Friday, July 19, 2024

Giving back to Ottawa everything to Cardinals’ Jesse Luketa

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Jesse Luketa understands “The Struggle. From Ottawa, the Arizona Cardinals linebacker will host a youth football camp Thursday.

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Jesse Luketa understands “The Struggle.”

He’s been there, done that and now his mission is to help kids navigate their way through it by encouraging them to set their sights on a dream, then work hard to achieve it.

The Arizona Cardinals linebacker grew up in a “tough” Ottawa neighbourhood – in Heron Gate, near Walkley and Heatherington roads. Luketa, who’s 25 years old, admits he made his share of mistakes as a kid.

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But, from a young age, he was determined to play football – at a U.S. college and in the National Football League. With a terrific support system of friends, family and coaches, he worked his ass off. And, he made it. First, to Penn State. Then, to the Cardinals as a seventh-round NFL draft pick in 2022.

The opportunity, he believes, is there for others. The 40 Reasons Foundation he’s a big part of is lending a big helping hand in providing guidance for kids who maybe need a little direction.

On Wednesday, a bookmobile will be touring the Heatherington/Walkley Rd. area, with an emphasis on literacy — something he encourages kids to be better at. He speaks from personal experience.

“Sometimes school takes a backseat to other things,” said Luketa. “We want to change that narrative, put an emphasis on literacy. You may be the most talented, gifted kid in your area or on your team, but if you’re not tapped into the things you need to be tapped into in the classroom, your opportunity could be taken away.”

Then, July 4 (Thursday), he’s bringing several NFL players (including K.J. Hamler, Jahan Dotson, James Conner, Rasheed Walker and Shaka Toney) to Ottawa to put on a youth football camp at TD Place. There are still some available spots (to register, go to 40rzn.com). Kids ages 8-12 are on the field from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with ages 13-16 on from 2-5 p.m.

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“We want to give every child an opportunity to have an equal playing field to chase their wildest dreams and aspirations,” said Luketa. “I had to walk so hopefully these kids can run. There are five of of us from Ottawa playing in the National Football League. You’ve got me, you’ve got Neville Gallimore (Miami Dolphins), Luigi Vilain (Carolina Panthers), Jonathan Sutherland (Seattle Seahawks) and Eli Ankou (Buffalo Bills); all of us are wearing NFL jerseys. If we continue to keep doing what we’re doing, give back to the community and invest in our youth, who knows how big a number that could turn into.”

His heart is never far from Ottawa. A self-proclaimed “son of the village,” Luketa, whose Twitter handle is “Ottawa’s Very Own,” continues to give back to the city where he was raised. He wants to be a beacon for others who are conflicted about what’s right and wrong, he wants to be an example of “Yes, you can’ for youngsters with big dreams.

“I know athletes who were more talented than me when I was growing up,” he said. “Now they’re (a) not with us anymore, (b) in jail or (c) doing God only knows what. It hurts. I’ve seen that path, I don’t want kids to go down it. I’m trying to show kids an alternative. I feel like I’m a product of my environment. I lived the life they’ve lived, I understand the struggle. I understand the stress and the desire to want more, but at the same time I also understand there are so many different ways you can obtain those things. Showing them something different is what I’m passionate about.

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“You never know who you’re going to inspire. All it takes is one little spark. Then, the rest is up to them.”

The background for Luketa: Early on while at St. Patrick’s High School, he sent out emails and messages looking for an opportunity to grow his football skills. He left St. Patrick’s High School after Grade 10, heading south to Mercyhurst Prep School.

Luketa understands the grind, the sacrifices, the commitment, the core values; he’s embraced all of it, while remaining connected to something that remains so close to his heart: His community.

“Humility keeps me grounded because I’m living my wildest dream,” he said. “I’m playing a game I’ve been playing since I was nine and I’m doing it at the highest level.

‘It doesn’t matter what you want to pursue — whether it’s to become a professional athlete or get a job on Wall Street, the lessons and values you’re learning are going to resonate. It’s all applicable.”

Luketa, as it turns out, is also a hockey fan, a supporter of the Ottawa Senators. Veteran winger Claude Giroux is both an inspiration and a friend.

“I love watching hockey,” he said. “Training with Claude (under Tony Greco) set the standard for me. It was how Claude went about his business, his work ethic and his relentlessness – it was second to none. Those who are familiar with Claude know he’s a dog. I’m a firm believer if you surround yourself with dogs, you’ll continue to grow that that dog-like mentality.”

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Going into his third season with the Cardinals, the 6-foot-3, 253-pound Luketa, who made 11 tackles (four solo) with increased playing time in 2023, is setting his own bar high. He’s pushing hard to make himself better.

“The thing you begin to understand is you have to to reinvent yourself daily and prove your worth,” he said. “The NFL stands for Not For Long. You have to earn it every single day. Nothing’s promised. I’m no stranger to adversity, I thrive in it. My mantra remains the same — brick by brick. It doesn’t matter how you’ve got to get it done, you find a way to get it done.”

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