From the hilly Enugu state in Nigeria to the top of American football, Christian Okoye was the first African-born player in the NFL . His success gave other Africans the confidence to do the same and he is hailed as a “man on a mission”.
Known as the “Nigerian Nightmare”, Christian Okoye was the first African-born NFL (National Football League) player. His remarkable journey paved the way for other African players to join the League. Players from Ghana to Uganda have made their name in the American institution of football.
Christian Okoye was born in Enugu, southeastern Nigeria, on August 16, 1961. Enugu is the capital of the Enugu state and has a population of under a million residents. The city name means “hill top” as the city is built on a hilly landscape. Christian is of the Igbo ethnic group, one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria.
He spent the first 17 years of his life in Nigeria, throwing himself into his beloved soccer, where his speed and agility made him a popular and successful player. In 1982 he enrolled at Azusa Pacific University in California. Amazingly, he showed incredible talent. He shone at track and field by winning seven national titles for shot put, discus and hammer.
Something Amazing Happend
The Nigerian government selection panel changed his life forever. They did not select him to represent Nigeria at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984. He was heartbroken and decided to walk away for the sports he loved. But, at 23 something amazing happened.
He decided to do something different, he walked into the office of the college football team and asked to try out for the squad. The coach was surprised. Okoye had never played football before. Interestingly, he had even referred to the game as boring, and when the coach threw him a ball, Christian’s response was, “Very interesting, but an impractical shape.”
This 6.1ft man made a huge impression on the field. In less than three years he was signed for the Kansas City Chiefs as the 35th player. He enjoyed success over a six season career, setting a range of records including attempted touchdowns; total yards in a season and was the first running back in the team’s history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in one season. In 1989 he was awarded the American Football League Offensive Player of the year.
Christian Okoye – African Flare
On the back of the Action-Packed football card for Okoye, the words “Okoye–ogbaoso ka ene na ike agu” were used to describe Christian in Ebu, his mother toungue (“the speed of an antelope and the strength of a lion”) The marketing company wanted to put the phrase “speed of a sprinter and the strength of a lineman”, but the Ebu dialect does not have the words for sprinter or lineman. So, they finally settled for ‘an African flare’.