49ers prospect had long, difficult journey to NFL
Jonathan Kongbo already owned quite the life story when he stood up and shared it at Holy Cross Regional High School’s assembly in Surrey, British Columbia.
He transferred in for his senior year. His future beamed bright, more so as a basketball star than a potential 49ers defensive end. His past, as he’d divulge that November 2013, is a unique and riveting tale.
“He talked in front of all 850 students on Remembrance Day. They were blown away,” Holy Cross football coach Ken Buchan recalled. “He’d only been in school two months and wasn’t known to a lot of people.”
What’s to know? A lot more than how he fled Congo’s civil war and arrived in Vancouver, Canada at age 4½ with his family. Since taking up football that senior year at Holy Cross, he’s embarked on a hopscotch journey to three college programs, the Canadian Football League and, now, to the 49ers’ crown jewel, their defensive line.
“As far as fitting in, we won’t really know until the pads come on and we’re in camp,” Kongbo, 24, said in a phone interview this week. “But personality-wise and being in meetings with the guys, I feel I’ve gelled in pretty well.
“My goal is I’m going to make the team. There’s no Plan B.”
The 49ers don’t exactly have room for a self-described “raw” pass rusher, much less one who, a year ago, was rehabilitating a right knee from tears to the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. The injury ended his senior season at Tennessee on Oct. 13, 2018, and it dashed his NFL draft dreams. His future darkened.
“After the draft last year, I was thinking, ‘I’m done playing football. It’s over for me,’” Kongbo recalled. “To get the opportunity again, it means the world.”
Halfway around the world in central Africa sits Kinshasa, capital city for the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire when Kongbo was born there on March 19, 1996.
Congo’s civil war uprooted his childhood. Chaos reigned, as did the bullets police fired on civilians as he watched from his doorstep.
“The country’s looking really bad, a lot of people are dying,” Kongbo recalled, “so my father decides it’s time for us to leave and pursue a new future.”
Joachim Kongbo left his United Nations job two years earlier to find a safer life for his family.
“I used to work for UN. The boys enjoyed life and we did everything we could there,” Joachim Kongbo said in a recent phone interview. “When the political landscape in Congo changed, there was no need for us there.”
The Statue of Liberty greeted him upon arrival in New York, he spent a couple months in North Carolina, then immigrated to Canada, where he would eventually summon for his wife, Lily, and their children.
“We had to fight tooth and nail to give our kids the bare minimum to do what they could do,” said Joachim, now in his 14th year as a federal food inspector at the border.
Not long after Jonathan’s October 2000 arrival, he showed athletic prowess, even playing street hockey at day care, his father recalled. By his junior year at Kitsilano Secondary School, he placed third in the 100-meter dash at the provincial championships, but his sights were on basketball stardom.