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49ers prospect had long, difficult journey to NFL

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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.

He bused three hours round trip from his family’s new home to stay at Kitsilano that junior year. Upon transferring closer as a senior to Holy Cross, football came calling. Specifically, principal Chris Blesch and coach Ken Buchan pestered Kongbo for weeks to take up the sport, Blesch even joking he’d issue detention, otherwise.

“He didn’t want to play in the first place because he was a basketball superstar here in the province,” Joachim said.

“He came out to a practice finally and we guaranteed him he wouldn’t get hurt, so he played at defensive end, where an injury was less likely,” Buchan said. “He had no experience and technique. We said, ‘Nobody gets outside you, and track the ball down and get the quarterback.’”

Smart coaching. In Kongbo’s first game, he debuted with sacks on three consecutive plays (or four, as the legend grows).

“Granted, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Kongbo said. “The only thing the coach told me was, ‘When they snap the ball, you go and find the person that has the ball.’I fell in love with the game instantly and wanted to pursue it more.”

Come February 2014, on the eve of Holy Cross’ basketball playoffs, Kongbo committed to the University of Wyoming — to play football.

The jump to Division I football in the United States wasn’t easy. He would redshirt in 2014, but once spring practice arrived in April 2015, Kongbo would sack future Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen.

“Jonathan’s weight room numbers are off the chart, and we’re waiting for those numbers to translate to the grass,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said after that initial practice. “I think he showed some signs of that today.”

He became a second-string right defensive end. But within two months, Kongbo announced he was leaving the program; Wyoming went on to post a 2-10 season.

“The more I kept playing, the better I got,” Kongbo said. “I always had aspirations of playing at the highest level. I decided to just take a shot, go to a junior college and maybe get more looks.”

Arizona Western College in Yuma disbanded its football program in 2018, but not before producing a handful of NFL stars, including Damien Williams, who scored Kansas City’s final two touchdowns in February’s Super Bowl comeback over the 49ers.

Kongbo used his 2015 season there as a springboard to fame — and maturity. He racked up 11 sacks, including five in a game. He became not only the top-rated defensive end in junior college, but No. 1 overall at any position in some online rankings.

Nearly 25 offers flooded in from around the country. Alabama. Ole Miss. USC. Oklahoma. It came down to Florida State and Tennessee.

“When I left Wyoming, I was just looking for a place to go,” Kongbo said at his Feb. 3, 2016 press conference announcing he was headed to Tennessee.

Arriving in the Southeastern Conference as a five-star recruit brings with it massive expectations, and, for Kongbo, unattainable ones.

His modest stats for three seasons at Tennessee: 30 games, 17 starts, 3½ sacks, 5½ tackles for loss, 51 tackles and two interceptions.

His first interception came in 2016 when he picked off Missouri’s Drew Lock (Now with the Denver Broncos) and returned that gift 59 yards for a touchdown. Kongbo’s other interception came against Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham (Now with the New England Patriots), and that came in his final game wearing Tennessee’s No. 99.

Kongbo was on crutches by the time Tennessee clinched its first win in 20 years at Auburn.

Kongbo’s right knee got blown out on a cut block by Auburn fullback Chandler Cox.

“I hate it for Kongbo,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said two days later. “He’s moved around since we have been here and he’s worked really hard. He’s been a guy that’s tried to do everything we’ve asked him to do.”

Kongbo’s father was a fixture at games. He attended 15, and quipped: “I know a few corners in Knoxville.”

After the injury, his son told Tennessee fans not to feel sorry for him, with “King” Kongbo tweeting to “instead be excited for the marvelous works God is about to do.”

When the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers drafted Kongbo fifth overall last year, their rationale was sound.

“He’s the one where you do the film and you’re watching this long, athletic, aggressive, physical player playing at the University of Tennessee in the SEC against big-time opponents,” general manager Kyle Walters said after the May 2, 2019 pick.

Kongbo missed the first six games while rehabilitating his knee, then became a versatile sub on the defensive line and at linebacker for the eventual Grey Cup champions.

“I just want to thank Winnipeg. They were really awesome to me,” Kongbo said. “They understood the circumstances why I didn’t get drafted or an initial shot in the NFL.”

Kongbo had just 12 tackles and one sack for the Blue Bombers, who released him a week after the Grey Cup so he could pursue a NFL contract, with an open invitation to return to the CFL.

“I’d never won a championship before,” Kongbo said of the Grey Cup joy. “I understand now that when people say, ‘Once you win your first, it’s almost like an addiction.’ You have that obsession with, ‘How can I get back to it?’”

After working out for the 49ers late last year, he signed a three-year reserve/futures contract on Dec. 31 that reportedly guaranteed no money but ultimately could pay out $1.9 million. No 49ers official or coach has commented on Kongbo since his signing; none responded to interview requests for this story.

His right knee is “110%” now. His visa and paperwork are filed so he can come work across the border. His 6-foot-5 frame is chiseled at a “lean, cut up” 262 pounds with 34⅜-inch arms and an 81-inch wingspan.

“I’m going to be honest, right now, I’m raw but athletically there,” Kongbo said. “I feel my strong point is athleticism, my get-off, my ability to move in open space, fluid hips.”

He’d love to mimic Khalil Mack’s blend of speed and power (he won Tennessee’s weight room award in 2018). For now, he’s learning through the 49ers’ virtual offseason program and staying alert for defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s necessary quizzing.

“That’s the conversation I had with coach: I just need to be taught how to play the game properly,” Kongbo said.

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