- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Laramie’s silence brings Jonathan Kongbo peace.

After a long day of fall practice, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound freshman defensive end walks out of his dorm and stands outside, breathing in deep gulps of brisk Wyoming air. He looks around him, and sees a campus - buildings, trees, zig-zagging paths that connect one classroom to the next.

He doesn’t see genocide, poverty or struggle.

Kongbo is a survivor, and his prior experiences shape his perspective. He hears nothing, and that silence isn’t taken for granted.

Once, he heard gun shots. Once, he heard war.

Kongbo stands - a humble giant - in the heart of his new paradise. Somehow, he made it here - from one continent to another, from one sport to the next.

Looking back on a journey riddled with close calls and constant adversity, Kongbo dubs his arrival at Wyoming “totally unpredictable.” The circumstances, however gruesome, have strengthened him beyond measure.

The details, though incredible, reveal a young man familiar with hardship, and a family willing to sacrifice everything for a chance at a better life.

___

Jonathan Kongbo is four and a half years old, and he hears gunshots.

At his house in the Congo, the chubby boy runs to the front door and opens it. On the street in front of him, civilians stream past, fleeing desperately as bullets whiz and spray in all directions.

The police fire wildly into the dispersing crowd, seemingly aiming at anything with a pulse. Bystanders scream and hide.

Kongbo stands there and watches. Why is this happening? He doesn’t understand.

Before too long, Jonathan’s mother, Lily Kongbo, pulls him inside, slamming the door with a thud behind him.

“That’s one of the memories that will always stick with me,” a grown Kongbo says.

___

Joachim Kongbo had a lot to lose.

In the Congo, he was an educated man, with a respected job and a nice house. Joachim owned a degree in agricultural sciences, and he worked for the United Nations in the Congo’s capital city of Kinshasa.

His family had a present, but lacked a future.

Jonathan’s father watched as his country was mercilessly battered with civil wars, set afire and engulfed from within. Governments tumbled, rebels roamed the streets and corruption paved the roads.

This was no place to raise children.

And so, Joachim left his family, reputation and the only home he ever knew for the prospect of a bright future that was far from guaranteed. He fled the Congo for Canada, vowing to work however hard and however long he needed to in order to fly his wife and kids over as well.

But when Joachim arrived in a new world, his degree didn’t follow. Until his academic credentials were acknowledged, Joachim scraped and clawed to earn money, sending some of it back to the Congo and keeping only what he needed to stay afloat.

In his old life, he held a prestigious position in a renowned organization.

Now, he was cutting down trees for minimum wage.

“I did anything,” Joachim says with a nostalgic chuckle. “I did forestry work. I worked for a logging company. I had to work very, very hard to make sure that when they came, they would find something here.”

Meanwhile, Lily and her two sons, Jonathan and Joel, moved in with Jonathan’s grandmother, aunt, uncle and their children in a crowded, noisy house. Once a month, they walked 25 minutes to talk to their father for an hour on the nearest pay phone.

Jonathan didn’t understand where his father was, or why his mother was often lonely. For two and a half years, Joachim struggled in a foreign land, while Lily shielded her children from the violence that threatened to consume them.

Thinking back, Jonathan remembers at least two times that his family moved, fleeing home just before the war reached their doorstep.

While his father did whatever necessary to provide, his mother and their family survived and waited.

“As far as war itself, we knew people that were soldiers - rebels that were fighting against each other,” Jonathan says. “But my parents did a good job of hiding us from it as much as possible.

“And my mother was really strong.”

___

When Lily Kongbo loaded her sons and their belongings into a car and drove to the airport on a seemingly average day in 2000, Jonathan Kongbo didn’t know he was embarking on a new beginning.

In the Congo, places like Europe and North America had a different, shared title. The United States was “Paradise.” Canada was “Paradise.” So was England, Ireland and all the rest.

“We’re going to Paradise,” Lily told her boys.

On the airplane, Jonathan learned his first English word - Coca-Cola.

“The stewardess asked us what we wanted,” Jonathan says with a wide grin. “And I was a fan.”

When they landed in Vancouver, the Kongbo family was greeted by a fireworks show, the sky lighting up in various shades of red, blue and purple during a planned celebration. But according to Jonathan, that wasn’t the real reason for the display.

“I was young, and I thought, ‘This is all for us!’” Jonathan recalls. “‘My dad did all of this!’”

At the airport, Joachim Kongbo was reunited with his wife and sons. Suddenly, the gaping hole in his life was permanently, joyously filled. For the first time in years, he was happy. He was whole.

“It felt like I finally had my life back again - physically and emotionally,” Joachim says. “To be back together as a family, that was the best feeling.”

Maybe it was Paradise, after all.

___

As it turned out, Paradise took some getting used to.

“My first taste of North America was a Big Mac, and I puked it out,” Jonathan Kongbo says with a hearty, infectious laugh.

Though he’d eventually warm to fast food, the language barrier was a more immediate, trying challenge. The 5-year-old boy spoke French, but English was a mystery.

Years later, Kongbo rattles through stories with ease, explaining his past in fluid, effortless detail. And even now, he has never taken an English class.

No classes. No lessons.

When you ask him how he did it, the oversized kid with the long arms and shaved head shrugs and smiles.

“The difference between taking a class in Spanish or French is you have to learn English to survive,” Kongbo explains. “You just learn differently when you’re trying to live.”

Even after he digested the language, a sense of identity eluded him.

Was Kongbo Congolese, or Canadian? Who was he, and where was home?

The Canadian immigrant saw a country full of people that he didn’t resemble, with back stories vastly, inarguably different than his own. But in time, he learned to embrace his differences, rather than reject them.

He also discovered a common language, easily understood regardless of the country, culture or background.

A natural athlete, Kongbo found sports.

___

Ken Buchan saw the massive senior from a distance.

The head football coach at Holy Cross Regional High School in Surrey, British Columbia, had never seen the young man before. And yet, Jonathan Kongbo was impossible to miss.

Having transferred to Holy Cross for his final year of high school to play basketball, Kongbo - who weighed 11 pounds at birth - had now sprouted up to 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds.

He considered himself a track star first, and a basketball player second. Football was a foreign concept, at least for the time being.

When Kongbo finished eating lunch on one of the first days of class, Buchan approached.

“Have you ever considered playing football?”

Next came the polite declination, followed by the game of cat and mouse.

“Every day in the hallway, me or one of the coaches would say, ‘Hey, with your size, you could get a scholarship,’” Buchan says. “‘You should be playing football.’”

The coaches kept asking, long after the football season was already underway. And Kongbo kept dodging - slipping around corners and into classrooms - doing whatever necessary to avoid the recruiting pitches that followed him like a shadow.

But after three weeks of unsuccessful pleas, Buchan upped the ante, bringing principal Chris Blesch - also a football coach - to one of Kongbo’s classes.

“Will you come out for football?” Blesch asked him.

Reluctantly, Kongbo agreed.

When the day of his first practice arrived, however, he had no plans to follow through on his promise. Instead, Kongbo schemed to sneak home after school.

But when he stepped out of class, Blesch was there waiting for him.

“Are you going?” the principal prodded.

And so, Kongbo’s football career began - reluctantly, with all of the enthusiasm of a high school kid shuffling to Saturday detention. Still, he showed up. He gave football a chance.

He would never have to be forced to attend practice again.

___

Jonathan Kongbo was a man on a mission.

From day one, the defensive end’s directive was simple: Whoever has the football, chase him. Tackle him.

The technique, defensive calls and alignments would come in time.

Though the strategy resembled little more than squiggly lines and arrows on a chalkboard, Kongbo knew his job was to corral the quarterback. Possessing mammoth size and track speed, he could immediately do that better than most.

In his first ever football game, Kongbo recorded four sacks on four consecutive plays. He was a runaway train, and the tracks ran straight through the quarterback.

“There wasn’t anybody that could block him, really,” Buchan says with a laugh. “They started double-teaming and triple-teaming him, and then just running away from him.”

To best utilize their 250-pound wrecking ball, Buchan began incorporating him at other positions, like running back and tight end.

In a matter of weeks, Kongbo grew to love a sport he didn’t fully comprehend. The position or scheme didn’t really matter.

It was the physicality, more than anything, that kept him coming back.

“It was fun. In basketball, you can’t really hit people,” Kongbo says with a guilty grin. “I would always get called for offensive fouls, just because I was too aggressive.

“Finally there was a sport where I could hit people, and it was actually OK.”

___

When Jonathan Kongbo played football, the world noticed.

Though there was never more than a couple dozen parents and onlookers at any one of his games, word of his prowess spread quickly.

After his first game, 12 Canadian college programs called.

After his second, every college in the country had made their pitch.

After his third, Montana and Villanova got in on the act.

After his fourth, Vanderbilt checked in.

For a high school senior who had devoted most of his time to track and basketball, it was a confusing and unexpected twist.

For Buchan, it was only a matter of time.

“It might have been a surprise to him, because he had never played before, thinking he could get a scholarship after only five or six games,” Buchan says. “But there really wasn’t anyone on our staff that didn’t think he could play somewhere.”

Eventually, Buchan instructed Kongbo to begin sending his tape - however brief - to other programs besides the ones already courting him. One school he recommended was Wyoming, where fellow Canadian Nehemie Kankolongo currently played on scholarship.

“What’s Wyoming? Is that a city?” Kongbo asked him.

A short time after Kongbo conducted a very informative Google search, Wyoming assistant coach Pete Kaligis received a tape.

“I remember watching it and saying, ‘Whoa, he’s got something,’” Kaligis says. “When the ball went away from him and he turned and ran, you saw it.”

Kaligis and Kongbo spoke on the phone, and Wyoming’s defensive tackles coach later traveled to watch one of Jonathan’s basketball games. In turn, Jonathan and Joachim - who now works as a food inspector for the Canadian government - made a visit to Laramie, where they met head coach Craig Bohl and toured the campus and facilities.

In Laramie, Jonathan was introduced to that comfortable, peaceful silence. The staff cared, and the team cared, and complete strangers seemed to care as well.

“Really what got me here is how friendly the people are,” Jonathan says. “Coming from a big city, no one is really friendly. But coming here, people would say hi to you when you’re walking down the street.”

Whereas Wyoming was once a mystery to Jonathan, suddenly it had earned a new definition:

Home.

___

Jonathan Kongbo basks in the silence, because he remembers the horrible noise.

At 4 years old, he saw and heard things no child ever should. In the last two decades, as many as 5.4 million people have been killed in the Congo - the result of war and poverty that continues to fester and destroy.

Sure, he made it out. But what about the countless others just like him?

“It was just normal life,” Kongbo says. “The sad thing is, it’s normal life for a lot of kids nowadays.”

This season, Kongbo will redshirt as he continues to add strength, learn technique and adjust to the complicated schemes that accompany college football.

He’s a blank canvas, eager to add some paint.

“He’s really raw. And as a coach, that’s nice,” Wyoming defensive ends coach A.J. Cooper says. “You get a raw piece of putty that we can mold in the direction we want it to go.”

And though Kongbo is not playing on Saturdays this fall, he also won’t complain.

“I’m feeling very grateful every day,” he says. “When I’m on the field and it’s getting really hard, I just think, ‘Look where I am. I’m really fortunate, compared to other people.’”

When he walks outside, takes a deep breath and scans his surroundings, Kongbo’s past allows him to appreciate his present that much more.

“I just think it’s the grace of God, to be honest,” he says.

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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