The accidental football all-star

“It’s all about speed and size,” Holy Cross football coach says of the best player to come out of the Fleetwood Catholic school in half a decade. “He’s huge; he’s 6-foot 6, 250 pounds and runs the 100 in 11.6 seconds. You can’t teach that.”

The he, in this case, is Jonathan Kongbo, a reluctant football player who’s remarkable journey has taken him from the Congo in Africa to basketball courts in Canada to a future on the college football fields of the United States.

Kongbo’s story starts in the Congo where he was born and lived for the first five years of his life.

The country has been wracked by civil war for decades, sometimes flaring up into horrific violence and other times simmering with skirmishes in the eastern regions of the country.

Jonathan’s father, Joachim Kongbo, has a degree in agricultural sciences and had a good job in the capital city of Kinshasa working for the United Nations. The family’s security was shattered in the mid 1990s when the civil war violence reached the capital and armed troops and rebels roamed the streets.

“I could see what was happening,” Joachim Kongbo recalled. “I said, ‘You know what? I don’t care about the good life we have.’ I had a very good job, but that didn’t matter because it wasn’t safe.’ I told my wife that it was time to get out.

“I was all right but I didn’t see any future there for my children. So I made a decision to move to Canada to find a better life for my family.”

The move was not an easy one. Joachim came to Canada on his own and had to work at unfamiliar jobs until his academic credentials were recognized here. In the meantime, his wife, Lily, stayed in the Congo with their two children, Joel and Jonathan. The unrest in the country continued and there were times when Lily had to hide her two children as soldiers were shooting at each other in the streets.

“I was very worried because I was in Canada and my family was still in Congo,” Joachim said. “It was really hard being so far apart. We are so grateful to Canada. My children were very young, but the images of what they saw are very powerful. We are lucky to be in Canada and my children and fortunate. They have no excuse not to work hard.”

The Kongbo family was finally reunited in Canada when Jonathan was five years old. As a youngster, Jonathan excelled in sports. His talent first emerged on the track where his speed made him stand out from the other children.

Joachim Kongbo was not too surprised by this development. During colonial times in the Congo, his grandfather had worked as a messenger running from town to town with the mail. Running, it seemed, ran in the family. The difference was, young Jonathan excelled in the 100 and 200 metre sprints, not the long distance events.

In addition to track, young Jonathan tried rugby, soccer and ice hockey before discovering basketball, a sport he was truly passionate about. When the family moved from Vancouver to Surrey in 2012, Jonathan

opted to remain at Kitsilano Secondary for his Grade 11 year. He travelled three hours round trip each day to attend the Vancouver school and compete as a member of the Blue Demons basketball team.

The tedious daily commute took a toll on his grades and the Kongbo family decided to look for a school closer to their Surrey home. They settled on Holy Cross where Jonathan saw the potential of the Crusaders basketball team.

When classes began, however, he was stopped by a coach in the hallway and asked a strange question: “Do you want to play football?” The immediate answer was no, but that did not deter the Crusader football coaches. Each day he was asked again to join the football team.

“When they asked me to come out for football I wasn’t interested,” Jonathan recalls. “My main focus was on the basketball season, but the coaches kept nagging me every time they saw me in the hall. I tried avoiding them for a while, but one day I just said, ‘Fine, lets do it. Then hopefully they’ll just leave me alone.’ Jonathan finally attended his first practice after the Crusaders had already played one game. Jonathan had played Madden video games and watched the sport on TV so he understood the basics, but had never put on a football helmet before or put his hand down on the line of scrimmage.

“He was completely raw, but he was not horrible,” Buchan said. “He is so athletic that he picked things up fast. He had never played football before, but he had played rugby so the game wasn’t completely foreign to him.

“Nobody ever got outside of him and he came off the edge hard. We put him at defensive end with the idea that nobody was going to run outside of him.”

Jonathan found the new game confusing at first. The set plays and gaps and schemes were somewhat overwhelming. On the other hand, he was pleased to be able to hit an opponent without being penalized. In basketball, Kongbo rarely caught a break from referees because of his size and he frequently was whistled for charging. On the football field, however, such contact is encouraged and Kongbo quickly grew to love the game.

“At first it was really hard; it was like learning a new language,” Jonathan said. “I didn’t know anything about blocking schemes and when I looked at the playbook, it was just circles and drawings. I didn’t understand the rules or how the gaps worked, but the coaches worked with me and taught me how to play. It was fun.”

Fun for him perhaps. Not so much for his teammates.

“The biggest problem we had was in practise, nobody on our team wanted to hit him,” Buchan said. “On top of that, he didn’t want to hit anybody on our team because he was afraid he was going to hurt them. We have some pretty small guys and for the first week or so he was clearly holding back.”

It didn’t take long for Jonathan to make an impact from his defensive end position. His speed – he finished third in the province for the 100-metres as a Grade 11 – was unmatched and opponents quickly realized that running the ball wide on Jonathan’s side of the field inevitably led to failure. In 2012, Holy Cross opponents routinely ran the ball wide for big gains. With Kongbo on board, opponents quickly shifted their point of attack to whichever side he wasn’t on.

Opposing coaches respected his speed and kept the ball away from him, but he still made an impact on the field.

“Almost every game he did something that was, like, are you kidding me?” Buchan said. “In one game he tackled the quarterback and the running back on the same play. The quarterback was dropping back to pass and the running back was in to block and Jonathan just grabbed them both and brought them down.”

Jonathan progressed well during his six games with the varsity team. He helped the Crusaders qualify for the class AA playoffs and when the season ended with a loss to John Barsby, he was stunned to learn he had been selected as a first team B.C. all-star.

“I was shocked when they told me,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. It felt good, but I really didn’t know how to process it. Still, I thought football was fun, but now I could focus on basketball.”

The problem was, Jonathan may have been finished with football season, but football wasn’t finished with him. The Monday after his first game he was contacted by football coaches from UBC. After his second game, SFU called. By the end of the season, he had been contacted by seven Canadian universities as well as coaches from Montana State, Northern Colorado, Vanderbilt and Wyoming.

“When I started hearing from football coaches, I was surprised,” he said. “I’ve played basketball for years and only heard from maybe three schools. All of a sudden, in a two or three week span I had all these schools phoning me. It made me think that maybe I should really look into it.”

As the Crusaders basketball team marched toward the provincial 4A championships, Jonathan played a huge role on the squad. In his spare time, he sifted through the recruiting information he had received from assorted college football coaches. He visited SFU and UBC and then, on the eve of the 2014 B.C. Senior Boys Basketball Championships, he headed south with Joachim on a football recruiting trip to Wyoming. The small town feel of the Wyoming campus and the warmth of the people there won him over and when returned to Canada, he signed on the dotted line to play football for the Cowboys.

“It’s been an interesting senior year,” he said. “It’s all like a dream for me right now and what everything means really hasn’t settled in yet. It’ll take a couple of weeks, but right now I’m just enjoying it.”

One man, however, is especially thrilled with what Jonathan has accomplished. Joachim Kongbo’s decision to uproot his family and flee the civil war in the Congo was not without risks. The Kongbo family knows more than most Canadians how lucky we are to live in peace and security.

“I am so excited for him,” Joachim said.

“It is so amazing. I went with him when he visited the school (Wyoming) and I authorized him. We are so grateful to Canada for the opportunities we have here.”