Mercyhurst Prep in Erie, Pa., is located approximately 200 miles northwest of State College. But the distance on a map between Jesse Luketa‘s most recent football season and his next one fails to illustrate just how far he journeyed to become a member of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Luketa, a first-generation Canadian and the son of an African immigrant, left home twice, placed faith in family, and bet on himself to reach this opportunity.
“When I crossed the border [into the United States] a few years ago, I left all my family and friends back home and just dedicated myself to pursue my dreams and take a big step,” he said. “I’ll be living out my dreams in Happy Valley.”
Luketa, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker from Ottawa, Ontario, decided at age 15 that he needed to be proactive in order to place himself on the radar of American college football coaches. Even when they began to take stock, he wouldn’t allow himself to feel fully accomplished until one program bought in: Penn State.
Football, friends, family
Rose Luketa, a single mother who emigrated from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1980, did her best to keep Jesse active as a kid. The youngest of seven siblings, his demeanor eased those efforts.
“I never really had trouble or concern with Jesse. He was always happy,” she said.
During his childhood, the Luketas lived in Heron Gate, a neighborhood located in southeast Ottawa’s Alta Vista Ward. It features an eclectic collection of families from various corners of the world, but there’s an underprivileged element that can create challenges.
“I imagine a lot of Americans don’t think we have these problems, but there were just two shootings here,” said Danny Nesrallah, Luketa’s mentor and the owner of a fitness center in Ottawa. “The stretch of street he lived on was a good area, but around it there are some tough pockets.”
Athletics helped Luketa avoid drifting into those pockets. When he was 11, Luketa asked his mother to register him to play organized football.
Due the demands of a single mom working to support a large family, she was unable to facilitate Luketa’s transportation needs on a day-to-day basis. Nesrallah stepped in and helped changed the trajectory of a young, ambitious athlete.
“Danny made a huge, huge impact on him,” Rose said.
Nesrallah met Luketa while serving as a South Ottawa Mustangs coach at the Mosquito level, which precedes PeeWee competition in Canada. His youngest son, Kyler, played on the team, and Nesrallah would drive a few kids home from practice.
Sometimes the trips would involve stops for burgers and ice cream. Luketa became a mainstay in the back seat.
“He always wanted to be dropped off last, and it just grew from there,” Nesrallah said.
Rose heard frequent references to “Coach Danny” at home, and it wasn’t long until the Luketas and Nesrallahs began a gradual shift toward becoming extended family. When Jesse joined them at the mall and Danny bought Kyler something, he could expect to head home with a purchase, too. Progressively, the relationships grew more personal.
“Usually a family adopts a kid, but I realized this kid was trying to adopt us,” Nesrallah said. “It took me awhile to realize that, but when his mom made that first call to me and he started sending me report cards, I started to realize this wasn’t your ordinary relationship. He was reaching out for something more.”
There was a social aspect involved and Luketa has never shied away from conversation.
“Most of [Rose’s] kids are much older than Jesse, so they were off working and doing their own thing, so a lot of times he’d be home alone,” Nesrallah said. “He’d come and hang out, work out [at Nesrallah’s gym]. All the members got to know him and the staff loved him. He’s easy to latch on to.”
Prior to the 2014-15 school year, Rose prepared to move into a home her daughter had purchased in a different section of Ottawa. Luketa, who had blossomed into one of the city’s more promising young players, worried about leaving St. Patrick’s High School and his adopted family.
Nesrallah offered to house Luketa on school days. He would rejoin his family on weekends.
“Rose pretty much looked at me like his father figure,” he said. “She allowed us to open our hearts and home to him.”
Luketa bunked in the basement, expanding a family composed of Danny, his wife, Samantha, Kyler, and older son Damien. Less than a year later, he would be on the move again.
Luketa’s American dream
Ann Arbor, home to the Michigan Wolverines and football’s largest stadium, is less than 50 miles west of the Canadian border. Penn State is situated more than 100 miles closer to Canada than conference rival Ohio State.
Yet, major college football ambitions for Canadian athletes are far more difficult to achieve when compared to players from the United States, leading Canada’s top talent to seek opportunities with American high school programs.
Victor Tedono owns Gridiron Academy in Ottawa and has helped develop substantial college football talent, including former Penn State quarterback Michael O’Connor and current Nittany Lions safety Jonathan Sutherland.
“If a player goes straight from Canada to an American college football program, they’re probably going to need a year or two to adjust,” Tedondo said. “I think if a player goes down to the States earlier for a few years of high school, there’s no adjustment period. They have a chance to start early in college. We’ve seen that pattern.”
Luketa understood the odds. As summer break approached in 2015, he explained the situation to his mother.
She vividly remembers their initial discussion on the topic, which Jesse opened one evening after her return from work by saying “Mom, I have to move to the States.”
Rose raised questions about this sudden proposal. Jesse had answers.
“That’s the only place where I can get real exposure for me to continue my dream. I need to go.”
From that moment, things moved quickly. Jesse had researched options, reaching out to several schools about admission, tuition and football programs.
“He has vision both on and off the field,” Nesrallah said. “Jesse can see where he needs to be to make a play on the field. He also sees where he needs to be to succeed in life. … This kid dreams big.”
Luketa explored options in New York, Tennessee and Virginia, among others. A process of elimination helped lead him to Erie First Christian Academy, which feeds into the Mercyhurst Prep football program.
Tuition exceeds $40,000 at many prep schools, but this seemed to be a more feasible option. Though initial plans for a sponsor fell through, the rate at Erie First Christian (about half the cost of Mercyhurst payments, according to football coach Jeff Root) was offset in large part by a contribution from Nesrallah, and extra work by Rose and Jesse.
Luketa moved to Erie in time for 2015 preseason camp. He placed a Canadian flag on the wall of his bedroom, and kept Rose up to date via FaceTime.
Luketa, then a 6-2, 205-pound sophomore, stood out at Mercyhurst from a physical perspective. Initial practices revealed an impressive, albeit adapting, athlete.
Root recounted his reaction to one of Luketa’s early reps at safety.
“Hey, Luketa, are you going to come into our area code? You’re like 25 yards off the ball. We don’t play like that down here in the States,” he said.
Canadian football occurs on a wider field and allows for an extra receiver to attack opponents while in motion off the snap. It didn’t take long for Luketa to account for his new environment, and he finished the season with all-region honors.
Luketa moved to outside linebacker the following offseason.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m going to watch film on Penn State linebackers because they’re the best in the country.’ Boom, that was his plan,” Root said.
Heading into the summer camp circuit, Root notified Penn State Director of Football Operations Michael Hazel and Nittany Lions offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead that he may have an emerging prospect of interest in his program.
Nittany Lions staff members kept tabs on Luketa during drills at a team-run camp, then told Root they were intrigued but wanted to see how he “panned out” at linebacker.
Luketa had landed on the Nittany Lions radar.
During the approach of his junior season, Luketa received his first scholarship offer. Kentucky Christian, a Division II program, started what would become a lengthy line of suitors.
“You would’ve thought the kid won the lottery, or got an offer from Penn State,” Root said. “He was genuinely thrilled.”
That excitement resonated in Ottawa.
“I got that call, jumped off my couch and ran out of the house screaming at the top of my lungs,” Nesrallah said. “After that, they kept rolling in.”
Missouri became the first FBS team to offer Luketa on Sept. 7, 2016. Vanderbilt was next, one day later.
Luketa’s debut season at linebacker resulted in 88 tackles, 9 sacks, 5 interceptions and all-state honors. Then things really heated up.
Indiana, Northwestern, Ole Miss, Syracuse and Rutgers offered him before Christmas. Less than a year and a half after leaving Ottawa, Luketa was a legitimate Power 5 college football prospect.
“He was always thankful for every one of those opportunities,” Root said. “The only thing Jesse became frustrated with was not getting a Penn State offer.”
Prioritizing Penn State
Luketa, now a wanted man in college recruiting offices from New England to southern Appalachia, considered the Nittany Lions with an array of emotions at the start of 2017.
“He went through this ebb and flow of feelings toward Penn State,” Root said. “He went from ‘I really want an offer’ to like ‘it’s their loss’ to ‘I could care less if Penn State gives me an offer.’ I said, ‘You sound like a guy who just got dumped by a girl. … You know you love Penn State. Let the process happen.’ ”
Communication with family revealed Luketa’s sustained yearning for a Nittany Lions offer.
“Every time he would get an offer, he would say, ‘Mom, please, don’t waste [the coaches’] time because my heart is not there. Keep praying for Penn State,’ ” Rose said. “I don’t have a direct line to God, so honestly we prayed together for that dream to come true.”
Nittany Lions defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry traveled to Erie on Jan. 24, 2017, for one of Luketa’s junior-season basketball games. He was joined in the bleachers by coaches from Michigan State, Missouri, Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt.
That evening, during a discussion with Root, Pry praised Luketa’s attributes. Penn State coach James Franklin was ready to pull the trigger.
“After the game, Jesse asks me about what Pry said, and I told him, ‘He loves everything about you,’ ” Root said. “He was like a kid at Christmas, then all of a sudden, he opened up all of his gifts and didn’t find the one he wanted. He had this drawn look on his face.”
The coach began to walk away as Luketa contemplated his perceived lack of complete interest from Penn State. Then Root turned around.
“Oh, by the way, they also gave you a full scholarship offer,” he said.
Root described Luketa’s reaction as a two-armed shiver to the chest that “about killed me.” Luketa gave Penn State his verbal commitment 10 days later.
His family first visited State College for Lasch Bash festivities in mid-July. The annual barbecue is Penn State’s marquee off-season recruiting event for prospects and their families.
“When we got there, I thought, indeed, it’s really Happy Valley,” Rose said. “My daughter was like ‘Jesse was right,’ and we really fell in love with the place. We felt like family, and after meeting Coach Franklin, Coach Pry and everybody, I know my son is in good hands.”
Plenty of other college coaches, including Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, attempted to turn Luketa’s attention elsewhere, but he wouldn’t budge.
Luketa the leader
For most 15-year-old athletes, the concept of moving to another country and taking a leadership role among relative strangers could be paralyzing. For Luketa, it came naturally.
“The same fearlessness he shows on the football field is the same fearlessness he uses when communicating with other people,” Root said. “The power it had over our high school kids is invaluable to us. It’s going to last us forever in our program because those kids that are here are going to pass it down to the next group, and the next group.”
In three seasons at Mercyhurst, Luketa collected 241 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, 10 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries and 3 blocked kicks, and he starred on offense. Luketa earned all-region honors following each season, claimed all-state accolades twice, and was named 2017 Pennsylvania Class 3A Defensive Player of the Year.
Still, it’s clear he probably would’ve been a team captain even without filling his trophy case.
“I’ve always been an individual who, when surrounded by my peers, I’ve always been considered a leader,” Luketa said after his senior season. “I’m going to do whatever I can do to continue that and just lead the ones who are around me. Just be a vocal leader, and lead through my actions.”
He transitioned to a leadership role among the 20-plus players in Penn State’s 2018 recruiting class, which is set to become its first top-10 talent haul since 2006. Prospect after prospect, committed to the Nittany Lions or otherwise, pointed to Luketa as a driving force for improving the class.
“You’ve got to have a stable guy to lead the point in recruiting all the guys and holding them together,” Penn State defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith said. “We, as coaches, we’re kind of like parents. The recruits will hear us to a point, and then they’ll want to hear from their peers. That’s where Jesse really played a major factor and held this class together. [He] kept them optimistic and upbeat.”
Luketa never shied away from the responsibility, which wasn’t forced upon him.
“It’s transitioning from me being a recruit to being a recruiter,” he said in July. “Coaches don’t need to spend as much time talking to me about the school because I’m committed and now it’s my turn to help talk to other recruits and let them know why Penn State is the best place for them, academically and athletically.”
Luketa was one of six freshmen to enroll earlier this month. Upon arriving, Luketa aimed to win over a new set of teammates after saying goodbye to a tight-knit group at Mercyhurst.
“I wanted to be a player my teammates can depend on. My work ethic was second to none,” he said. “I’m going to take the same mindset to [Penn State] and put myself to work. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m excited and can’t wait to be a part of the team.”