'Suspicions' arose over age of Jonathan Nicola, Catholic Central coach says

Longtime high school basketball coach Peter Cusumano raised the question about Jonathan Nicola's age with friends and school officials, but all documentation checked out.

High school student from South Sudan allegedly 29 years old, not 17

Catholic Central High School basketball coach Peter Cusumano says Jonathan Nicola 'came in with a lot more documentation than a lot of other kids arrive with.' (CBC)

High school basketball coach Peter Cusumano had his suspicions about Jonathan Nicola's age when the native of South Sudan arrived at the airport last November and later enrolled at a Windsor, Ont., high school as a 17-year-old student.

International news media attention came after Nicola applied for a U.S. visitor visa in April. Border security officials allege Nicola's fingerprints match an individual who previously applied for a visa with a birth date of November 1986, which would make him 29 years old.

The coach at Catholic Central high school raised the issue with African diplomats and school officials at the time, but all of Nicola's documentation checked out. Everything indicated he was a teenager.

Cusumano reached out to friends who had helped bring Nicola to Canada and asked them for advice. They told the coach that teenagers in Africa can often look much older because of their poor living conditions and the climate.

"Everybody had their suspicions," an emotional Cusumano told CBC Windsor Morning host Tony Doucette. "But he had all the right answers. He came in with a lot more documentation than a lot of other kids arrive with."

The basketball coach at the centre of the Jonathan Nicola story says he feels like both he and Nicola are being unfairly judged in the court of public opinion. We spoke to Pete Cusumano.

Compassion for the young man

The coach has spoken with Nicola twice since his arrest and plans to attend his former player's detention review hearing scheduled for Wednesday. That hearing will decide if he will stay in jail or return to live with Cusumano.

Immigration officials will then decide at an admissibility hearing — which could happen as early as this week — whether Nicola will be deported back to South Sudan or allowed to stay in Canada. 

The allegations that Nicola had made false statements when coming to Canada landed him in the South West Detention Centre in Windsor. Cusumano feels compassion for the man he welcomed into his home.

"This is a horrible situation for this young man," Cusumano said. "I can't imagine how hard it is on this young man right now."

The ordeal has also been hard on Cusumano's family.

"For me, it's hard. For my family, it's even worse," he said. "They did nothing wrong. My wife did nothing else but open her heart and her home to this kid."

Getting to Canada

Cusumano first heard about Nicola through Deng D'Awol, a Sudanese man who played college basketball in the United States. D'Awol was in South Sudan, helping young men get out of the country.

"Deng says, we're going to use basketball to get a kid out of a bad situation," Cusumano said.

After six months of working with Deng and finding out what documentation was required to come to Canada, Nicola arrived and moved in with Cusumano's family through the Homestay program.

Deng told CBC News last week that he still believes Nicola is 17. Deng said he spotted Nicola as a talented player in South Sudan and wanted to help him out.

"I'm still in shock about what is happening," D'Awol said. "As far as I know, he's a 17-year-old basketball player. That's as far as I know."

Hurtful experience for coach

Cusumano knows that some are accusing him of turning a blind eye just to win basketball games.

"I've never compromised winning for cheating," he said. "For someone to say that I intentionally knew and intentionally cheated is very hurtful to me."

When asked about how this incident will affect his legacy, the soon-to-retire coach is not worried. Former players and coaches he played against in both the U.S. and Canada have reached out to Cusumano to show support.

"My legacy is not the championships. My legacy is the kids I've coached," he said. "The number of kids who've called me and said, 'Coach, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you' — that's my legacy."

With files from the CBC's Windsor Morning and Tony Doucette