It was a typical outing for former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye, a mixture of posing with fans for pictures and signing memorabilia while making an appearance several years ago in Las Vegas. But a young man standing in line who stopped to talk left an impression.
"He was telling me that he was a veteran of the CFL [Canadian Football League] for 11 years. He had gone to one of my clinics in 1993," recalled Okoye, who now lives in the Los Angeles area and runs a foundation to help young people develop their skills.
"He told me that the program had helped him a whole lot. He grew up in a group home, not a good situation, and the clinic inspired him to dream and get his life going in the right direction. He made decisions to change his situation. "
Okoye, the man once known as the "Nigerian Nightmare" for his bruising running style, is now a dream-maker. He relishes the numerous hospital visits he makes each year and joining former teammates and other greats of the game to make a positive impact on the community. He has no problem with his role or the expectations placed on him.
"Anytime a person succeeds, whether you like it or not, you are a role model," Okoye said. "Whether I like it or not, it is the case. I like it. I chose to embrace it."
Okoye, a native of Nigeria, was one of the most over-powering running backs of his era. His six-year career in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs -- cut short by a knee injury -- was highlighted by two Pro Bowl appearances and the league rushing title in 1989. He retired with three playoff appearances on his résumé and was selected to the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2000. Now, he's an entrepreneur, a high school football coach and a man with a burning desire to help young people.
Eddie Lange knows this better than almost anyone. As one of Okoye's oldest friends, Lange founded ARC, a physical rehabilitation center in Riverside, Calif. He and his wife, Jessica, are directors of the Christian Okoye Foundation, an unpaid role. Expanding from Okoye's work in clinics and camps, Lange pushed for the former All-Pro to grow his outreach efforts with hospital visits.
"What drives me is doing something good," Okoye said. "Doing what we do, seeing the kids happy and running around with other athletes I believe that when you succeed, there were people along the way who helped you. I know that was the case for me."
At age 46, Okoye's ambition remains as strong as his name recognition in Kansas City.
"I never really understood his celebrity until I went back to Kansas City with him for an event," Eddie Lange said. "I was amazed. People still genuinely have admiration for him. The fans seek him out more than any other retired player."
It is his iconic status that allows Okoye to follow his heart. Born August 16, 1961, Okoye grew up in Nigeria in poor conditions. He dreamed of fame and fortune, but opportunities were few. He remembers having athletes as role models when he was growing up.
"When I was in Nigeria, we didn't have professional athletes coming out to clinics or visit schools, it just didn't happen," Okoye said. "I wanted to give to kids what I didn't have."
Okoye came to the United States in 1982 to compete in track and field at Azusa Pacific University in California. His imposing strength and size led him to football. The chance to compete in sports opened up the classroom for him.
Through sports, Okoye hopes to inspire a generation of young people whom he sees as neglected and often without hope.
"Sports can be the ticket for getting them out of where they are at," Okoye said. "Sometimes in the inner city, the kids only know that environment. We try to bring them out, show them what it is like to have dreams."
Kristian R. Dyer is the associate editor of Blitz Magazine and writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.