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Lawanga at home on the football field




It is impossible to deny Eugene Lawanga’s passion for football.

The 24-year-old defensive tackle with Westman Wolverines of the Manitoba Major Junior Football League is a larger-than-life personality on and off the pitch, but the Uganda native says football has given him more than he could not have imagined.

“I really like the way the game brings people together,” Lawanga said. “When I started playing when I moved here, I didn’t have any friends, I was outside the club, and my teachers and coaches at Vincent Massey were like family. They included me, I was introduced to Canadian culture.

“I love the fellowship and friendliness that the program has provided, and how close it has brought us together. It almost made the school bearable knowing that I would have practice, that I could spend time with it. Coach (Mike) Steeves and Coach (Kevin) Grindey. I just loved this unity that the game brings. ”

The five-foot-nine, 260-pound defensive tackle had never even heard of football when his family moved to Brandon over a decade ago from a small village in Uganda, a landlocked country in South Africa. ‘East.

He started playing football in 9th grade at Vincent Massey when he was recruited by Steeves and Grindey.

“I didn’t know anything about football,” Lawanga said. “All I knew was football. I don’t know what Coach Grindey and Steeves saw in me. One day I was walking down Vincent Massey’s hallway and Coach Grindey saw me and me. Said ‘Hey man, why don’t you come and try the football outside?’

“I guess they meant football? So I introduce myself, no crampons, nothing and it’s “OK, here’s some protections, here’s a helmet and here’s how you do that. Get out.” I was running around in training, not a clue what it is. ”

With his build, it’s hard to imagine he was once a cornerback, but that was over ten years ago. Lawanga said everyone realized that was not his strength.

PERRY BERGSON / THE BRANDON SUN

Westman Wolverines defensive tackle Eugene Lawanga faces offensive lineman Carlo Alimario (57) of the St. James Rods on Saturday at Vincent Massey’s Doug Steeves Field as part of the Manitoba Major Junior Football League.

“They started me around the corner because in grade 9 I had just moved from Africa and I was this tiny little African shrimp kid,” Lawanga said. “They thought I would be great at the cornerback position, but I was taking way too many penalties for being physical with the receivers.

“So it was ‘You know what? Let’s put this guy on the D line even though he’s small because he’s physical and see if he can disrupt the infractions.'”

Steeves said the cornerback involved a lot of reading, so the defensive tackle was better suited for a player with his inexperience but obvious physical strengths. The change was made in 10th grade.

“It’s a pretty unique and confusing sport if you don’t know him, and as he grew up and started to understand the sport his personality really grew,” Steeves said. “He’s such a vocal and lively character.”

“His personality had to keep pace with his biceps,” Steeves joked. “He was really passionate.”

After graduating from Massey, Lawanga spent the last five seasons with the Wolverines, although the 2020 season was wiped out by the pandemic. The league allowed players who would have graduated last season one more year to play.

He said his entire MMJFL experience has been good.

“It’s an incredible blessing,” Lawanga said. “When 2020 came around everyone was sad about the football season and what was going on in the world. I thought it was supposed to be my last year of eligibility.

“I love the opportunity to replay. I gained a bit of weight during the pandemic and am able to go out again and play for such an amazing program and coaches who trust you and bring out the best of you. you and trying to put yourself in a position to be successful… It’s just beautiful. ”

In Saturday’s 23-4 win over the visiting St. James Rods at Vincent Massey’s Doug Steeves Field, Lawanga had three and a half sacks for the Wolverines.


Westman Wolverines defensive tackle Eugene Lawanga offers a helping hand to Chris Grouette of the St. James Rods, moments after he dropped him on the turf on Saturday at Vincent Massey's Doug Steeves Field as part of the Major Junior Football League. of Manitoba.

PERRY BERGSON / THE BRANDON SUN

Westman Wolverines defensive tackle Eugene Lawanga offers a helping hand to Chris Grouette of the St. James Rods, moments after he dropped him on the turf on Saturday at Vincent Massey’s Doug Steeves Field as part of the Major Junior Football League. of Manitoba.

Brady Dane, who coaches the Wolverines, started working with Lawanga when he was at Vincent Massey. He has observed a remarkable evolution over the years.

“His freshman year, he was still learning it and we were figuring out where he should fit,” Dane said. “Ever since we figured him out and put him where he was born to play on the defensive line, he’s just a force of nature. He’s incredibly strong and powerful and he comes very low and the guys don’t know how to handle it.

“I haven’t seen a lineman yet who can really face Eugene for a whole game and be able to hang on and never give up a game or give him a lot of big games. an intensity and a power that few guys can match. ”

Steeves agrees.

“He’s got that nice build,” Steeves said. “He had a low center of gravity, he has long and strong arms, he can move people, he has fast feet. He’s a pretty good specimen out there.”

Lawanga believes his success comes from a combination of his speed and power. He noted that his job is to engage with the offensive line while watching running games and also reading if he can just chase the quarterback.

“You want to control the gap, but if you know they’re going to pass you want to run and be fast and powerful,” Lawanga said.

He is also capable of facing the team’s defensive ends, Muhepua Riruarko, Jacob Walters and Jaden Rookes, but especially John Fisseha. When the pair line up, it creates huge problems for the other team’s offensive line.

“Having a great player on the rim who gets a lot of attention and having Eugene on the inside as well is a lot to deal with for any offensive line,” said Dane. “You can’t beat them both so you have to pick your poison. I think that has caused a lot of problems. They have been very effective in our two games so far.”

It’s hard to miss him on the pitch. After the plays, he usually talks to someone. But in the world of high testosterone football, there is a difference with Lawanga.


Westman Wolverines defensive tackle Eugene Lawanga celebrates as the defense leaves the field after ending the St. James Rods offense on Saturday at Vincent Massey's Doug Steeves Field as part of the Manitoba Major Junior Football League.

PERRY BERGSON / THE BRANDON SUN

Westman Wolverines defensive tackle Eugene Lawanga celebrates as the defense leaves the field after ending the St. James Rods offense on Saturday at Vincent Massey’s Doug Steeves Field as part of the Manitoba Major Junior Football League.

“What I really like about him is that he’s excited, he talks a lot but that’s not a negative thing,” Dane said. “The guys in front of him don’t talk about it. It’s almost overwhelmingly positive and he helps the guys up.

“It’s funny. He’s got that intimidating first look at him because he’s a big, strong guy and he plays with intensity and he’s excited and claps and he talks, but it doesn’t bring the other guy down, that brings no negativity… He’s just a big presence on the pitch and on the sidelines.

“It’s fun to have him with us.”

As a fifth-year player, Lawanga said he is grateful to his opponents and takes the role of helping his young teammates seriously. He said it was all part of the brotherhood created by the Wolverines program.

“At the end of the day, we are family there,” Lawanga said. “We are fighting with the other team. They have come a long way to play a great football game. Without them we would not be there. It is an honor for the young athletes to admire you and be motivated when you give them a pat on the back. ”

Eugene is the oldest of three brothers, all of whom played on the Vikings’ defensive line. The middle brother is Marvin, who just graduated, and the youngest, JP, now plays for Vincent Massey.

“Its evolution, you really have to see it,” Steeves said of Eugene. “We’re talking about our program is about character, and he’s that kind of guy. He had an interesting youth in Uganda, then coming to Brandon and getting into a sport he doesn’t know anything about, making those friendships. and really have a passion because the game was fun.

“I’m one of his biggest fans. I love seeing him continue to play with the Reens.”

Lawanga’s only wish is for it to last. The Wolverines (1-1-0) have already played two of their four regular-season games – the season has been cut short due to pandemic delays – and the playoffs will offer a maximum of two more games.

This will be the end of Lawanga’s life-changing period in the game.

“It’s an absolutely amazing program that Brady put together, with some great athletes,” Lawanga said. “I love it, I love being there, I wish it could never end.”

»Pbergson @ brandonsun, com

»Twitter: @PerryBergson


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