A very long spring break: Linebacker back at Penn State after extended stay in Canada

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
Penn State linebacker Jesse Luketa (40) tackles Maryland running back Lorenzo Harrison III (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Jesse Luketa

Jesse Luketa returned home to Canada for spring break with no problems.

Getting back to State College?

That took more than 100 days of waiting to legally cross the closed border to the United States that required coordinated transportation on both sides.

The Penn State linebacker indeed made it back to Happy Valley last week, where he now waits in a hotel during a mandatory quarantine period before he can rejoin his teammates for voluntary workouts.

Luketa had planned to spend a week in his hometown of Ottawa before returning to school. The coronavirus pandemic didn’t allow for him to come back.

During that week after he left, Penn State shut down all in-person classes and the Nittany Lions canceled all team activities. A week later, Canada barred all non-essential travel to the U.S.

“Initially, I had returned home for spring break,” Luketa said Tuesday on a video call with reporters. “So it was funny, because we had asked our athletic team if there’d be any issues with the COVID thing and whatnot. But they told us no, there’s no problem.

“So I went home and then once I got home, they let us know that (school’s) going to be closed. I was kind of concerned because I didn’t know how long I’d be in Canada for or if I’d be able to get back into the U.S. and get back to the team.”

The answer, as it turned out, was 109 days.

While Penn State started allowing a limited number of players to return to campus at the start of June, Luketa and fellow Canadian native Jonathan Sutherland had to deal with some red tape. Canadians who go to college in the U.S. were allowed to cross the border, but not before clearing some hurdles.

“Getting back to the United States, it was kind of hard at first because travel is still banned and everything,” Luketa said. “So for me and Jonathan, we had our paperwork to get back into the country. But the question was if we’d be able to cross if somebody drove us over.

“So I had to have one of my coaches (in Canada) drive us to the border. He dropped us off there. And then we had a representative from Penn State come pick us up and he brought us back to State College.”

Because everything was planned out in advance, Luketa said the day itself was relatively “simple” with customs agents eager to help.

It capped off nearly four months of travel and uncertainty that Luketa split between family in both Ottawa and Edmonton, well on the other side of the country.

Training with NHL star: Luketa didn’t have much in the way of training equipment out in Edmonton. But while he was in Ottawa, he worked out at a fitness chain frequented by top athletes, including Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux.

“Claude, he’s a dude who does not get tired,” Luketa said. “Training with him, I always have to be on my P’s and Q’s. I love working with him. He’s someone I always stay in contact with.”

Despite the recent spike in coronavirus cases in America, Luketa said he had no reservations about returning, saying that he was “grateful” to be back.

Part of that is an eagerness to play on a defense that could be one of the nation’s best — if the season is able to be held as scheduled.

He says PSU can have No. 1 linebacker room in nation: Luketa would firmly be in the mix for a starting job, likely aiming to replace departed two-year starting middle linebacker Jan Johnson. Luketa and Ellis Brooks look to be the top candidates for the job, and both will undoubtedly see playing time next to All-American Micah Parsons.

“We have the opportunity to have the No. 1 linebacker room in the nation,” Luketa said. “We’re talented, we’re fast, we’re physical, we’re smart, we’re eager to learn.”

Despite losing Johnson and another veteran starter in Cam Brown to the NFL, Penn State has former five-star recruits Brandon Smith and Lance Dixon pushing for a job, as well as Charlie Katshir.

“…Call me crazy. Call me what you want. I know the talent we have, I know how we work, I know how hungry we are. And it’s unmatched. It’s unparalleled. It’s as simple as that.”

Long way to go: But there’s still a long way to go before actually getting to prove it on the field. Coaches aren’t allowed to get involved in preseason training until July 13 with training camp tentatively set for August.

Penn State is scheduled to open the season on Sept. 5 against Kent State at Beaver Stadium, though there’s no telling how that might play out.

For that to happen, players must stay relatively isolated and take precautions against the coronavirus.

“It’s weird being back in State College because I want to be around all my guys, all my brothers,” Luketa said. “But I have to keep my distance. That’s what’s most important.

“I just want to play football. I’ve been itching to put the pads back on and just hit. That’s where my mind’s at right now.”