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Lokombo’s incredible journey to the BCS title game

MATTHEW SEKERES Vancouver— From Friday’s Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jan. 07, 2011 2:47PM EST

Boseko Lokombo is playing in the national championship game of U.S. college football just two years into his career at the University of Oregon.

It is a remarkable achievement for a Canadian player, but even more remarkable is the Lokombo family’s journey from Congo to Abbotsford, B.C., which allowed this 20-year-old to pick up a football instead of a rifle.

“What my Dad did for us, and what he sacrificed, he’s a very brave man and he’s my hero,” said Lokombo, a business major and a red-shirt freshman linebacker. “He took this family to one level, and it’s my turn to take it to the next level.”

Sensing that a civil war in neighbouring Rwanda would spill over into Congo, Leon Lokombo left his family and homeland in 1993 and settled in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. At the time, Congo was on the precipice of the Second Congo War, the world’s most deadly conflict since the Second World War, claiming nearly four million lives.

“It was not very stable at that time, and I wanted a better life for me and my family,” Leon said. “As a student, I tried to put together the money to sponsor them and get them there quickly. But I was a full-time student, so I couldn’t work.”

Anne-Marie Lokombo stayed behind in the Congo capital of Kinshasa with their five children, and was apart from her husband for nearly three years while he earned a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Sherbrooke. She remembers hearing gun fights and looting, and the economy was so poor that even though she was working as a teacher, she occasionally wasn’t paid and had to sell household items such as televisions and clothing to support her brood.

“It was just the beginning of the conflict, but we had a feeling,” she said. “It was getting worse and worse. It wasn’t safe.”

Boseko, just 6 when the family moved, remembers his pet monkey Kiki, the intense heat, and the living conditions. He also remembers the snow that greeted their reunion on Jan. 16, 1996, at a Montreal airport, but he didn’t recognize his father.

“The children were asking me: ‘Where is our Dad? And who is our Dad?’” Anne-Marie said. “It had been so long, they had forgotten.”

In Quebec, both Lokombo parents were enrolled in university, and the family survived on student loans. Anne-Marie was taking women’s studies, but briefly left school to give birth to the couple’s sixth child.

One year later, the francophone family decided that it wanted to learn English, and uprooted for Abbotsford. Today, Anne-Marie teaches French, and Leon is a financial adviser.

Next Monday, the Lokombo parents will be in the stands as the second-ranked Oregon Ducks face the top-ranked Auburn University Tigers in the Bowl Championship Series title game in Glendale, Ariz. The winner will be crowned college football’s national champion.

The game promises to be entertaining because both schools boast explosive offences. Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton, who won the Heisman Trophy as the best college player, has Michael Vick-like skills in a 6-foot-6, 250-pound body. Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, meanwhile, is a devotee of fast-break offence, meaning the Ducks forgo huddles and run as many plays as they can.

That breakneck tempo, and the strain it puts on Oregon’s defence, is a big reason why Boseko is ahead of the curve.

He is a backup outside linebacker, but Oregon rotates its defensive personnel every five or six plays to keep players fresh. Lokombo, who is 6 foot 3 and 223 pounds, has seen the field frequently enough to record 35 tackles and recover three fumbles, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

“[Going into the season] my expectation was to be a special-teamer,” Boseko said. “It ended up being a bigger role. It was amazing.”

For those who knew him as a running back at W.J. Mouat Secondary School in Abbottsford, Boseko’s progression comes as no surprise.

Former coach Dennis Kelly recalls a 2008 fundraiser when several B.C. Lions players, including receivers Geroy Simon and Paris Jackson, visited for a charity basketball game and slam-dunk contest. Pitted against two professional athletes, Boseko threw down a dunk so powerful on his first attempt that Simon and Jackson conceded the contest.

“They waved the white flag, wanted no part of him,” Kelly said. “As a coach, you’d like to think you had something to do with them, but the truth is that Bo was a super-phenom from Day 1.”

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