Jon Kanda doesn’t need to be here.
There are multiple ways you could interpret that sentence. You could interpret it to mean it in the literal sense, standing beside a student reporter on the afternoon of Halloween. He’s wearing a skin-tight, white dri-fit workout shirt, with “Marist Football” sprawled across the front in bright-red font. He’s wearing thin, black athletic shorts. He has to be cold. His arms are crossed; he’s shivering, shaking like one of the leaves bounding across our shoes as windburn haunts our faces. He has probably answered these questions hundreds of times; about his background, his life in the Congo. He doesn’t need to be here.
You could also interpret it in a general sense, by looking back at where he almost went. Marist wasn’t his first offer. The University of Maryland was a Division I, power-five program. On Nov. 17, they lost by one to Ohio State, the number-six team in the country. That’s big. His SAT scores fell flat, though, due to a language barrier. Until he was a student at River Hill High in Clarksville, Md., he spoke French and Lingala, the language native to the Congo. Jon Kanda simply doesn’t need to be here. But he is. He is because there’s no other way. There’s no other way to get somewhere. Somewhere, again, that isn’t here.
“I was basically being a wasted talent there,” Jon says, continuing to shiver. He’s barely removed from practice, so sweat still drips from his forehead. It’s close to freezing now, the coldest day of the year. Still, it’s better than a day in the Congo. He gets to play here. In Jon’s words: “I had no future there.”
He moved to Maryland, 8,000 miles from what had always been home, in Dec. 2011. His family had to move; Civil Wars and poverty were two main implications, both on a severe level. His mother never worked. His father was an architect, but he dropped his career the second his family had the chance to skip town.
“He had to give up everything that he had done over there. His connections, his friends,” he says. “He never left the country, so when we did that, it was a big sacrifice [he made] for us.”
Back in Congo Kinchasa, Jon was an athlete. Not so much a football player, but an athlete nonetheless.
“The main thing growing up… I used to be this energetic kid, running around and playing soccer, ‘cause soccer was the main sport.” Jon’s old school began their days at 7:15 a.m, but rather than waiting for school to let out, Jon’s days would start early. He tells me that he and his friends would play soccer at 6 a.m., the best part of their early morning walk to school being those pickup games.
“Growing up, my favorite soccer player was Ronaldinho… I don’t know how familiar you are with Ronaldinho, but…” I cut him off. I know Ronaldinho. I respond, explaining my familiarity and YouTube search history from high school. The Brazilian soccer magician’s name made frequent appearances back then. He smiles a bit, appreciating the shared knowledge. Who knows, maybe he was thinking about those days when 6 a.m. soccer was what got him excited.
Continuing on his childhood hero, Jon recalls, “He was doing it for fun, you know? He wasn’t looking at sports like a way to make money. Of course, like, everything that you do right now is great as long as you enjoy it. The rest will come with it.”
Jon’s old schools weren’t big on sports. He eludes to the fact that they “weren’t allowed.”
“I want to say we’re not really big on athletics like the U.S. is… for example, the U.S. invests in high school sports, and then from high school sports, you get scholarships to play in college. We don’t have that in Congo.”
While an American move came as a culture shock, it gave “Kanda,” as his teammates know him, the chance to do something. Not just for fun; not just to pass the time and fill his long, unfamiliar days. This, whether he knew it or not, would be the thing that would someday turn into a future. Football, a game for some, became Kanda’s opportunity to change his life and the lives of those he loves.
“We have to wake up early for meetings and then practice – but it’s that smile that my parents are going to have when they stop working, and can just relax and enjoy life again…”-Jon KandaAs a redshirt junior this season, Jon racked up 345 yards on 26 receptions, six of them coming in the end-zone. Compared to his first two seasons (90, 10 and one; 100, seven and one), it’s an immense improvement. That was good for third-best on the team. Not bad alongside wide receiver Juston Christian, who made First Team All PFL and caught 26 balls for 1155 yards. While his teammate has been the talk of campus in relation to athletics, Christian’s not the lone Red Fox getting looks.
“I think for one, he’s a physical talent that we’ve really never seen on this campus,” said Marist head football coach, Jim Parady. In reference to Kanda’s personality, Parady explained, “He’s always upbeat, he’s always kind of — I don’t want to say ‘off the wall,’ — bringing a good vibe. He has an outgoing personality, and guys gravitate to that.”
The side to Kanda’s story that has never been examined nor depicted through his personality is his struggle. The decision his family made so that he could exercise the talent he has athletically isn’t seen on his exterior. What is seen is a true character, that “energetic kid” he remembered himself as.
• • •
It was always going to be football.
Kanda’s raw athleticism and his love for sports ran deeper than any other facet of his world, perhaps aside from the family that “keeps [him] going.” While his sporting world was wider than the one with uprights and yard-markers, it always came back to one thing: football was his future.
“I wasn’t the fastest kid on the track,” he says, chuckling and glancing away. “I used track to get faster and to get in shape.”
Track was always used as a preparatory tool, one for general enhancement. He almost didn’t have a choice whether or not he wanted to run track. In Maryland, there was no spring football, the one sport that had almost inherently became his focus. The other seasons just needed to be filled. Along came basketball and track, two elements that added to the litany of outlets that John both needed and wanted.
“My junior year of high school, well, I don’t want to say it was my peak year, but it was when I started feeling like I actually [had] a future with football,” he explains. “I started getting offers, and coming into my senior year, I stopped playing basketball because I wasn’t getting anything from it.”
A look of disappointment must have appeared on my face. He acknowledges that, and I mention his intramural basketball highlight reel. He laughs, promising to dunk on me one last time before we graduate.
That’s the thing. It was never music, nor academics nor writing that Jon used as an outlet. It was, and still is, an array of sports, each of which he enjoyed, and with which he could be what he has always been: a pure athlete. Even still, it was always football.
• • •
But what if it can’t be football?
That’s not to say that Jon’s future is already determined. He has another year of eligibility, and, as coach Parady stated proudly, “He is garnering interest from the next level people.” If that interest turns to a solidified opportunity on the professional level, Kanda will be living out the dream he both chose and had no choice but to live.
“We have to wake up early for meetings and then practice – but it’s that smile that my parents are going to have when they stop working, and can just relax and enjoy life again…” Jon trails off. Smiling once again, as he always seems to be, his face tells the story better than words might be capable of. Continuing, though, he explains that, “They’ve worked their whole lives already. It doesn’t make sense for them to keep on working if I’m supporting them, so, I think that is something I’m looking forward to… being a professional is what I want to do.”
Jon knows that it doesn’t always work out as planned. His backup plan involves both sport and his academic major: communications. As he begins unloading the plans of a hypothetical, non-football future, he’s interrupted. His teammate, Grant Dixon, shouts out “Kanda for President” as he beelines for the locker room tucked behind the Tenney Stadium bleachers. Jon snickers.
He turns back to me, the task at hand being his now weekly Center Field interview, only to be interrupted again, as Ethan Carpenter chimes in. “Kanda nice!” he shouts, joining in on the love fest. “Kanda” is clearly humored. He still hasn’t given his quote, though, one of the other things he truly enjoys doing.
“I told you earlier that my parents sacrificed everything they had… not every kid has the opportunity to come to the States. I want to bring what’s here back to Congo.” He goes on, saying, “We have so much talent there, but it’s just… they can’t do anything about it because they don’t get exposure. They don’t get the treatment that high school kids get here, that college kids get here, and that’s something I want to do. I want to make sports really big over there. I want to take everything I’ve learned here and bring it back over there.”
“We lost everything we had. Now, it’s my turn. Athletics can be that for me. I see the light now.”-Jon KandaJon has learned a lot. English, for starters. How to FaceTime eventually came along. He shares that his little sister loves giving him spontaneous calls. “She’ll FaceTime me while I’m in class. I gotta tell her, like, I can’t be talking right now!”
It didn’t all come easy, and Jon didn’t expect it to. Nothing has ever come easy for Jon. Well, aside from athletics, of course, but even that took some time. He cited his old PlayStation 3 habits, explaining how Madden helped him become an expert in the sport in which he now thrives. Simplicity wasn’t ever in Jon’s vocabulary. As that word, along with many others, worked its way into his word lexicon, the future became a little clearer. His once familiar concrete fields, “raggedy-ass soccer balls” and an impoverished home turf are now replaced with artificial evergreen AstroTurf, Nike cleats and a dream fortified.