- Jacob Carr
Jesse Ilunga's Journey to Regina, Saskatchewan is a Fascinating Tale
Jesse Ilunga (pictured on the left with his second place Saskatchewan wrestling provincial medal) is one of many new recruits for the Regina Thunder who are waiting patiently to find out if they will be able to play football this season. Although he currently finds himself in the same situation as many others, the same can't be said for how he got to this point.
Jesse’s story starts in the Congo, where he was born. His family struggled with poverty in a war-torn country rife with violence and bombings. And after "losing everything" Ilunga said his family packed up and moved to Uganda to start fresh.
However, the schooling system in Uganda did not allow Jesse to attend school right away as a child so he would spend most of his time hanging out at home or going to neighbouring houses, until he reached his teenage years.
It was around that same time when his mother Nelly told him that it was time to get a job. One of the most readily available jobs in Uganda happened to be construction, so Ilunga worked, mixing cement and hauling heavy sandbags, all the while with the thought of getting an education ever-present in his mind.
After a few years of working manual labour and saving some of his own money, Jesse enrolled in Saint Peters Secondary School in Uganda, a boarding school where he would get his first taste of team sports.
To Ilunga, sports were not his main focus when he entered school.
“I thought sports were a waste of time,” he said. “I would see the seniors playing rugby at 5 A.M. though, and the first time I played I was doing a lot of hitting, and I liked the aggressiveness of it.”
From then on, Jesse started to develop a love for the game of rugby, as everyday he and his schoolmates would wake up at 4 A.M. and play.
“There we no coaches involved,” Ilunga said. “You just hit somebody that ticks you off and take the ball. We had our own playbooks, get a pen and sketch something out right there and that was the play for the day. We would make sure somebody that was ticking us off would bleed that day.”
Rugby wasn’t the only sport at Jesse’s school that involved letting off some steam.
Boxing, or a more appropriate term for it would be bare-knuckle brawling, was prevalent and popular among students at the school.
“You would just put a little bit of money on the table and start throwing hands, same as something like arm wrestling, put five dollars on the table and arm wrestle,” Ilunga said. “So back home it was take off your shirt and start boxing, bet on one guy and start throwing some hands.”
In these fights, the first person to get knocked out lost, and the winner would walk away with the equivalent of about 50 dollars Canadian, per fight. According to Ilunga, it was a good way to earn money to buy something that you wanted at the time, for example a pair of cleats.
When he first joined the unofficial bare knuckle boxing club that took place behind the school, Ilunga wasn't very good and would lose most of the time. But as he grew up and gained some strength he started winning nearly every time, taking home the cash 13 or 14 times out of every 15 fights.
However, fighting also came with the risk of being caught, and if one was caught in the act, the consequences were dire.
“At 6 P.M. every school day, we had an assembly where they would talk about the naughty kids of the day, they called kids in front and would cane them,” Ilunga said. “If they caught you fighting then you would have to lie down for about 90 strokes and if you were caught cheating on an exam or harassing another student it would be about 50 strokes.”
Eventually Ilunga and his family made the move across the Atlantic to North America. And in 2019, after nearly two years living in Kansas, he and his family ventured north and settled in Regina.
The first thing Ilunga noticed about Canadians was how friendly they were compared to some of the hostility he had experienced in America. He recalls first arriving at the Regina airport and accidentally bumping into a woman, which led to her apologizing to him.
“I tap on my brother Alexis and I was like check this out,” Ilunga said. “Alexis said to try it again and so I bumped into a different lady and she said sorry as well.”
Ilunga also noticed right away how friendly the high school teachers were in Regina, compared to Uganda. In one of Jesse’s classes, when a student was unable to produce their homework because they left it at home, there were no repercussions.
“I was confused by that because back home you would have got 50 strokes from the cane for doing that,” Ilunga said.
But that wasn't the only culture shock Ilunga faced after moving to Saskatchewan from places like Kansas and Uganda.
“When I first got here I liked the cold air, in the airport a guy was leaving and the doors opened and I felt that cold air and I liked the feeling. It was my first time touching snow so I liked it,” Ilunga said.
However, that initial excitement of feeling the cold Saskatchewan air wouldn't last long, as Ilunga would quickly discover how brutal a winter in Regina can truly be. Jesse would realize that he wasn’t so fond of the cold when he had to walk from his home, near Dr. Martin LeBoldus High School, all the way downtown and back, in the dead of winter.
“I was wearing these big winter boots and sweating, my hands were frozen and it was like an hour walk and I thought that I’m never going out again,” he said.
This harrowing and bone-chilling experience would turn out to be a motivating factor for Ilunga to save up and buy himself a vehicle to get to work and school.
Raised on construction work and fighting, it didn't take long for the LeBoldus football coach, John Foord, to notice Ilunga's natural strength and start recruiting him to join the team.
Ilunga remembers Foord telling him that he was a big and strong guy that should try something new and that if you excelled and put the work into football that you could make it into a career down the line. Foord also mentioned that there had been other players on the LeBoldus team that had previously come from other countries and done very well.
So he joined the team. But it wasn't all smooth sailing from there as Ilunga initially struggled both to find a love for the game and to grasp the playbook and his gap responsibilities as a defensive lineman. He credits Joe Camplin, a linebacker and offensive lineman for LeBoldus in 2019, as being his first friend on the team and helping him out tremendously.
“I got help from Joe because I told him I was having trouble and I don’t know if I should just quit the team,” Ilunga said. “Joe said 'I’ll help you out' and from then on he was helping me with everything, so he would just tap me and tell me where to go.”
Ilunga not only excelled on the football field, helping the Golden Suns to a city and provincial championship in 2019, but he also joined the school's wrestling team where he would go on to a fourth place finish at provincials in 2019 and second place in 2020.
Ilunga excelled so much on the field that he even started getting the attention of some U Sport teams and was in discussions to play football for the University of Ottawa Gee Gees. Ultimately he decided that the stress of leaving home along with balancing work, football, school and rent, was too much. So instead he decided to sign with the local Canadian Junior Football League team, the Regina Thunder.
“I looked at the Thunder and it was nice because I don’t have to go to school right away,” Ilunga said. “I can work full-time and then go to school after a couple years, and I can go to university down the road and still play football.”
When the Thunder are able to resume playing, Ilunga is looking forward to getting bigger, faster and stronger and having a good season, hopefully helping the team to a national championship.
But those goals remain in limbo for the time being. So for now, Ilunga spends his days like any other Canadian teenager working, eating, playing video games, watching movies or just driving around the city in his 2008 Dodge Avenger, waiting for that call that says he gets to strap on the pads and hit the field again.
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