He pulled open the glass door about 10 minutes after 11 a.m. on a warm Thursday in April, the smile of satisfaction cemented on his face.
Detroit Lions linebacker Steve Longa carried a large manila envelope in his right hand, folded in half, with a few documents he no longer needed inside.
There was his passport from Cameroon, the expired one with the picture from when he was 10 years old just inside the cover. There was his green card from the United States, the one he got a little more than five years ago when he started his naturalization process. And there were the travel documents he needed to see the world — or the parts of it they’d grant him access to, at least.
Longa switched the envelope from one hand to the other and held up the thumb on his right hand as he walked past one row then another of men and women just like him.
He hugged his agent, Wesley Spencer, who flew in that morning from North Carolina to see him. And a half hour later, in a private room inside a two-story brick building a few miles from downtown Detroit, with a dozen or so witnesses looking on, Longa took his oath of allegiance to the United States.
Detroit Lions linebacker Steve Longa hugs his agent Wesley Spencer after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Detroit. (Photo: Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press)
Twelve years after he came to the country as the son of a refugee, and 19 months after his father and best friend, Etienne — the man who paved the way for him to leave his homeland — was killed when he was struck by a truck while crossing a road, Longa officially became an American citizen.
“It hasn’t been smooth,” Longa said later that day in April, as he waited on a plate of duck bop hash at a local Detroit eatery. “But I am fortunate enough that I’ve got to this point cause some people have been waiting a lot longer. Although it hasn’t been smooth, I am happy with the way it went. I’ve learned a lot through this process, watching my dad go through it, my mom go through it. I thought it was just going to be something that’s cool, go in and do it. I didn’t expect all the emotions to hit me like they did.”
For years, the Longas talked about returning to their native Cameroon for a family trip, something that wasn’t possible until everyone became naturalized.
Lions linebacker Steve Longa, right, and his father. (Photo: Steve Longa Special to Detroit Free Press)
Longa’s father was the first to get his citizenship in 2016, about a year before his death. His mother, Caroline, got her citizenship last year, and his sister, Rosine, is scheduled to get hers later this spring.
Longa said a family trip to Cameroon is still in the works for next winter — “Hopefully February, you know what I mean?” he said — though when the time comes to make it, he’ll do so with a heavy heart.
Etienne Longa came to America as a political refugee in 2002, a professional soccer player who did business with the Cameroon government after his playing days.
When he arrived in exile, he settled in Michigan, living at the Freedom House, a temporary home for indigent survivors of persecution, in Detroit.
Etienne took classes to become a private investigator, but with not enough money coming in, he soon turned to driving trucks. Five years later, his family joined him in America, living briefly in Michigan before settling in New Jersey.
Longa still remembers the long flight over, first to Morocco, then New York. He was 12 years old, fearless and determined to see his dad.
“I (was never) really scared, cause my dad was living here and he always told us the great stuff about this country,” Longa said. “So the way he described when we arrived, I was about 10, 15 feet ahead of my mom and my sister and I was just so excited looking around. And he said if you didn’t know no better, you would think I knew where I was going, but I did not. I was just scanning so fast, and then I spotted him while my mom and my sister were in the back just following. It was like, ‘We’re just going trust that you know where you’re going.’ ”
Lions linebacker Steve Longa is sworn in as a U.S citizen by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services district director Mick Dedvukaj after passing his test for citizenship on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Detroit. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
Longa said his father meant “everything” to him growing up. Etienne was his role model, his disciplinarian, his teacher.
The two remained close when Longa left for college at Rutgers, and after that when he reached the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2016.
Every summer, the two sat down for a heartfelt talk about life, the year that had just passed and what was to come. Two years ago, less then two months before Etienne’s death, Longa and his father had their last such conversation, one that’s still fresh in Longa’s mind.
“We just reflect and he gives me his advice,” Longa said. “Sometimes it can be harsh or maybe he’s grilling me. Sometimes he’s happy and giving me praises. But this last one, it was different than the other ones cause he was (sharing a) message for life that he gave me like, ‘All right, I feel like I did everything I could and I am happy with the process, I’m happy with how you’ve grown up and in regards to what happens, I know you’re going to be fine.’
“So that’s just one thing I have to remind myself all the time, that he believes that I’m going to be fine. He believes that he gave me all the tools to go through life and be successful in everything I do. So I shouldn’t be worried, shouldn’t be scared. Just believe and trust in his, you can say, training. Everything he taught me.”
On the day Etienne was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, Longa made sure his father had a nice bottle of wine to celebrate, and his mother had everything she needed to prepare a feast.
Etienne was a lightweight when it came to alcohol, but he was never one to miss out on a celebration. Had he been there to see his son take the oath, there’s no doubt how the night would have ended.
Detroit Lions' Steve Longa tackles Buffalo Bills' Nick O'Leary during the first half Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 in Orchard Park, (Photo: Adrian Kraus, AP)
“If he was here, he would probably want to leave right now and go celebrate at home and definitely tell mom to hook it up in the kitchen and he’d invite all his friends,” Longa said. “It would probably be his party more than mine, and by 7:30 he would be sleeping and snoring. And everybody would be like, ‘Where is Mr. Longa?’ ‘You guys can go home cause he’s not coming out. He’s done.’ That’s him. He would have a party and then disappear before 10 o’clock, and we knew where he was, he was sleeping. And everybody was wondering where he went.”
'Americans don't carry green cards'
Longa applied for citizenship last December, while he was recovering from the torn ACL that cost him his 2018 season with the Lions.
He underwent a biometric screening in March and spent the four days before his April appointment studying 100 civics questions — 25 a night — that are part of every naturalization test.
To pass, an applicant must answer at least six of 10 randomly selected questions correctly, questions such as what are the two major political parties in the United States and what is the minimum age to vote. Longa said he answered the first seven questions right before slipping up on the eighth.
“I corrected myself, but I don’t think it mattered,” he said. “She was like you passed already anyway.”
After the civics test, an immigration services officer took Longa and Lions senior vice president of legal affairs Jay Colvin, who helped with the process, behind closed doors for an interview and to review Longa's application. Longa said the 25-minute interview included questions that “most everybody would have to say no to,” like have you ever been a part of a terrorist group or have your ever failed to pay taxes.
The U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Detroit District office interviews about 150 applicants for naturalization a day, and swearing-in ceremonies are held Mondays and Thursdays at the federal courthouse.
Lions linebacker Steve Longa autographs small flags for workers after becoming a U.S citizen on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Detroit. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
Typically, applicants take part in a group ceremony of 90 or so people, a week or two after their naturalization is approved, but Longa, with a reporter and photographer in tow, was taken to a private room on the first floor that’s occasionally used for children’s ceremonies.
As he waited to fill out some final paperwork and for his certificate of naturalization, Longa had a few questions for Mick Dedvukaj, the USCIS Great Lakes District director who read him the 140-word oath.
As personal as becoming a citizen was to Longa, there also were practical reasons for getting it done. For the last three years, Longa traveled to the Dominican Republic with his agency for a trip that was part youth outreach, part fun. As a green-card holder, Longa had to get government-issued travel documents to make the trip, and Spencer, Longa’s agent, had to write to Longa’s New Jersey congressman to expedite the process.
Longa was planning another trip to Toronto with some of his teammates and wanted to know if he could keep his Cameroonian passport and travel documents to make it through customs.
“All of that you’re going to be giving up when we give you your certificate,” Dedvukaj said. “Cause Americans don’t carry green cards, my friend.”
With that, Longa’s journey from Cameroon to America seemed complete.
Longa said he hasn’t cried since his father’s death, and as meaningful as getting his citizenship was, he was able to keep his emotions in check.
When an immigration services officer arrived with his certificate, he grabbed a miniature flag from the table and stuck it playfully behind his ear.
A few minutes later, a security officer asked him to sign a few flags as a memento, about the most meaningful autograph he's ever been asked to give.
“I don’t understand everything that’s happening, but when you look at (my father’s) life, people talk about him, it’s all great stuff and I just hope that I can keep living through that path where I impact people just as much as he did,” Longa said. “And I hope that, if he’s up there watching down, that he’s smiling and that’s the plan and that’s the vision he had for us.”
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