Guest Author - Dawn Denton
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 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. He showed incredible talent when he shone at track and field by winning seven national titles for shot put, discus and hammer.
The Nigerian government selection panel changed his life forever when in 1984 they did not select him to represent Nigeria at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. He was heartbroken and decided to walk away for the sports he loved. He was 23 when 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 and had even referred to the game as boring. Coach threw him a ball. Christian’s response was, "Very interesting, but an impractical shape."
Christian made a huge impression on the field and in less than three years he was signed for the Kansas City Chiefs as the 35th player. He enjoyed 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.
On the back of the Action Packed football card for Okoye, the words "Okoye--ogbaoso ka ene na ike agu" are used to describe Christian. This is Ebu, his mother tongue, for “The speed of an antelope and the strength of a lion." The marketing company wanted to use 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 settled for an African flare instead.
Since his voluntary retirement in 1993 due to a knee injury, he has won countless awards for his work both in and outside of sport. In 2006 he founded and became the President of the California Sports Hall Of Fame. He has also set up The Christian Okoye Foundation, which is focused on helping underprivileged children use sports and education to gain confidence and become contributing members of society. He works with sports teams, businesses and churches to help them set and achieve goals for continued growth.
This soft spoken man was described by his team mates as “a man on a mission”. He is a big draw on the motivational speaker circuit and has used his love of sports to make his mark in the NFL and Nigerian history books.