Of fathers and sons: A journey of life, love, death and moving on for an NFL linebacker

Lions linebacker Steve Longa said that his love of football, and his father Etienne's willingness to learn about the sport, helped strengthen their bond. Courtesy Steve Longa

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He waited for those phone calls. As a child in Cameroon, Steve Longa didn’t know how often the phone would ring. Didn’t know how long the man would be able to talk. But those calls, they were everything because of who was on the other end.

Etienne Longa was a professional athlete, much like his son would later become as a linebacker with the Detroit Lions. He played professional soccer for over a decade in Cameroon with Dynamo Douala and then worked in business, tied in part to the Cameroon government. In 2002, amid political upheaval, he left the country -- and his family -- behind.

At first, Steve Longa thought his dad had gone on vacation. He hadn’t. This wasn’t abandonment, but he had to go alone. Longa thought that meant weeks, maybe months.

“Just imagine how you just feel like you lost everything,” Longa said. “Yeah, your mom and your sister are still there but as a little boy always looking up to your dad, you know, if he’s around, it doesn’t matter what goes on outside the house. You’re safe because your dad is there.

“As soon as he leaves, it feels like everything is about to go wrong, and a lot of stuff went wrong.”

Longa said his mother was robbed in Cameroon. Many of their possessions, he said, were gone. For a time, he lived with his aunt. Some days, Longa said his mother, Caroline, sacrificed her food so her children could eat while she tried to do everything she could at home.

But those phone calls -- he held on to those. One year passed. Two years. Three years. Life improved. Etienne found work in the United States. Started to send money. The phone calls continued, but skepticism started.

“Imagine somebody told you for four years, I’m working, I’m going to see you,” Longa said. “I’m working. I’m going to see you. I’m going to send you the papers. I’m doing everything I got.

“At one point, you just, it’s like you lose faith, I guess. That’s what happened, like, it was like, ‘I’m never going to see him again.'"

Through mutual friends, Etienne heard that Daljit Singh, himself an immigrant from India, might need a truck driver. They met. Hit it off. Daljit hired Etienne, who started hauling goods across the country to make money.

“I took him like a friend. Like when you meet your kind of people, I never treat him like a driver or something,” Daljit said. “He was so smart and always had [told me] one thing that he don’t like to drive [was] a truck. He told me one day, what am I going to tell my wife? I’m driving a truck?

“Because back home, the truck driver life is very different. So I told him, listen here: The good thing in this country is that nobody sticks with one job here. Anybody sees any opportunity, we just do it.”

The Longas received a call six months later. Etienne had saved enough money and secured proper visas for his wife and two children. After almost five years, the Longas boarded a flight bound for John F. Kennedy Airport in New York for a new life in the United States in 2007. The plane landed at JFK and Etienne was waiting.

The faith Longa once questioned was restored. The Longas were reunited.

After spending a night in New Jersey with the Singhs, the Longas left for Warren, Michigan, where they would spend six months. Etienne's job took him away often on long-haul trips across the country. Daljit tried to find him routes -- even if it meant less cargo -- to get him home to Michigan for weekends.

Meanwhile, Steve Longa barely spoke English. Enrolled in middle school, the seventh-grader who mostly spoke French was unable to communicate.

“My accent was so heavy that people couldn’t understand what I was saying,” Longa said. “I remember going to seventh grade here in Warren, they had to talk to me through Google translator.”

Longa said he had no friends for months. He picked up soccer like his father, but rarely played. He’d go to school, go home. But he had his family. Those six months taught him something valuable: He didn’t have to try to fit in. People, if they wanted to, would learn to accept him. Just be yourself and that should be good enough.

It was difficult. Longa readjusted to having his dad around, which was great, but there was a stretch where disconnects between father and son would show up. They worked through it.

“I was just happy to be around my dad and my family and so whatever anybody could throw at me then, I didn’t care,” Longa said. “I had my family. I had my dad. I felt secure again.”

Daljit was about to make a proposal to Etienne. His friend was barely seeing the family he worked so hard to bring to the United States. He went to Etienne with two options. Option 1: Move your family to New Jersey. Option 2: You’re fired. They came to a compromise. The Longas moved to New Jersey -- Daljit's true goal all along. Instead of continuing to work for Daljit, though, Etienne would purchase one of his trucks. Daljit helped him get business initially and Etienne became his own boss, setting his schedule so he could be around his family.

“He always, I treated him like a brother,” Daljit said. “And he treated me like a brother. I was with him all the way.”

When Steve Longa got out of the truck upon arriving in New Jersey, the first person he met was Singh’s younger son, Daljodh, who gave him a can of orange soda. Daljit explained who the Longas were and said they were going to become family friends.

The move gave the Longas a chance to become a family for real, for Etienne to make sure he was around for all of his son’s major events. Their relationship, once separated by a continent, became exceptionally close.

“I’ve always loved my dad. I loved my dad more than anybody,” Longa said. “I thought, ever since I was young, even now, if there was something that happened in my life, I’m going to my dad. I don’t got to tell him nothing, but I’m going to him. Like I know I’m going to be all right, I need this, this happened, I’m not going to tell you all the details.

“I just need your help. My dad won’t ask questions. He would be there for me. He would trust that I need this. I’m only coming to my dad if I really, really need help.”

He also knew that to do anything big, he needed Etienne’s permission. Longa was a good soccer player, like his father, but in the United States, soccer wasn’t as big as football, basketball or baseball.

Baseball and basketball didn’t attract Longa. Football -- that was his thing. Longa’s eighth-grade gym teacher, Leo Ciappina, was also the Saddle Brook High School football coach. He saw Longa’s athletic skill and believed he could play.

“In my eyes, I saw him as a great running back/receiver-type of athlete for us and defensive back/linebacker,” Ciappina said. “I just saw him as an athlete and you know what, if I could get him on the field, I knew he could play one of those skill positions for us.”

To do that, Longa needed to convince Etienne to let him play football. Longa brought him numbers. He showed his dad scholarship opportunities for football players. Etienne asked Longa three separate times, “Are you sure?” Each time, Longa said yes. He also told his dad he’d become good enough to earn a scholarship. Etienne acquiesced. He took his son to Modell’s and bought him a pair of Under Armour cleats.

The first two years, Ciappina made things simple. On defense, he told Longa to run to the ball and tackle the ball carrier. On offense, he told him to run until he got tackled.

Soon, Etienne was learning everything about his son’s new sport. This was another chance to bond. He went to his son's games, videotaped them from the stands and they’d rewatch them together to help Longa improve. By the start of his junior year, Longa began to understand nuances. By the end of it, coaches called and offered scholarships.

He honored the promise he made to his father, choosing home-state Rutgers.

“Throughout the years, he really built a strong relationship with his dad and when it came down to it, even to this day versus then, he always listened to his dad,” said Daljodh, who became one of Longa’s closest friends. “His dad was always his biggest role model.”

Etienne treated Daljit’s children like his own and Daljit did the same for Etienne’s kids. They were the best of friends. Their families just fit. When Longa played at Rutgers, they attended as many home games as possible. Daljodh would sometimes go on the road, too.

Longa thrived and became an NFL draft prospect with his family and second family watching. When he reached the NFL, first with the Seahawks and then the practice squad with the Lions, the families watched games together. When Longa made the Lions' 53-man roster this season, they celebrated. Two weeks later, Longa played in his second career NFL game in front of his family and friends when the Lions traveled to New Jersey to face the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.

The Longas and Singhs watched Longa play for the Lions that Monday night, just miles from where he played high school football. After the game, the families met Lions wide receiver Golden Tate.

Etienne introduced Daljit to Tate as Longa’s second dad. Father watched son play in the NFL, loving every minute of the game he started to learn because his son wanted to play it. After the Giants game, he would watch his son play only one more time.

Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 28, Etienne was crossing a road in Mount Bethel Township, Pennsylvania. He was hit by an SUV and died later that day. Caroline called her son, but didn’t tell him the news. Instead, when Longa was inside a hallway at the Lions' practice facility, one of his father’s friends called and told him his father had been in an accident and died. Longa didn't know how to process this, didn't believe it at first. He had just seen his father two weeks ago. They spoke almost daily. Even if he didn't show it outwardly, he was devastated.

That night, Longa flew from Detroit to Newark. Lions operations assistant Frank Bestich Jr. accompanied him. Daljodh picked him up from the airport, giving his number to Bestich Jr., who said the Lions would be in touch.

When they got together, Daljodh and Longa usually talked about their lives. This car ride was silent. They were both in shock, both mourning. What could they say?

“When he got home, he was the strongest person for his family at the moment, for his sister and his mom,” Daljodh said. “They are obviously family in a sense, but when their actual son came, I think they were most scared for him as well.

“They knew, when it came down to it, he was going to hurt. They weren’t sure how he was going to react and I’m telling you, he was the strongest man I know.”

Longa kept everything inside. He had to be strong for his mother and his sister and their family. But Longa had support, even if he didn’t know it.

Throughout the next week, from the day Etienne died through the funeral the following Tuesday, Daljodh was in constant contact with the Lions -- including coach Jim Caldwell, whom Daljodh said called at least once and asked for constant text messages for updates on the family. Caldwell declined to confirm this or comment for this story.

“That was continuous Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, all the way until Tuesday when the funeral happened,” Daljodh said. “I was telling him what was happening, that the viewing finished or the funeral took place.

“I just gave him updates on how [Longa was] doing. He’d say, ‘God bless,’ or some positive words.”

Longa and Daljodh sat in the car outside the funeral home the day after Etienne’s death. Daljit was inside, arranging details for the funeral. It was there where Longa made a decision.

He wanted to fly to Minnesota for the Lions' next game. Despite all his pain, grief and lack of sleep, Longa wanted to play against the Vikings. Daljodh asked him if he was sure. He was. Longa called the Lions. They asked the same question.

Etienne always used to tell his son, “Life keeps moving on no matter what happens. You have to be strong.” This would be Longa's way of doing so. Being home hurt. Everywhere he turned were memories of his father and the future they would no longer have together. His father wouldn’t be cheering anymore.

“Going out there and just remembering the words that he said to me before I go out and play,” Longa said. “And I go out and just do what I have to do, even if it didn’t mean s--- to me at the time anymore. The game, I didn’t really care about the game. That Sunday, like, it changes. That happened.”

Longa needed to play. For so long, he played for the name on the back of his jersey: his name, his father's name. This would be his “way of escaping reality,” even though the emotion was gone because his father wouldn’t be sitting on the couch, drinking and celebrating while his son played on TV.

He barely remembers the flight from Newark to Minnesota, the meetings in the hotel and the ride to the game. It’s all a blur. So was the game itself. A passionate player, Longa made the first tackle on special teams. No celebrating -- he just ran to the sideline. Due to injuries at linebacker, Longa played a career-high 12 defensive snaps. He had four tackles -- two on defense and two on special teams.

The Singhs watched from New Jersey. At first, Caroline couldn’t. It was too raw. By the second half, she joined her friends in front of the screen. Daljodh said she kept asking if that was her son who made the play.

After the game, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata gave Longa the game ball. For days, Longa had held it together. He had barely slept when he was home, his confused emotions keeping him awake. On the flight from Minnesota to Detroit, he started thinking. Everything poured out as the plane landed. He started screaming, asking why. He sought explanation for the unexplainable, why his father was gone.

“I’ve never been the kind of person that talks much and opens up about my feelings,” Longa said. “But that night, that night was really like the night where I really just laid it all out and asked God what’s going on, you know?”

Longa went back to the Lions' facility and started having what he now describes as a hallucination. He wanted answers. He knew he was unlikely to get them, but for hours, he was searching for them.

Exhaustion combined with emotion led to this: Longa says he talked with Etienne and Jesus in a vision. His teammates didn’t know this; they just saw a player freaking out and hurting. Etienne had always been religious. His son, not as much, but he wanted to commit himself to it more. In the hallucination, Longa says he saw Tate -- one of the Lions players helping calm him -- take the form of an angel, telling him he loved him, saying, “You’re going to be fine.” Tate, Ngata and Anthony Zettel stayed with Longa for hours, talking with him, consoling him, trying to calm him down. He was their teammate. They saw his pain; they wanted to help. They then went with him to his home, hung out some more, and Longa finally fell asleep while his teammates were still there, watching television.

The next day, Longa woke up and faced reality. He flew back to New Jersey to say goodbye to his father. He understands other people might not understand what happened. But that night, that revelation he knows was a hallucination, gave him the clarity he hoped for, even if he never received the answers he truly sought about why his father died.

“That’s what brought my spirit back up,” Longa said. “I was like, ‘All right. I’m going to make it. I’m going to be fine. Just go through this pain.'"

It’s been difficult the past three months. There are days Longa doesn’t want to leave bed and go to work. Where the meaning of what he’s supposed to do is lost in the pain he still feels. He’s mourning. It’s the struggle many sons and daughters go through when a parent dies. Things seem to be getting better, and then out of nowhere, it becomes momentarily much worse.

On Sundays, Longa remembers what his father always used to tell him before games. He can hear Etienne’s voice saying the words to him, the same message he told his son when he was alive.

“He always told me I was the best. He was like, ‘Listen, you’re the best. People don’t know that, but I know that and you know that,'" Longa said. “He used to tell me guys like us, we’ve got to work for everything we get, but the one thing I got to do is run fast and if I run fast, everything is going to take care of itself. Every time, when he said that, I would just run fast and you’re going to be fast.

“No matter what I do, as long as I run fast, I play well. He always told me not to worry about mistakes, don’t worry about what any coaches say, just play the game, take the coaching and when you step on the field, know that you’re the best and let everybody know. And if they don’t know, they are going to find out one day. He would say the same thing. I knew what he was saying, but I still needed to hear it, you know?”

After games now, Longa calls and texts Daljit or Daljodh. He talks with them about the game. They offer advice. It’s not the same as Etienne, but it’s his family, the people who believe in him and were there for him when everything else felt lost.

Longa still sees his father, too. Not in visions, but in his memories. Earlier this week he had a dream in which he wondered the last time he spoke to his father. He went to call him. As he did, he woke up. He knows he must go on, must continue living life. It’s what his father wanted -- what his father would tell him when he was alive: that life goes on, life moves on. And Longa has found a different way to communicate.

Three days after Etienne died, Longa pulled out his phone. He opened his notepad and started typing his thoughts down. Anything he wants to tell his father, he puts into the file. Anything he thinks his father might be able to advise him on, he writes it down.

Then he saves it and taps it closed. Inside that phone, those messages can always wait.