British RB Glen Toonga continuing unexpected football journey with Bialystock Lowlanders

You never know where you’ll find your calling in life.

Sitting in Bialystok, Poland, Glen Toonga, from London, is nowhere he ever would have expected when he began his football journey as a wide-eyed first year student at Southampton University in the south of England. While he has now terrorized defenses across Europe and has attracted the attention of CFL scouts, Toonga arrived on campus four years ago having never before put on a helmet and simply wanting to take advantage of everything university had to offer.

“You go off to Uni, you want to try something new and, if you’re lucky, your school has an American football team,” he explains, laughing. “I guess I was kind of inspired by the movies. You see films like Remember the Titans or The Express, and you think ‘why not try American football’.”

Photo: BIA24.pl

While that story is not an uncommon way for a British player to get started in the sport, everything Toonga has done since can hardly be considered ordinary. After two years as one of Germany’s top rushers, the powerful running back is currently the toast of Poland’s Liga Futbolu Amerykańskiego with the Bialystok Lowlanders. Later this year, he might take football one step further as one of the player’s eligible for the Canadian Football League’s Global Draft. None of that was even on the radar when Toonga first suited up.

“When I first started playing football, I didn’t know about the CFL and I only knew a little bit about the NFL. My goal was to play for the London Blitz, that’s all,” Toonga says. “I didn’t see myself playing in Europe, let alone being potentially drafted by a CFL club.”

Before joining the London Blitz, Toonga didn’t even know there was other leagues to play for in Europe. When a teammate signed in Germany two years into his stint with the Blitz, the running back decided he too should set his sights a little higher. After another year of accruing good film and gaining a crucial spot on Great Britain’s national team, Toonga signed with the Dresden Monarchs. As a rare British import, he excelled in the usually American-led backfields of Germany, finishing near the top of the rushing charts each year. Signing in the GFL also led to another unexpected career accomplishment.

“My mom had never seen me play football until my first year with Dresden,” Toonga confesses. “She had always supported me and basically said if you want to do that then do it, but I guess she was really scared. You only see highlights of American football on TV and for her, it seemed really aggressive and not safe.”

Photo: Dirk-Sukow/Bild-Dresden

Five years after her son first put on the pads, Toonga’s mom flew down to Germany to watch Dresden play Hildesheim. Unsurprisingly, she was wowed by her son’s play and swayed by the stadium atmosphere into being a fan.

“Now I’ll send her highlights or I’ll send her a livestream link and she’ll watch it,” says Toonga. “Me telling her “Mom, I’m going to Poland to play football’ isn’t a big deal because now she’s seen me play.”

That trip to Poland came about after the GFL season was cancelled and it has provided Toonga with a platform to express his dominance. He announced himself to the Bialystok Lowlanders faithful with an incredible 12 carry rushing performance in their season opener, racking up 271 yards and four touchdowns. He hasn’t looked back since, keeping the Lowlanders undefeated through three games. Toonga knows he’s on a collision course with the powerhouse Wroclaw Panthers and their own star ball carrier Ryan Tuiasoa. While he’s intentionally taking it one game at a time, that doesn’t mean a mutual respect hasn’t already formed between the two backs.

“He’s balling. I watched him against Dresden, because that was my team for two years. When I saw him play well, I said ‘ok, he’s a real baller’,” says Toonga. “One thing I like to do in each game is try to be the best running back on the field, so it will be good to go up against a back that talented. I know he’s explosive, he’s fast and he breaks tackles, so it will drive me to up my game.”

It’s not every day that a player from England finds himself in a two horse race with a runner from a school as big as the University of Hawaii, let alone being the club house leader. When asked about that comparison, Toonga was dismissive.

“For me, it doesn’t really matter the pathway that you took, it’s about being the best here. No one really cares if you went to this college or you didn’t go to that college, it’s about what you’re doing now,” he stresses. “When I first started, I did sort of use it as an excuse that I didn’t go to a US college but then I realized nobody cares. There is no asterisk next to your name that says he’s a US guy and you’re a UK guy, or he went to this college and you went to that one. If you ball out, that’s what everyone sees.”

Photo: Tallboyimages.co.uk

Still, Toonga does let his underdog British pride shine through when he’s given the chance to talk about the growing number of UK players making their presence felt internationally.

“I love it. Especially because the league in the UK isn’t great and other countries I think are in a better position to send their players to the GFL or Finland,” he says beaming. “When I see guys make it from the UK, I’m proud because I can recognize the hard work they’ve put in. When I see guys like Kadel King or Keanu Ebanks or any of the other guys making it in higher league’s, its great.”

The same is true of Toonga’s own story, as incredible as it is unlikely. While the affable back never imagined the places football would take him, it’s clear from the infectious joy with which he talks about the game that Toonga is right where he belongs.

“When I first started, I found myself doing extra stuff that the coaches didn’t ask me to do. I just fell in love with the game straight away,” he raves. “I love it. I love being able to compete. Most of my best friends have been made playing football. I can’t picture my life outside football, because it’s what I do.”

JC Abbott
J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.
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