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Canada: Penn State football's new recruiting pipeline

Jonathan Sutherland

Jonathan Sutherland (26) reacts after Penn State forces a fumble on a punt return during the game at Memorial Field on Sat. Oct 20, 2018. #18 Penn State defeated Indiana 33-28.

In America, football is everywhere.

The opportunities to play football are numerous and at some point most kids will try the game at a young age.

But for Penn State’s Canada natives, football wasn’t something they were born into. In fact, it didn’t play a major role in their lives until middle or high school. And for linebacker Jesse Luketa, football became part of his life thanks to a video game.

“I never really watched it on TV,” Luketa said. “It wasn’t until I was in the superstore with my mom one day and it was a Madden game cover and I wanted to get it so my mom got it for me.

“I go home and I start playing it and I was like ‘this game is pretty fun, I’m liking it.’”

Penn State currently has three Canadians on its team in Luketa, Jonathan Sutherland and Daniel Joseph.

And the number is soon going to grow as the Nittany Lions received a 2020 commit from Canadian born player, Malick Meiga.

After he discovered Madden, Luketa told his mom he wanted to play football, and despite her working double jobs, signed up for the football team in the community, the South Ottawa Mustangs.

The Ottawa native had a coach take him to practice every day and from there his love of the game of football was born.

Luketa then came to America, and for all of Penn State’s Canadians, their transition to American football happened in high school.

And it was quite an adjustment.

In Canadian football, there are 12 players on the field, the field itself is 10 yards longer and 12 yards wider. The end zones are also 20 yards deep instead of the 10 in American football.

The goal posts are also at the front of the end zone in Canada, to name just a few of the many differences between the two games.

And this transition in high school caused some problems for Luketa who at the time was playing safety as he had to relearn how to play the game.

Football Media Day, Luketa (40), Practicing

Linebacker Jesse Luketa (40) jumps for the ball during the 2019 football media day at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, August 3.

“In Canada, we’ve got 12 players on the field, we got receivers coming at you full speed on the line of scrimmage,” Luketa said. “So, I was playing safety at like 25-30 yards back so my coach was like ‘why are you so far back playing safety’ and it wasn’t until then I was like ‘alright, maybe I am doing it wrong.’”

Luketa also experienced a transition to the speed of the American game.

“The game is faster, you have players who are much more gifted here playing in the United States. Don’t get me wrong we still have a lot of talented players back in Canada but it’s just not the same,” Luketa said. “The environment here in the United States is different.

“So really just grasping the magnitude of what the United States has to offer with football that was the biggest transition for me when I came over here.”

Luketa’s goal was always to get to America to play the game, but it didn’t come without questions from people when he left.

“When I left Canada at the time, people didn’t understand why I was doing it, but it was part of my end goal to reach my goals of playing collegiate football so it all worked out in the end,” Luketa said. “It’s like anything else if you don’t have any doubters, you aren’t doing it right.”

Sutherland, who was also born in Ottawa, started playing the game when he was in fourth grade and one practice was all it took for him to fall in love with the game.

That one practice was enough to draw Sutherland away from playing basketball.

“I played basketball and I snowboarded obviously being up in Canada with the snow and all that,” Sutherland said. “But football was the focus since I started. I haven’t snowboarded in years.”

Sutherland also had to adjust to the speed of the game and the overall competitiveness.

“I ended up transferring to a school in Virginia my sophomore year and got to play three years of high school ball in the states and became accustomed to the speed and what not and that definitely then helped my transition to Penn State,” Sutherland said.

But according to his high school coach, Panos Voulgaris, there was never any doubt that he would be successful.

He said that from the time he met Sutherland, it was his focus that stood out to him and he’s not surprised at all about how he has transitioned to being a captain for Penn State this season.

“Jonathan was the lone captain for the team during his senior year of high school,” Voulgaris said via email. “He sets a great example of how to prepare and go about his duties every day.

“When Coach Franklin and I first spoke about Jonathan, our conversation was very much based on the intangibles that Jonathan would bring to his program. I am not surprised that Jonathan is so respected by his teammates and coaches and that he has risen to a leadership position in such a short time.”

Joseph wanted to play basketball, but made the most of his opportunities, one that he could’ve never imagined he would have.

“If you had asked me this question probably five or six years ago, no way,” Joseph said. “Initially, I thought I would be a basketball player, eventually go to the NBA, but clearly my height didn’t. But my physical stature did allow me to play football.”

Pitt, Parsons (11) and Joseph (49)

Defensive end Daniel Joseph (49) and linebacker Micah Parsons (11) bring down Pitt’s Darrin Hall (22) during the football game against Pitt at Heinz Field on Saturday, Sept 8, 2018. No. 13 Penn State defeated the Panthers 51-6.

All three of Penn State’s Canadians have different stories, different paths to football, but has one main thing in common — they were given an opportunity to play football in America and they worked hard and took it.

Football has become more than a game for these three players. They left their homes, their families and their country to come play it.

Although the Nittany Lions are receiving more and more international players, especially from Canada, and they typically get a later start to their football career, James Franklin sees no difference in them.

“It's not that big of a change in my mind and really hasn't been over my career,” Franklin said. “Obviously in the U.S., football and sports in general are pretty serious, but yeah, I think those guys transition extremely well, and right now we've got a pretty good track record if you look at all of our players from Canada, not only how they're playing but also how good they're doing in school.”

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