The arrival of Jesse Luketa on the doorstep of the National Football League feels like destiny.
It is the result of a journey he started as a child growing up in south Ottawa, the youngest of eight children, asking his mother Rose for an opportunity to play soccer.
After signing up for youth football, Luketa immediately started thinking about how he would make it to the highest levels of the sport to achieve his dreams.
“By the age of 10, I was literally emailing institutions across the United States every day, introducing myself and essentially explaining my financial situation and my ambitions to play football at the highest level,” Luketa recalled. “Some schools have responded, others have not.
“I would also send emails to NFL agents. My brother laughed at me but said that was the day he knew I was different. I sent about 100 emails to agents and there were about 3 agents who responded. They laughed at me and said, ‘When you’re ready, come back and contact me.’”
Luketa is ready, even though he no longer needs a substitute. He signed in January with Klutch Sports Group, the agency founded by Rich Paul, a close associate of NBA superstar LeBron James, after four years as a linebacker for the Penn State Nittany Lions, the team that founded the 23-year-old chose for himself when he was just a kid.
Luketa was fascinated by Penn State’s tradition of big linebackers and dreamed of one day being included in a roster that would include LaVar Arrington, NaVorro Bowman, sean leeand Paul Posluszny.
As the recruiting process heated up during his high school years in Erie, Pennsylvania, he accepted only one official visit — Penn State.
“I’ve always been that kid, from a young age, that if I set my mind to something, I would do it,” Luketa said. “I might not know how I was going to do it, but I knew I could do it.”
This week, Luketa is in Mobile, Alabama, attending the Senior Bowl, the premier college all-star event for four-year-old college players leading up to the NFL draft. It’s the latest step in a collegiate career that saw Luketa serve two seasons as the team captain while being lauded for his leadership and maturity.
On the field, Luketa garnered attention this season by playing primarily defensively while still alternating as an inside and outside linebacker, a versatility that would serve him well in the NFL. He finished his senior season at Penn State with 61 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for losses, which earned him third-team All-Big Ten honors.
Where does he see himself playing at the next level?
“Playing defense,” Luketa said. “It doesn’t matter where you put me, I’ll be a nuisance.”
The 6-foot-3, 247-pounder is seen as a middle-round pick for the upcoming draft and may solidify or improve that projection as teams learn more about him.
“If I’m an NFL manager, that kid is going to be a leader in your locker room and fans are going to fall in love with him,” said coach Jeff Root, who coached Luketa for three seasons at Mercyhurst Prep Erie.
“His football skills are what they are but they will get so much more than just a footballer. That’s the key. There are no red flags with this kid. I mean zero. I couldn’t be a bigger fan.”
Root’s feelings mirror those of the Penn State head coach James Franklinwho said after Luketa’s last college game that he would “bang 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 a young age and the struggles he witnessed as a single mother, taking part-time jobs to support her family.
“I was so tired of seeing her fight and I told her that every day,” Luketa recalls. “It would bring her joy and make her smile, but she didn’t realize how serious I was until I developed further in football.”
This progress would not have been possible, he insists, without what he calls his “village of supporters,” the friends, family and coaches who have invested as much in his dreams as he has.
That includes a couple of Canadian Football League players – both former league Defensive Player of the Year – Henoc Muamba and Jovon Johnson.
Muamba, currently 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 himself, was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Luketa idolized Muamba and sought advice on football, but he got a lot more than that.
“His commitment and relentlessness were amazing,” Muamba recalls. “But whenever Jesse would talk to me, I’d be like, ‘How’s school? As [about] Notes, do you take care of them?’ I knew his drive wasn’t the problem… we would talk about school; he would send me his grades and tell me what he would do to improve them.”
Luketa graduated from Penn State with a criminology degree in three years.
“It was always about more than football,” said Muamba. “That’s my goal.”
Muamba’s interest in mentoring was a perfect fit for the role he took on with Luketa, inviting him to a CFL game in Montreal this fall. It was Luketa’s first professional football game. The two then posed for photos together on the field at Percival Molson Stadium.
“I was so excited to be there and see him play…allowing me to be there and soak up the whole experience,” Luketa said. “He’s someone I can talk to about football, life and the process. He’s always someone I’ve been able to [to] lean in and swap ideas with him… he’s someone I’m very thankful to have in my life.”
“Seeing who he was on the field, but especially off the field, I wanted to emulate… He’s my type. I am forever indebted to him.”
Johnson’s crossroads with Luketa was accidental, to say the least.
Johnson, a 12-year CFL veteran who retired after the 2018 season, played for the Ottawa Redblacks in 2014 when Luketa was a freshman in high school.
Johnson’s barber in Ottawa had a son named Kurleigh Gittens Jr. who played high school football and is now a wide 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 who he recognized had great strength, skill, and instincts even in his freshman year of high school.
“So after the game I went up to him and asked him if he had been drafted or if he had thought about going to the States for high school football,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I know a few people, give me your number and let me see if there are any connections to help you get down to gaming.'”
Johnson’s efforts paid off. In the fall of 2015, Luketa began acting for Mercyhurst Prep, the same school where Johnson was a star.
The Mercyhurst coaches were impressed by Luketa’s drive, maturity and discipline – all things he had developed under the tutelage of Muamba, with whom he still has a close relationship.
He quickly became a leader, someone who helped shape the culture and whose work habits were adopted by younger players, shaping the culture of the program.
“We were amazed by a young man who was so focused on what he wanted at such a young age, it was very special for all of us to witness,” said Root, who remains in regular contact with Luketa. “We knew he would be a great leader for us, the way he behaved, the questions he asked, his study habits.
“He’s just one of those kids that we’re going to have in our lives forever. Wherever he goes, that’s my new team.”