By Martin Cleary
When you see Jesse Luketa on the football field, he’s in total gridiron mode – fully padded, a trim-looking 6-3 and 253 pounds and the No. 43 on his Arizona Cardinals jersey.
But on July 4, the NFL linebacker was totally out of uniform and there was a totally good reason for it.
Luketa, 24, looked dapper in a spiffy tuxedo as the man of the hour, make that 24 hours, at Ottawa City Hall as Mayor Mark Sutcliffe proclaimed July 4 as Jesse Luketa Day in the nation’s capital.
Born in Edmonton, but raised in the South Ottawa neighbourhood of Heron Gate by his single mom Rose, and the youngest child with five older sisters and two older brothers, Luketa was determined he was going to reach the highest level of American football from a young age.
He started with the South Ottawa Mustangs at age 10, left home at 14 to attend Episcopal Academy in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Three years later, he was playing for the football powerhouse Penn State University Nittany Lions.
And after establishing himself as a solid linebacker with skill as a defensive end for four years, Luketa was selected in the 2022 NFL Draft in the seventh round and 256th overall by the Cardinals.
In his first season last fall with Arizona, Luketa played in seven games and made two solo and three combined tackles.
“I’m extremely humbled and the feeling itself is very surreal,” Luketa said in an interview with CBC’s All in a Day radio show about his special day.
Sutcliffe presented Luketa with the framed Jesse Luketa Day proclamation and in return the football player gave the mayor a signed No. 43 Arizona jersey.
Luketa was introduced to football through the Madden NFL video game. He also was encouraged to give the sport a try by a friend and reportedly eventually begged his mother to become a football player. In the end, he put his first uniform on with the Mustangs.
In an April, 2022, interview with Toronto Sun football columnist John Kryk, Luketa said he “loved the camaraderie (of football), the ability to compete and just being around my friends – my childhood friends. All the kids I grew up with in the neighbourhood.
“A lot of it, too, is it kept us out of trouble. It kept me specifically out of trouble because I was so occupied with sports.”
When he started Grade 9 at St. Patrick’s High School, he was a cornerback for one season on the varsity Fighting Irish squad. But Luketa realized to achieve his goal of playing football at the highest level he had to head to the United States and he was the driving force behind that initiative.
He served as his own agent and sent emails to prep schools to ask about joining their football program and enrolling in school. His requests always stated he would need financial assistance.
As he was completing his high school education and football at Episcopal, more than 60 NCAA universities offered him full athletic scholarships. He signed with Penn State.
During his four years at Penn State, Luketa developed into a first-rate linebacker in his first three years and then showed his commitment to the team and his versatility by adding the role of defensive end to his resume in his senior season (2021).
During that final season, Luketa had 61 tackles in 13 games, which included 34 solo tackles for 8.5 lost yards and 27 assisted tackles. His stats sheet also showed five quarterback hurries, half a sack and a one-handed interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
Luketa also played well at the Senior Bowl for graduating players and had two sacks. But during the NFL Combine, he suffered a hamstring injury while running the 40-yard dash.
At the 2022 CFL Draft, which was two days after the NFL Draft, he was selected in the second round and 20th overall as a territorial pick of the Ottawa Redblacks. Luketa was ranked No. 2 in the final prospect list issued by the CFL’s Scouting Bureau. He was No. 1 on the winter list.
Penn State football head coach James Franklin was thrilled to see Luketa – who “absolutely loves the game of football” – offered an opportunity to play in the NFL.
“I am a huge fan of Jesse and am proud of all he has accomplished within our program,” Franklin said in a statement issued on Twitter. “His knowledge of the game, physical nature and ability to play multiple positions will allow Jesse to enjoy a successful NFL career for years to come.
“We were able to take advantage of Jesse’s versatility this past season, lining him up both at linebacker and defensive end, and his eagerness to embrace that role will prove valuable in any NFL locker room.”
Besides football, Luketa earned a degree in criminology in 3.5 years instead of four years, which allowed him to start his Master’s program.
In about two weeks, Luketa will report to the Cardinals’ training camp from July 27 to Aug. 9 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, to continue to build his pro playing career.
“I love the game of football,” Luketa told Kryk. “I want to stay with it, whether it’s coaching or sports broadcasting or some position that’s focused on football. That’s something I’m passionate about. I want to stay connected to the game.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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