Junior linebacker embodies American Dream
As he walks through the arrivals terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, he acts as if he had been privy to the surroundings several times before. Each gate he passes unfurls a new beginning, but the 12 year-old refuses to appear an outsider.
Instead, he fights back the feeling of unfamiliarity, while trying to contain his utter elation. His mother and sister lag behind, drinking in the hustle and bustle of the largest international airport on the East Coast of the United States.
But while they stop to smell the popcorn emanating from the various venders and peer out the mammoth windows overlooking a multitude of runways, he marches on at a feverish pace, doing his best to pretend he is not overcome with emotion.
“I just looked like I knew where I was going, but I didn’t,” he says eight years later. “I was just walking around trying to find him.”
He had made it. Finally, the reunion he had been trying to realize for five long years. It's April 14, 2007, and Steve Longa has just set foot on American soil for the first time.
He has left his native Cameroon for good, but that does not worry the young man, for soon he will wrap arms around his hero — the man whose sacrifices made this all possible — his father, Etienne.
Etienne Longa was a well-known figure in the city of Duoala, the largest in a small West African country. Etienne spent 13 years playing professional soccer for Dynamo Duoala, a distinction he earned on account of the promise of stability in a nation and at a time when jobs were scarce.
After excelling on the pitch, the patriarch of the Longa family was granted the opportunity to maintain his employment by starting a security company that protected public officials and foreign dignitaries.
Steve Longa remembers enjoying the fruits of his father’s success. But once Etienne left in 2002 to create a better life for Steve and the family, people he held dear stopped coming around.
“Close friends of my father that were like uncles to me, aunts to me, they just disappeared,” Steve Longa said. “People say you know who your friends are in tough times and those were tough times and they weren’t there.”
Steve was kept in the dark about his father’s plan initially. His mother, Caroline, told him his dad was going on vacation for a couple weeks, but Steve soon learned he wasn’t coming back.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he said. “In my head, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna see him eventually.'”
But until that day in April, Steve never knew for sure. He was never angry at his father for leaving, but the emptiness still affected him. He felt like “something was missing.”
Steve struggled to understand.
“Why did he leave,” he recalled wondering. “I was upset. I would cry sometimes because it was tough.”
His journey included countless visits to customs in the hope of acquiring a visa, each one a “waiting game.” The family would get a call and they would think, “this is the time,” Steve said, only to wait again.
“They’d call you in and you think you're gonna get your visa and they tell you to wait,” Steve said. “Then a year goes on, two years go by.”
But that amazing day in April made it all worth it.
The family settled in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, after a three-month stay in Michigan upon arrival to the States. Steve gave up soccer — both he and Etienne’s first love — and traded his spikes and shin guards for a helmet and shoulder pads.
The adjustment was far from seamless.
“I was terrible,” Steve said. “If I had to rank myself 0-10, I was probably a zero.”
His team, Saddle Brook High School, went 1-10 in Longa’s freshman season and 2-9 his sophomore year. But it all began to click in his junior season, and he went on to earn a scholarship to play for the Rutgers football team.
Fast forward to 2015 and junior Steve Longa is one of the best linebackers in college football.
Longa has led the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) in tackles every season he has played on the Banks. This fall, his 39 tackles rank fifth in the Big Ten and among the top-25 in the country.
Longa’s teammates said his leadership and work ethic are unmatched.
“That’s the heart and soul of our defense right there,” said redshirt-freshman safety Kiy Hester. “He had 100-plus tackles every year since he’s been here. Everyone listens to him, respects him and I feel like he’s just a huge part of this program.”
Players tease Longa from time-to-time, Hester said. As he makes the defensive calls, his French accent drips from every syllable.
“Sometimes, we joke with him about it,” Hester said.
But on Saturdays, Longa is no joke — quite the opposite, in fact. His 264 tackles in two and one-quarter seasons have him in the hunt for the school record, but the only accolade the Saddle Brook High School product cares about this week is being 1-0.
Rutgers hosts No. 4 Michigan State this Saturday with a chance to overthrow a titan of the Big Ten. If the Knights can slay the Spartans (5-0, 1-0), Longa’s leadership should surely be a catalyst. And if Rutgers falls behind, interim head coach Norries Wilson can count on his weak side linebacker to get everyone’s head on straight.
“He does a good job trying to help the young guys and to rally the older guys when things aren’t going the right way,” Wilson said of Longa. “We’re very fortunate to have him on our defense and on our team.”
In the throes of a controversial year for the Knights, the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Cameroon wanted to warn all the critics not to paint the program with a broad brush.
“The things that you guys don’t see — guys care so much about what they do here." Longa said. "When they are done with classes, they come back here and watch film. That’s how much we care about this place and it means a lot to me and it says a lot about them.”
Longa has faced obstacles greater than a two-game losing streak, the dismissal of teammates or the suspension of a head coach. He was left to care for his family while his father worked tirelessly more than 6,000 miles away. But he said he wouldn’t change a thing.
When the lights flicker on at High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday, the ballpark number of 50,000 fans attending the Blackout will be left in the dark.
They’ll never know that No. 3 on defense, Steve Longa, is living the American Dream.
“Everyday, I wake up and thank God for all these blessings,” Longa said. “I wake up everyday and I play football and I’m healthy. I love what I do, I love this place and I love my teammates.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @KevinPXavier and @TargumSports on Twitter.