Bears counting on Doogie Howser, DT

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Amobi Okoye's clock is ticking in more ways than one.

The 24-year-old former first-round pick has already given football four years going on five.

In NFL parlance, he's somewhere between bust and "Just Another Guy" status.

But that's not why his clock is ticking. Like a handful of guys on every team in a diverse league, Okoye has an eye toward the future, and we're not talking about a broadcasting job and a Subway franchise.

"My first goal was to become a doctor," he said before practice Thursday, particularly a pediatric surgeon. "I haven't given up on that. My goal is that before I'm 35 to be in med school."

But that's not to say he's looking to quit the game any time soon.

"I want to get 10 [years in the NFL]," he said. "And after 10, take it one at a time."

He sounds like every other player in the NFL there, but Okoye is definitely unique.

"He's a sharp guy," said his friend, teammate and fellow Nigerian Israel Idonije. "He understands that football is finite and he sees the big picture."

Okoye's life has been a mellifluous blend of athletic and academic pursuits. He's Doogie Howser, DT.

Christian Okoye, a family friend and occasional counsel, may have been the Nigerian Nightmare, but Amobi is more like the American Dream.

He started high school at 12 after moving from Nigeria to Huntsville, Ala. (no culture shock there) and college at 16, when he passed up enrolling at Harvard to play football at Louisville. He graduated in 3 1/2 years and was drafted by Houston with the 10th pick at age 19. At 20 (his birthday is in June) he became the youngest player to appear in an NFL game since 1967.

Okoye is one of a slew of players in the NFL with Nigerian roots, and he's proud to represent his homeland as another high-achieving, worldly role model.

"The thing about Nigerians, I think we're tied for the [second-largest] nationality playing football next to Americans," he said. "I think we're now tied with American Samoa. And it's fun, there are so many people out there you can look up to. Wale [Ogunleye], Israel, Osi [Umenyiora] is a good friend of mine. I train with him in the offseason with Wale. N.D. Kalu, who was with me my first two years in Houston and it was great. He doesn't know how much of a help he was to me. Christian Okoye, just countless guys, Samkon Gado. Countless Nigerians."

Okoye seemingly has everything going for him, from size (6-foot-2, around 300 pounds) to smarts and personality. He graduated with a psychology degree, might still get his MBA before MD, and is known as one of the most intellectual players in the National Football League, not to mention of the most philanthropic with two charities to his name. All that stuff is great, and it makes him the role model he aspires to be -- "We're blessed to be in situation we are," he said of his status. "It's only fit for you to create opportunity for somebody else to do the same thing you did." -- but it doesn't mean anything unless he can produce.

"He's got incredible talent and potential," said Idonije, the defensive end. "He's got great explosiveness off the ball and he's a sharp guy as far as picking up the system. I expect real big things. He can step in and really be a factor."

While his potential looks to be realized thus far -- he's looked great in practice and had two sacks in the preseason opener -- Okoye is already in that "one year at a time" phase he spoke of. He signed a one-year, $1.38 million deal after getting cut by Houston. Now he's playing catch-up with the Bears' defense. He's not going to start, but he's expected to contribute heavily to what could be one of the best defensive lines in the league.

"I'm kind of getting away from old habits, getting used to the new ways and what's expected of me," he said.

In the Bears' simple and effective scheme, his main focus is now "going forward and not lateral."

He can look at his life the same way. He doesn't regret fast-tracking through life so far. Was he ready to enter college at 16? That's hard to believe.

"I was," he said. "I pretty much went through high school young too. I was ready for the next phase in my life, the next chapter."

Now he's onto his second chapter in a league where most players' stories are like a novella.

"It's definitely exciting to get a chance to go somewhere else and start over again," he said. "Sometimes it doesn't happen the way you want it to. You always want to finish what you started. Unfortunately, I didn't finish what I started with one year left on my contract with Houston. But I'm happy. I'm content with my situation here, I'm happy to be a Bear."

Whenever a fallen prospect joins a new team, it's easy to dream of recaptured glory and skip ahead a few chapters. In training camp, the only guys more popular than the reclamation projects are the backup quarterbacks.
But maybe Okoye's performance in Houston (11 sacks in four years) can be graded on a curve. Maybe he's just starting to marry potential with maturation.

"Guys get strong in this league," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "But there's a thing called man strength. Guys get older and get veteran strength, and they know how to use it."

Marinelli has been a big booster of Okoye, who is trying to earn time in a defensive tackle rotation that could regularly utilize six guys.

"You can see the movement, especially the feet," Marinelli said. "He's got acceleration. I think you saw that last week, and now it's just about the day-to-day grind. That's what this whole thing is about, the toughness of mind to play the system. I think he's come along well."

Yes, but it's warm and sunny in Bears country right now. Asked how he likes Chicago, Okoye had a smart answer.

"Ask me in November," he said.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.