than that.

“His dedication and level of relentlessness was amazing,” recalls Muamba. “But whenever Jesse would reach out to me, I would say, ‘How is school? How [about] grades, are you taking care of them?’ I knew his drive wasn’t the issue … we would talk school; he would send me his marks and tell me what he was going to do to enhance them.”

Luketa completed his degree in criminology at Penn State in three years.

“It was always about more than football,” Muamba said. “I made that a point.”

Muamba’s interest in mentoring fit perfectly with the role he took on with Luketa, inviting him to a CFL game at Montreal in the fall of that season. It was Luketa’s first professional football game. Afterward, the two had their picture taken together on the field at Percival Molson Stadium.

“I was so excited to be there to see him play … allowing me to be there and soak up the whole experience,” said Luketa. “He’s someone I can talk to about football, about life, and the process. He’s always someone I’ve been able [to] lean on and bounce ideas to … he’s someone I’m extremely grateful to have in my life.”

“Seeing who he was on the field but more importantly off the field was something I wanted to replicate .... He’s my guy. I am forever indebted to him.”

Johnson’s crossing of paths with Luketa was serendipitous, to say the least.

A 12-year CFL veteran who retired after the 2018 season, Johnson was playing for the Ottawa Redblacks in 2014 when Luketa was in his first year of high school.

Johnson’s barber in Ottawa had a son who played high school football by the name of Kurleigh Gittens Jr., who is now a receiver for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.

When Johnson attended Gittens’ game, he couldn’t help but notice a linebacker on the other team, a player he recognized had great strength, ability, and instincts in just his first year of high school.

“So, after the game I went over and asked him if he had been recruited or had thought about going to the U.S. for high school football,” said Johnson. “I said, ‘I know some people, give me your number, and let me see if there are any connections to help you get down there to play.’”

Johnson’s efforts paid off. In the fall of 2015, Luketa began playing for Mercyhurst Prep, the same school where Johnson had been a star.  

The Mercyhurst coaches were struck by Luketa’s drive, maturity, and discipline – all the things he’d developed under the guidance of Muamba, with whom he still maintains a strong relationship.

He quickly became a leader, someone who helped set the culture and whose work habits were adopted by younger players, leaving a mark on the program’s culture.

“We were amazed at a young man so focused on what he wanted at such a young age, it was a pretty special thing for all of us to witness,” said Root, who remains in regular contact with Luketa. “We knew he was going to be a great leader for us, the way he carried himself, the questions he asked, his study habits.

“He’s just one of those kids we will have in our lives forever. Wherever he goes, that’s my new team.”