Shortly after 6-year-old Jo’el Kimpela disembarked from the flight that carried him from his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Dallas, Texas, somebody bought him his first cheeseburger.
“Honestly,” Georgetown’s senior running back recalled Tuesday, a decade and a half after the fact, “I threw up.”
That being the case, his career aim might come as a surprise: He would like to sell fast food someday.
Only in America.
“I’ve always had a dream of one day owning my own Chick-fil-A restaurant,” the management major said during Tuesday’s Patriot League Football Media Day in Bethlehem, Pa. “I just love Chick-fil-A.”
But for now, the Hoyas want nothing more than to feed him the ball, after a junior season in which he rushed for 838 yards on 159 carries (5.3 per carry), the league’s fourth-best output.
“We’d like to get him more touches, to be honest,” said second-year head coach Rob Sgarlata, who hopes to improve on last season’s 3-8 finish. “I think everybody in the room knows he’s going to be our guy. … If we’re running the ball 40 times a game, hopefully he’s getting 25 carries.”
As an assistant coach Sgarlata recruited Kimpela out of Euless (Texas) Trinity High School, one of many football powers in Dallas-Fort Worth Sgarlata had seen Kimpela rush for over 2,000 yards as a senior, and liked his toughness.
“He’s hard to bring down,” Sgarlata said. “He’s got great balance.”
He has managed to maintain that, while making the unlikely journey from Congo to Texas to Washington, D.C. He has made such an impact at Georgetown, in fact, that in April he was named the Joe Eacobacci No. 35 Memorial Jersey recipient. That is an honor bestowed on the player who best embodies the spirit of the Hoyas’ late captain, a 1996 graduate who worked for the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald and died in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
“It was a definitely a blessing to get the 35 jersey, because I know what it represents,” said Kimpela, who previously wore No. 22. “It’s not like a swaggy, cool number, but I’m honored to wear it.”
Jo’el, the youngest of seven children, came to the U.S. from Congo with his sister Nicky two years after their mom, Sidonie, put down roots in Texas, where she had relatives. He was slow to learn the language, he said, but quickly developed an interest in football, after watching Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson on television.
“I just loved the way he was running, feeding off his offensive linemen,” Kimpela said. “I really loved his running style.”
When he was in fifth grade he begged Sidonie to pay the $75 entry fee required to play in the local pee-wee football league. She obliged, but when he got to high school years later he had to wait his turn before seeing regular action. He started only his final season, but made the most of it.
Georgetown ultimately beat out North Texas for his services, with Sgarlata doing most of the heavy lifting. He remembers visiting Jo’el’s home, and making his recruiting pitch in English. That would be translated to French for one of Jo’el’s brothers, and to Swahili for Sidonie, since neither speaks a word of English.
“It was,” Sgarlata said, “one of the more interesting home visits that I’ve had.”
Kimpela, a reserve for two years before his breakout season in 2014, naturally wants his final year to be a special one. Beyond that he would like to see his father, John, come to the U.S. at some point. Ditto for three of his siblings, who remain in Congo. And he would like to return to his native land, since he has yet to go back.
“We’re just blessed to be here,” he said. “It’s just a great opportunity, and we thank God that we’re able to be here and we’re going to make the most of it and hopefully get this Georgetown degree, and see what comes next.”
That might be a job in the fast-food industry. In the meantime the Hoyas plan to keep feeding him.