ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In July, just before Steve Longa left New Jersey for Detroit Lions training camp, his father pulled him aside. And in that moment, Etienne Longa told his son how proud he was of him. Told him how he had accomplished so much in his life, how much he still had to go.
Whenever Etienne talked, Steve listened. The father's words mattered to the son. Steve went to Etienne whenever he had a real problem seeking a real solution and loved his dad "more than anybody." Steve said his father was a man who gave of himself, a "righteous" man who opened up his heart when he met anyone he encountered -- whether they were family or a person seeking help.
The past week left Steve confused and heartbroken, angry and frustrated; left him searching for answers, even though he knows that no answers will bring his father back. Etienne Longa, 55, was killed last Thursday -- hit by a SUV while crossing Route 611 in Pennsylvania. Nothing he can learn about the accident can help explain why his father -- the man whose advice he always sought -- was dead.
"The hardest week of my life," Longa told ESPN on Friday, his first interview since his father's death. "No sense of direction. No sense, there's no enthusiasm. Questions. I don't know, I can't even explain it."
Last Thursday, Steve was at the Lions' practice facility when he saw he had a lot of missed text messages and phone calls. He stepped into the hallway to call his mother back. That's when a family friend told him Etienne had been killed.
That night, Steve was on a plane back to New Jersey to be with his family. He spent days with them, mourning and grieving and trying to understand why his father was gone. He didn't say when he made the decision to play against the Vikings last Sunday, but he played because he felt "coming out here and playing was going to be best for me at the moment." Plus, Etienne always used to talk to his son about doing everything "100 percent."
Yet Sunday still didn't feel right. He said he returned to the Lions' facility and "couldn't recognize people," was in a general fog about everything that had transpired. Even the emotion of the game was gone. On Monday, Steve returned to New Jersey for his father's funeral before rejoining the Lions on Thursday.
"It wasn't the same. The joy of the game, even the first tackle I made, I even wanted to celebrate but I couldn't get myself to even celebrate," Steve said. "I just made the tackle and walked off the field because, growing up, I didn't care what anybody said about me. Even my coaches, even if I played well, all right, whatever they said about me didn't matter.
"But when my dad opened his mouth and said something, if it was something I needed to improve on or anything, I would try to do anything I can to make him proud. Everything I ever done and everything I ever wanted to accomplish, it was not just for me. It was for both of us. And now not having him here watching me grow and watching me go along with this journey not with him, a lot more things I wanted us to do together. It's just, yeah. I don't know."
Born in Cameroon, Etienne left his family to try and create a better life for them in the United States in 2002. Steve would not see his father again until 2007, when the rest of the Longa family landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to move to the country. For those five years, Etienne and Steve only spoke by phone.
It was Etienne who allowed Steve to play football -- after Steve put together a convincing argument. It was Etienne who was the original athlete in the family, playing professional soccer in Cameroon before becoming a businessman.
And it was Etienne who gave his son that message earlier this year -- one that has stuck with Steve throughout the past week as he has tried to understand why his father is no longer alive.
"This past year, the way he was just talking, it was like he knew something," Steve said. "My dad, he is a very religious man and I remember he told me, that was before I reported for camp, he was like, 'Man, if God calls me over today, I would be one proud father because you've grown up. You're at the point in your life where you've done everything I wanted you to do and accomplish and you've still got a lot more. So if God calls me today, I know you'll be fine in your life.'
"Then certain things he would say and this happens, you know."
It's that message -- one from father to son a few months ago -- that has comforted Steve in the past few days as he goes through the toughest experience of his life.