By Perry Lefko
Faith, family and football are the pillars of B.C. Lions’ fullback and special teams’ player Rolly Lumbala, who in the last year has come to rely heavily on all three.
Last weekend, the Lions’ stunning second-half season (which consisted of winning six of nine games to cross over and become the West Division representative in the East Division Semi-Final) came to a sudden stop. They lost 48-8 in what became Wally Buono’s final game in his legendary coaching career.
As heartbreaking as that was, it paled in comparison to Rolly losing his father Eugene, whom he lost two months prior to an eight-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 66.
“He had a long battle, which I’m proud of, and how hard he fought and the legacy that he left – amazing life, amazing kids, grandkids,” Rolly said.
Rolly and his wife of three years, Jaspreet, along with their daughter, Anaya, who was born in October, 2017, became paramount in Eugene’s life when he moved from Calgary to Vancouver to receive treatment. Rolly helped his father as his primary caregiver until he returned to Calgary for additional treatment. Rolly’s mother, Pauline Tchitala N. Kamba, came to Vancouver a few times in what became an example of the Lumbala family banding together.
The Lumbalas have five children in addition to Rolly – Mélisa, Jacques, Steven and Grace Chloe. Rolly said Mélisa became the anchor for the family growing up as the eldest child.
What Rolly did for his father was only the latest act of kindness and love underlying his humanity as a father, son, husband and football player.
Rolly is the Lions’ nominee for the Jake Gaudaur Award, and the winner will be announced next week as part of the Grey Cup proceedings. The award, which was introduced in 2010, is given to a Canadian Football League player who best demonstrates the attributes of Canadian veterans: strength, perseverance, courage, comradeship and contribution to Canadian communities. Gaudaur served as the CFL’s Commissioner from 1968-1984, the longest of anyone who has done the job, and was a distinguished veteran of the Second World War. In addition to what he did for his father, Rolly works at Husky House, a local foster home for at-risk youth. He’s also a key figure in the Lions’ ‘Be More Than A Bystander’ anti-violence against women initiative and the Lions’ ‘Read, Write & Roar’ program.
On September 7th, Less than 48 hours after his father’s passing, Rolly played in the Lions’ home game against the Ottawa Redblacks, which resulted in a 26-14 victory for BC, beginning their run for a playoff berth. Rolly received the game ball that day. Normally, the Lions hand out three game balls, but on this occasion Rolly was the sole recipient for what Special Team coordinator Jeff Reinebold described as guts, unselfishness and character by playing.
“It meant a lot,” Rolly said of receiving the ball. “It was hard not to lose it all and just contain myself. It was hard because I had no idea. I just played the game and we won, thankfully. I have amazing teammates, [an] amazing support group, and I’m just thankful and honoured.
“Honestly, at first I didn’t want to play because so much was going on. I spoke to my family and they said it would be a good way to honour him as best as I can. At the same time, I wanted to be there for my teammates as well. It’s such a weird situation to be in.”
A couple weeks before, Rolly carried out the flag of his native Gabon in the Democratic Republic of Congo to celebrate the Lions’ role in the CFL’s ‘Diversity Is Strength’ program. It was a proud moment and tremendous way for Rolly to salute his team, his country of birth and the country which became his home.
“I’ve been playing football professionally for 11 years and that’s definitely one of the memories I’ll never forget,” he said.
Rolly said his family, which includes four siblings, had been doing well in Gabon, where his father worked as an engineer and his mother – as an actress. Collectively they were enjoying a prosperous life, but they decided to move to Canada. Rolly was only five.
“They understood economics and that the style of living would be better,” Rolly said. “They understood what Canada meant in terms of opportunities and what we as immigrants could bring to the country. It seemed Canada welcomed diversity.
“They left everything behind for a new country and a new culture, just to give us a better life. When you’re young you think it’s fun, you’re going to travel to Canada, there is snow there, but as you get older you realize what type of sacrifice that is.”
His parents were unemployed for two years before they found work. His father became a Vice-Principal; his mother a teacher.
“Things must have been extremely difficult, so you understand a little bit more of what that move meant and how significant it was,” Rolly said. “The best thing that we could do in turn as children was to be good people, get our education and honour them that way.”
Rolly and his brother Steven were introduced to football by their elder brother, Jacques-Olivier, who had a brief stint with the Indianapolis Colts. Steven played briefly for the Montreal Alouettes.
Rolly is also Third Vice-President of the Canadian Football League Players’ Association and one of two active members on the Executive Board.
Rolly is grateful his father had a chance to spend some meaningful time with his granddaughter.
“They got to hang out together and I’ve got a picture of it,” Rolly said. “It’s a bittersweet picture.”
Rolly has relied heavily on his faith for what became emotionally-trying times within the last 12 months.
“I just trust that God has a plan,” Rolly said. “Sometimes you don’t understand what He is doing, but in time you will. God gave me a healthy daughter. God giveth and God taketh away. I’m just so thankful He gave me amazing parents and an amazing father. God gave me the best father in the world and the best mother in the world. I’m forever thankful for that.”