Jesse Luketa, a four-star recruit and top-10 player in Pennsylvania in the NCAA, keeps his Ottawa roots close to him. Luketa grew up in South Ottawa as the youngest of 7 siblings. By grade 5, he’d discovered his passion for football. With his mother’s constant support of his dreams and ambitions, Jesse sought to make the needed change: he began emailing every US high school in the country with a competitive football program. At just 15, and with the help of former CFL Redblack Jovon Johnson, Jesse was accepted and left home to attend Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Pennsylvania with a promise to work hard to earn his spot.
He graduated as one of the top 20 linebackers in the country, and accepted an offer to Penn State, where he currently plays. The now 6 foot 3, 238-pound Luketa is a force on the field known for his playmaking ability. He is seen as a leader among his teammates, and an inspiration to this community back home.
We caught up with Jesse to discuss his childhood in South Ottawa, his journey to NCAA Football, and his best advice for aspiring athletes in the Capital.
You grew up here in Ottawa and were the youngest of seven children. What are some of your favourite childhood memories?
I grew up in South Ottawa. Anyone who knows me knows that I love Ottawa and I go hard for South Ottawa. It’s a lower income area that doesn’t really get the same amount of attention as everywhere else in the city. My fondest memories are of being a kid running around the neighbourhood. Even now, some of my best friends and still the most dependable people in my life are the people I grew up with in South Ottawa.
Some did get caught up in things they shouldn’t have been doing, but that’s just the nature of the streets in our community. You have a choice of avenues: academics, athletics, or those things you shouldn’t be doing. Despite that, growing up in South Ottawa has made me who I am and I go hard for South Ottawa. I want to be able to give back to that community one day.
Tell us about the sacrifices that your mother made for you and your siblings as a single mother. What has she meant to your life and success to date?
She’s my rock. When I was younger, I would go to sleep with a football in my hand. She saw how passionate I was about it. She’d always say to my cousins and my family, “you laugh about it now, but Jesse’s really passionate about this and he’s going to take that somewhere”. She made sure that I was able to pursue that. She worked extra shifts and extra jobs, just so that she would be able to provide for me and my ambitions. I’m the youngest of seven, I’m the baby. She never played favourites but, let’s be honest, I’m her favourite (laughs).
She instilled the values in me that prepared me to leave home by myself at 15 to pursue my dreams. She showed me what it really was to sacrifice and put things that truly matter before anything else. She taught me what it is to be diligent, to be selfless, how to take care of those you care about. She showed me how to be a good friend, brother, and leader. How to be someone that people can depend on.
When did you first start playing football? Were you always a linebacker?
I first started playing football in grade 5. That’s when I was attending McMaster Catholic School. I started playing for the South Ottawa Mustangs, and that’s where I met all of my best friends. We were outside almost every day until the street lights came on, and that’s all we did. We’d stay all day at the field and watch the older guys play. That was our home on Saturdays, from morning to sunset. We’d just watch the whole organization play and all the other teams.
Tell us about the big decision you made to leave at age 15 to pursue your dream. It’s been written that former RedBlacks Defensive Back, Jovon Johnson, was the one who introduced you to Mercyhurst Preparatory in Erie? How hard of a decision was it for you?
The decision itself wasn’t hard at all, honestly. My mom knew how passionate I was about football, but she didn’t realize how invested I was in it until I started telling her what I was doing to take it to the next level. Every day I would send out 150 emails to prestigious preparatory schools across the country. I’d explain my situation and express my dream of playing at the highest level of football, the collegiate level, NCAA.
South Ottawa isn’t a rich area, and I don’t come from much. My family was able to make sure I had clothes on my back and food to eat. So for my mom to hear that these schools were expecting 18,000 US dollars for me to just attend the school was preposterous. We didn’t have that at our access. So I took it into my own hands to get there. I became obsessed with it. One of the schools I emailed was Mercyhurst Prep. Jeff Root, the head coach, bought into my dream. He said “if you’re really as hungry as you say you are, I’m willing to give you an opportunity”.
Mercyhurst wasn’t a powerhouse institution that was winning games here and there at the time. They had actually just come off their third losing season. But I didn’t care. All I needed was an opportunity, and I knew I was going to make the best out of it. Although it wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t something that everyone would jump on, I knew it was my opportunity.
How hard was the transition for you from 3-down football to 4-downs in the U.S.? What would you say is the biggest thing to learn as a player transitioning to the American rules?
It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, but it was definitely a transition.
I played safety, but when I first started playing football I started as a running back initially. And as you can imagine, I kept growing and eating and working out, and I went from a running back to a corner, and I was playing corner up until the time I left Ottawa. When I first arrived in Erie Pennsylvania, I began playing safety. So when I got there, I’d always be lined up a little too deep. In Canadian football, you want to be at about 15-20 yards. So when I came to America, those were the same landmarks I had. I’d be lined up at 20 yards and my coaches would be laughing saying ‘you’re not in Canada anymore, move up!’.
Once I got comfortable, you know, you could see a huge difference. You could see that I was playing more confidently, and my teammates were playing more confidently. It made me a better leader and made everyone around me better.
As you head into the 2021 NCAA season, you are looked upon as one of your team’s leaders and captains. What are you most excited about this year?
Just being able to enjoy this year and being able to interact with our fans and have a full stadium. To show the culture we’re cultivating. To work hard and bring the Big Ten Championship back to Penn State. We’re hungry, we’re grittier.
Last season didn’t go how we wanted. But at the same time it was humbling. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. So it’s made us work that much harder. Be that much more diligent with our preparation. We’ve left our ego at the door.
Penn State has been like a factory for churning out elite linebackers, like Sean Lee, LaVar Arrington and most recently Micah Parsons, who could be a top 10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Do you find there is extra pressure to following in such big footsteps?
I don’t believe in pressure. I believe in my preparation. What I do on a daily basis will allow me to achieve what I want to do. There have been some great notable names that have passed through here and that’s exactly why I wanted to come to Penn State.
Having the opportunity to place my name among those names is an honour. And it’s an opportunity for us to do something that hasn’t been done here in a while. I’m beyond excited and ecstatic for us and for our fans, because they deserve it as well.
Ottawa’s Neville Gallimore was a 3rd round pick of the Cowboys last year, and he went on to have a very good rookie season. How exciting was it for you to see a fellow Ottawa native get drafted and succeed?
We grew up together. He’s from South Ottawa as well. When I say we go hard for South Ottawa I mean we go hard. There are people who have come out of Ottawa for basketball, music, acting, but there are very few people who come out of South Ottawa specifically. Especially the St. Patrick’s culture, guys like Neville Gallimore and Marial Shayock… we’re few, but we’re mighty.
Neville’s been super supportive. I mean we’ve been talking about this since we were playing at Millennium Field or Canterbury High School for the South Ottawa Mustangs. It’s so crazy because at times I look back and there were kids on my team that may have been more talented than me, but now I’m the one that’s still playing. I’m still passionate about this. It’s a blessing. People can never forget that it’s a privilege to play this game.
Let’s talk about your life away from the field. What are your favourite places to eat when you’re in Ottawa?
When I’m in Ottawa, I have a coach who has taken me in since I was younger and I always go to lunch with him at The Works. That’s one of my favourite places.
What is on your playlist before games or when you’re working out?
Definitely some Drake, there’s some Lil Baby on there, as of recent some Pooh Sheisty, he’s been going crazy, and of course, Ottawa native my brother AP, AP the Don.
If someone were to ask you about Ottawa, what would you tell them about the city?
I would describe Ottawa as one place you definitely have to visit. It’s great for tourists, there’s so much to do. But I’d only recommend it in the summertime, because in the wintertime… especially for folks who aren’t used to Canada, they’d have a horrible experience (laughs).
Were you a CFL fan growing up? If so, who are some of your favourite REDBLACKS players?
I was and I still am. I was born in Edmonton but Ottawa raised me. So I always have love for the Eskimos. I grew up watching guys like Gizmo, that’s like one of my all-time favourite CFL players. As far as the Redblacks, that’s tough because I was always conflicted. Once the Redblacks came into the city I had love for them but… I don’t want to say I was rooting for the Eskimos… but you know where my loyalty lies.
My favourite CFL players for the Redblacks were Dave Bachen, Jovon Johnson, especially the connection we have, and I’d have to say Kyran Moore. He is a mentor for me. He was drafted #1 in the CFL draft a couple of years ago and he had a short stint in the NFL and now he’s back in the CFL. He’s had a great career, still healthy and doing what he needs to do.
What is the best piece of advice you could give to a kid in Ottawa that wants to follow in your footsteps?
You can never let someone dictate your future. No dream is unattainable. I’m living proof that if you really want something, you have to be obsessed with it, day in and day out. The tools are there and it’s all accessible, but you can’t have someone want it more for you than you want it for yourself. Everyone has the same 24 hours and what you do with it is on you.