This Sunday, most of America will be tuned in to watch Super Bowl LII.
However, for Queens native Jonathan Rijo, the most important game of the weekend will kick off some 4,000 miles away. Rijo is a 6’ 2”, 300-pound defensive lineman for the Thonon Black Panthers in the Elite League of American Football (ELAF) in France. The eight-team league continues to grow in popularity and level of play.
“The Black Panthers are one of the top teams in all of Europe, and they gave me a great contract,” said Rijo, 25, who played on both the offensive and defensive line at Information Technology High School in Long Island City and at Division II Lincoln University just outside Philadelphia. “I saw this as a unique opportunity to experience a new culture.”
Playing overseas is nothing new to Rijo, who has suited up for teams in Australia and Spain in the past (he’s of Dominican descent and is fluent in Spanish). He also has a strand of professional sports in his DNA — his uncle is former Major League reliever Jose Rijo.
As happy as Rijo is living the dream of playing professional football, albeit far from the NFL, he’s also dealing with the challenge of learning a new language and missing girlfriend Celina Colon and their five-month old daughter, Jonnelly Rose, both of whom will visit him in France this summer. Thankfully, there’s FaceTime and the Black Panthers’ online TV channel, which lets stateside friends and family follow the team.
Rijo has also left behind a coaching career at SUNY Maritime, where he had been working as defensive line coach when he signed with Thonon in December. He may return to the Bronx school when the ELAF season ends in July, but for now he still assists in recruiting, by phone.
That said, Rijo is cherishing the opportunity to explore Thonon — located in the French Alps near the Swiss border — and play the game he loves. The Black Panthers are among the more successful teams in the ELAF, having won two league titles (in 2013-14), and the club has first-class facilities by league standards, including its own turf practice field. The roster has other American-born players, as well as French and Swiss nationals.
He’d like to continue playing as long as he can before getting into coaching, either here at the college level or at the pro level in Europe.
“We’ve been eating at five-star restaurants, and it’s a beautiful place to live,” he said of his current life in France. “I just want to keep using the sport to open new doors for me.”