It's been a long road to NCAA football success for Enock Makonzo.
The five-foot-11, 195-pound linebacker/defensive back from Lachine, Que., is playing a big role with upstart Coastal Carolina (6-0). The Chanticleers are No. 15 in The Associated Press top-25 rankings, which is not only the best position in school history but highest ever for a Sun Belt Conference squad.
Heady stuff for a player who transferred to Coastal Carolina in 2019 from New Mexico Military Institute, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury in just his second game with the Chanticleers.
"It was really tough mentally to be out so early," Makonzo told reporters this week during a videoconference. "Definitely it was hurting on every level (but) it put a chip on my shoulder.
"I gave everything I could in the off-season, running, lifting, doing everything I had to do to make sure I was going to come back and actually help my team achieve something phenomenal like we're doing this year."
Makonzo had a team-high seven tackles (five solo, one for a loss) in last weekend's 51-0 dismantling of Georgia State. This season, the 23-year-old redshirt junior has 36 tackles (team-high 25 solo) with six for a loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Coastal Carolina hosts South Alabama (3-3) on Saturday. It will the annual homecoming game for the Conway, S.C., school that has under 10,500 students and began playing football in 2003.
Makonzo garnered attention from Quebec universities after playing CEGEP - the province's pre‑university college system - for Vieux-Montreal. However, Makonzo opted to follow his dream of playing in the NCAA, enrolling at New Mexico, a junior college that taught him much more than just football.
"I can talk about it for days but until you experience that yourself, you're never really going to understand," he said. "It was a very unique experience . . . but since I had a goal, I knew had to go through that to eventually do what I wanted to do."
Predictably, life there was very regimented.
"We didn't have any weekends so Monday to Saturday we'd wake up at the same time, which was 5:30 a.m.," he said. "You get up, go into formation, uniform every day, you'd march to go to breakfast.
"We had strict rules . . . it's not a regular college so you've got curfews, they tell you what time you've got to go to bed, what time you have to get up. You really have to be disciplined to be in this school. Either you go this way or you can see the door."
Makonzo appeared in 18 games over two seasons at New Mexico, registering 105 tackles and two sacks. After fielding offers from Coastal Carolina, the University of Massachusetts and South Alabama, Makonzo settled upon the Chanticleers, becoming the school's first-ever Canadian recruit.
Playing four-down football in Quebec allowed Makonzo to make a seamless transition to the American game. However, one adjustment he had to make was speaking English full-time.
"I had to work on it, for sure," he said. "We learned English but you don't actually speak English every day so that was something I had to work on.
"I got there eventually."
Although Coastal Carolina posted a 5-7 record last year, Makonzo said the team isn't the least bit surprised by its current success.
"We saw the people we had, we saw the energy that was around, we saw how we were practising and playing," he said. "And we were like, 'Yeah, this year is going to be different.'
"We definitely play as a team, as one unit. We have the same goal and we're all working towards that. We hold everyone accountable."
Makonzo's versatility gives a defensive co-ordinator options, but he doesn't have a preference on where he plays.
"I make plays when they need to be made," he said. "As long as I'm on the field I find a way to make a play, regardless of (where) they put me."
While Makonzo remains focused on 2020, he has thought about a pro football career. He'd prefer to look to the NFL first before returning to Canada.
"Definitely, that's how it goes for everybody, I presume," he said. "You try to see the bigger picture and go for it.
"Everything depends on how the season ends for us. Afterwards, there's a lot of things to look at but so far my focus is on this season."
And continuing to set the bar higher for Coastal Carolina's football program.
"It's special because it's the first, you're making the way for the people that are coming after you, " he said. "It feels really great . . . but we're still on a mission.
"One thing we’re trying to do is impose our respect. People have been looking down on us for the past few years. We have something to prove and we’re going to make a statement."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press