When Jonathan Kongbo decided to return to Canada after taking a run at the NFL in 2020, his options would have been plentiful. Despite having just 12 CFL games under his belt, with limited reps in each, there's a lot to like about the native of Surrey, B.C.
He's only 25, meaning he's still entering the prime of his professional career, and carries a Canadian passport. And at 6-5 and 255 pounds, all of which appears to be toned muscle, he's exactly the body type you want to show off on your defensive line. Oh, and he's versatile, capable of lining up in his usual spot at defensive end, or at tackle.
His choice to return to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, however, was an easy one.
"There was no doubt; it was a no-brainer," Kongbo told reporters. "I don't think my father would have let me go anywhere else. He loves it here. He loves coach O'Shea. He loves the management and everything."
It's for those reasons and more that Kongbo will be wearing blue and gold in 2021. After all, it was Winnipeg that selected him fifth overall in the 2019 CFL Draft, despite coming off a significant knee injury that had him limping, quite literally, into training camp.
It was also the Bombers that worked closely with him that 2019 campaign, designing a workout routine that would get him back on the field feeling good enough to contribute. Kongbo would do just that, playing in 12 regular-season games, recording 12 defensive tackles and one sack over that stretch. He would save his best for the Bombers Grey Cup run, contributing two notable tackles in a West final win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Kongbo has also learned a lot in his short professional career, gaining a level of maturity beyond his years. While continuity is important to every athlete, it was the main priority for Kongbo and why he ultimately chose to return to the Bombers in what could be a breakout sophomore season.
After challenging for a spot with the San Francisco 49ers, only to suffer a groin injury and receive an injury settlement to go with his release, and then taking a shot with The Spring League in the U.S., Kongbo wanted something more consistent. And he has all that in Winnipeg.
"I learned to be a lot more grateful when you're part of a community, when you are a key part of an organization," he said. "Just with the trials and tribulations I had this last year and a half, it made me appreciate coming back to this building a lot more, coming back seeing friendly faces and having those interactions."
There's an obvious jump in Kongbo's step, an excitement in knowing a full training camp should only help in his development. While he's not yet a starter, he is a key piece behind starting defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat. Depth is always an asset, but it will be especially important heading into this unique CFL season.
With injuries top of mind this year due to the prolonged layoff owing to COVID-19, there's likely to be a few more ice bags being tossed across the dressing room. To know you have a guy like Kongbo waiting for his shot in the spotlight should have the Bombers breathing somewhat easier when it comes to the defensive-end position. Even without an injury, Kongbo looks primed to make the D-line more of a rotation than what we've seen in past years.
"It was a really key acquisition to get him back," Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea said. "The growth that he showed partway through his first year to the end of the season was phenomenal. He's grown into a great teammate and a very good player and he's certainly a valuable member of that D-line rotation."
While Kongbo's skillset will be on full display this year, there's another role he's been enjoying this training camp, and that's being a leader. While just a second-year player, his work ethic and positive attitude has some of his new teammates feeling comfortable to reach out for advice. He's more than happy to oblige.
"It's having a leadership presence where it's really not the hurrah-type leadership, but how I go about my business, how I go about it in a professional way," he said.
As for expectations this season, so far as role and playing time, Kongbo is going to let that play out on its own. And that begins with picking up where he left off and growing from there.
"What makes our D-line very unique is we don't really have any egos. So, I'm not really out here trying to steal reps from Jefferson or Jeffcoat, we're just all trying to work together," Kongbo said. "I genuinely mean that. We're all in it together. So, I'm not too worried about that."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.