On the front porch of his family home in Surrey, Jonathan Kongbo holds a commemorative football from his time with the University of Tennessee Volunteers, a team in the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference (SEC). (Photo: Tom Zillich)

FOOTBALL

‘I know where I belong’: Surrey’s ‘King’ Kongbo stoked about CFL pick but still has NFL dreams

Former star at Holy Cross ‘feels good’ following rehab of knee torn up while with Tennessee Vols

From Congo to Canada’s west coast to the American southeast and back, Jonathan Kongbo’s football path will take him to Winnipeg next.

The Manitoba city’s Blue Bombers made the six-foot-six defensive lineman the fifth-overall pick in last week’s CFL draft, and the Surrey-raised Kongbo is excited to hit the gridiron again, even if it’s not in the NFL – just yet, anyhow.

With the Tennessee Volunteers of the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference (SEC), the hulking “King” Kongbo tore the ACL in his right knee during a game against Auburn last October, ending his senior season and, ultimately, his dream of being drafted by an NFL team last month.

Still rehabbing the scarred limb of his, the Holy Cross Regional High School grad returned to his family’s Clayton-area home last week following winter rehab sessions at a facility in Arizona. When the Now-Leader visited Friday (May 3), the day after the CFL draft, Kongbo had a bounce in his step as he walked down the stairs.

“It feels good,” he said of his damaged knee. “It healed really well. I feel good, ready to go.

“I’m at the stage of rehab where it’s just about doing exercises and getting movement, because it’s like teaching your leg how to function again,” he added. “I lost all of my leg, really – half of the size, and the muscles just shut down.”

The injury came at the worst time for Kongbo, who had hoped for a good season to generate interest among NFL teams at the draft – something that didn’t happen.

“At first I was a little upset about it, but in hindsight it’s just another part of my story because it’s been so unique, right,” Kongbo said. “I felt bad for myself for those first three or four days after it happened, and then I realized that I’m not going to get anywhere if I just sat there and sulked about it, feel pity and all that, and I really attacked my rehab process really vigorously, right away. I got hurt on a Saturday, got into surgery on the Tuesday and started rehabing.

“It’s not done, you know what I mean?” he added. “Obviously playing in the NFL is still a dream of mine, still a goal of mine, but I take things one step at a time, yeah.”

While at Holy Cross, Kongbo was something of an accidental football star, a guy who hadn’t played the game until Grade 12 at the Fleetwood-area Catholic school. He’d been a basketball player at Kitsilano Secondary until transferring to Holy Cross, where the Crusaders’ coaches eventually coaxed him to try football, a game he didn’t embrace at first but says he now loves.

• READ MORE: Jonathan Kongbo, the accidental football all-star, from 2014.

From Holy Cross he went to junior college in Wyoming and Arizona Western before joining the Vols in Tennessee, where he played prime-time games against some of the biggest-name teams in college football – Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs, LSU Tigers and the like. In 2016, Kongbo and the Vols played Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway in front of more than 156,000 fans – a record for college-football attendance.

In the SEC, Kongbo had to “rise to the occasion” of playing the game, American style.

“It was one of those things where I learned quickly,” Kongbo recalled. “The game wasn’t a joke, it’s a lot more physical, playing grown men and 18-year-olds who are six-seven and 350 pounds, you know. It was good, and it was just something I had to embrace, and obviously I was built for it as well. I told myself, ‘I belong here, and I’m here for a reason.’”

In three seasons with the Vols, Kongbo played 30 games, starting 17, as both a linebacker and defensive lineman. Off the field, he won the 2018 John Stucky award as Tennessee’s best performer in the weight room.

• RELATED STORY: Surrey football player Kongbo tops CFL draft prospects list, from August 2018.

Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters said he sees Kongbo as a potential starter at defensive end, eventually. “Jonathan Kongbo was just too good not to draft,” he told TSN.

For the Blue Bombers, training camp starts at the end of May. Kongbo says he’s aiming to be there, with contract work to be done, but won’t be 100 per cent ready for action until mid-June or early July.

“I’m really excited, because it’s an opportunity to play again, and I’ve missed it,” he said with a wide smile. “I miss hitting somebody – ahhh, I can’t wait to hit somebody,” he added with a laugh. “It’s weird, you know. That’s my game.

“It’s lit a different fire in me, all this,” Kongbo continued. “I don’t think I’ve worked this hard my whole life, but I think I still have so much more in me, you know. And the NFL draft, that lit me up more, because I’ve seen guys I’ve competed against, guys on film I’m beating – it’s just one of those things. I know where I belong.”

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