If the biggest sign of recognition for high school athletes is a scholarship offer from a U.S. college, then Ottawa football prospect Jesse Luketa has been getting it in spades.
So far the 18-year-old has had no fewer than 43 offers. To put that number in perspective, there are 128 Division 1 colleges in the NCAA, and he's heard from one-third of them.
Luketa has verbally committed to attending Penn State University in 2018, but that hasn't stopped dozens of other top-ranked schools from presenting offers, all hoping Luketa — raised by a single mom in Ottawa's Heron Gate neighbourhood — might change his mind by the time he makes his decision official at the end of this calendar year.
The list of colleges lining up to recruit him is a who's who of NCAA powerhouses: Ohio State, Oklahoma. Oregon, Ole Miss, just to name some of the ones that begin with the letter O.
"Honestly, it's just a blessing," said Luketa, who received his first scholarship offer in October, from the University of Missouri.
"From there, my recruitment has skyrocketed. I was picking up, I'd say, two scholarships a day from these institutions that, you know, I would have never thought they'd be interested in this little Canadian kid from Ottawa, Ontario."
At six feet three inches tall and 230 pounds, some would argue Luketa isn't so little. At the outside linebacker position he's tasked with tracking down and tackling scrambling quarterbacks, rushing running backs or ball-catching receivers.
It's his speed — and ability to read where the ball is going to be — that sets him apart on the field, he said.
"The [scouts] watched my film. They see I'm a physical, fast-twitch linebacker. My hips, that's what they say stands out. How fast I put my foot on the ground and I just go. I'm very athletic."
Mom biggest inspiration
Luketa is in his final year at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, Penn. Once he completes the fall semester there, he'll be able to enrol at Penn State in January 2018. As the youngest of seven siblings, he admits moving to the U.S. to live with a host family has been a difficult transition.
"Honestly, when I first made the move [to the U.S.] it was tough. I just left, I left everything behind. I just started a new journey by myself."
His goal is to one day provide for his mother, Rose, and the rest of his family, Luketa said.
"Just seeing the things growing up my mom had to go through, her mental toughness. She always taught me that there's always going to be better days. Whatever trials and tribulations you're going through now, you can always overcome them."
Luketa's biggest physical obstacle so far has been a broken ankle, which he feared might diminish his value as a top prospect. But he refused to let it.
"I just told myself, 'Listen, you've got to do what you got to do. These people that are talking, they aren't going to chase your dreams for you.' I separated myself from my peers, I rehabbed and I got back. And I was just determined."
When we caught up with Luketa, who was back in town for the Easter break, he was at a south Ottawa gym co-owned by Danny Nesrallah.
Nesrallah met Luketa when he coached him and his own son Kyler at the mosquito level. Then just 11, Luketa quickly latched on to Nesrallah, who drove several players on the South Ottawa Mustangs to and from practices and games in what the players nicknamed the "team bus."
Many of the players on the team came from underprivileged families living in Ottawa's Heron Gate neighbourhood.
"The first thing I noticed was there weren't very many parents there to watch their kids play and watch their kids practise, and that really had a profound impact on me," Nesrallah said. "Whenever I'd take them after practice to get a burger or something it was like the highlight of their day and put a big smile on their face, and [that] really had an effect on me."
Before long Nesrallah got a call from Luketa's mother, who told him she needed to meet this coach her son wouldn't stop talking about.
"And then it started to hit me that this is more than just an ordinary relationship that I had with the other kids. I think he just never really had a male father figure at home and a role model. His mother's always working, a wonderful woman, and she did what she could for him, but she didn't have that paternal effect on him that I could provide."
Nesrallah raised the money needed to send Luketa to the U.S. prep school and get him noticed by college scouts and coaches.
"He was really a big factor into helping me get to where I am now," Luketa said. "He's really a big reason why me and a lot of my friends are still playing football now."
Nesrallah said it was clear to him from the outset that Luketa would one day realize his potential by making his own breaks amid stiff competition.
"What's going to help him be successful is what he has now, it's that drive and that determination, and the character he has. And he has great leadership qualities as well. So those are very important factors, because there's a lot of talented players out there."
So what does Luketa hope to achieve as a future in college football approaches?
"I'm going in ready to learn.… From there, it's just compete with my teammates and just get better and better."