Amobi Okoye is getting his ass chewed.
The Louisville Cardinals are fresh off their first loss of the 2006 season, and Bobby Petrino thinks his players have loafed through this long, brutal workout. He also thinks it's Okoye's responsibility to fix it. Staring into the
19-year-old's maple eyes, he yells, "You're not doing your damn job!"
Okoye gets an earful about being too timid and too relaxed and not getting in the grills of his teammates like a damn captain should. Minutes later, Okoye calls a meeting. But when he starts to scream at his almost 60 'mates -- nearly all of them older than he is -- Okoye does something he's never done before. He stutters.
WE'VE SEEN precociousness in almost every major sport. Gretzky, Kobe, A-Rod, Tiger. But we've never seen it in the NFL. The clause in the league's collective bargaining agreement that says a player has to be three years removed from high school to be draft-eligible is ironclad; the Supreme Court says so (just ask Maurice Clarett). But at 19, an age when most kids are just a year out of high school, Okoye is poised to become the youngest player drafted in the first round since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger. Not because he has the brightest lawyers, mind you, but, well,
because he's just plain bright. Twice before high school, he skipped grades. Now this Nigeria-born defensive tackle is set to defy the notion that teenagers have no place in the grown man's NFL.
Then again, Okoye is a grown man. A potentially still-growing one, in fact. He's 6'2'' now, but he could be 6'4'' in a couple of years. If he's currently 295, maybe his ideal playing weight is 310 or 320. Say his speed improves: Should he be kept at tackle or moved to end? Or will he take snaps at both? "His age is only a positive," says Eric DeCosta, the Ravens director of college scouting. "In two years, he can be
"Okoye has a pro's football knowledge, a senior's body and a freshman's age," says one NFC GM.
Of course, this being the draft, scouts are as skeptical of Okoye as they are enamored of him. During interviews with him at February's combine, GMs poked for holes. They questioned Okoye's confidence: "Are you sure you're ready to go against grown men like Larry Allen?" Okoye wished he could have replied, "No. I'm only 19 -- give me a few years." But he said yes, unblinkingly. Some scouts even questioned the validity of his age, protecting themselves against a gridiron Almonte by suggesting Okoye is a "Nigerian 19." So Okoye offered to show them a birth certificate. He made his point. Says one NFC GM: "Okoye has a pro's football knowledge, a senior's body and a freshman's age."
Ask GMs about the dangers of drafting a 19-year-old, and they say it depends on what kind of 19-year-old you're talking about. Okoye happens to be the kind they love: college graduate. Doesn't need help computing compound interest on his contract. Rolls without a posse. "I've always wanted to be a role model," Okoye says. "And being drafted will mean a lot because of my age. No one has done it before, so I want to try." If he plays a down on the season's opening Sunday, he'll be the youngest in league history to have done so.
Unlike another teenage wonder, Greg Oden, Okoye actually looks his age. When he smiles and his eyes narrow joyfully, there are no surrounding folds. His teeth are disturbingly pristine. He's not past the occasional zit cream purchase. He has patched together a thin, transparent mustache and some spotty chin hair, which barely help him look older.
But most 19-year-olds haven't latched onto a Latin word he says speaks to his essence: invictus, or unconquered. Most aren't nicknamed Phe, short for phenom. And most don't have the chutzpah to put their career on par with that of their generation's premier prodigy. "LeBron was the old phenom, maybe I'm the new one," Okoye says. "We're going to go from King James to Phe."
OKOYE WAS born in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. His mother, Edna, brought him to the school she worked at as a principal because she couldn't find a reliable baby-sitter. At 2, Okoye sat in a first-grade classroom, learning how to read. He picked up math and sciences quickly, too, and years later, he tested out of sixth grade. In 1999, Edna, Amobi and two older siblings immigrated to Huntsville, Ala., where his father, Augustine, had been living for two years. When Amobi was assigned to the eighth grade, he protested and, with his parents' support, argued that he had already completed all of his junior high requirements in Nigeria and therefore belonged in high school. After 12-year-old Okoye passed an aptitude test, he was given two weeks at Lee High to prove himself. Amobi interrupted one algebra class to show the teacher an easier way to solve an equation. He was allowed to stay.
With his sixth-grade face, though, Amobi looked nothing like a freshman. And with his prepubescent interests, he didn't act like one, either. He hated that there was no recess to play hopscotch and that no one else was into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. After his first day of school, he came home, sat down to dinner with his family and said, "Whoa, this is different." He wondered how he'd fit in, how he'd make friends. Of course, those are things every high school freshman worries about, but Amobi happened to be two years younger than his classmates and adjusting to life in a new country.
So his older sister Chioma and his older brother Arinze gave him some advice: Reach out. And he did -- despite a thick Nigerian accent the other kids couldn't always decipher and a name they regularly butchered. "He learned to be proactive," says Chioma. "His way of dealing was not to sit in the corner."
At the time, Amobi's chubby build -- 5'9'', 190 -- didn't cry "athletic prodigy." But Greg Campbell, an assistant football coach and a substitute English teacher, saw a potential lineman and invited Okoye to a spring weightlifting session during his freshman year. When Okoye arrived, Campbell gave him a copy of Madden and asked him to hit the PlayStation, not to mention the weight room and the track.
Okoye was still looking for any way in, so when Campbell asked if he was related to former Chiefs star Christian Okoye, the Nigerian Nightmare, Amobi said yes, even though he wasn't. But before long Amobi was thriving, his strength in the weight room obvious. Soon his classmates stopped seeing him as just a brainy 12-year-old and started to recognize him as a peer.
By August, Okoye's quick hands, good balance and natural strength could no longer be concealed underneath his baby fat. Seeing a star in the making, coaches rode him hard in practice. "He was so good, I'd forget his age," Campbell says. "Then I'd step back and say, 'I'm yelling at a 13-year-old.' "
The more he yelled, though, the more Amobi responded, his still-changing voice squeaking whenever he collided with an opponent. When the coaches asked him to get stronger, he stayed late in the weight room, then made them buy him chocolate milk when they drove him home. Okoye started to see that his age wasn't something to overcome. It was a gift.
The summer before his senior year, he went to Louisville's football camp, which most of Lee's players attended. Mike Cox, then a Cardinals assistant, saw a kid who didn't own a razor and who could recite logarithms on a whim, whipping the older offensive linemen. Cox waved over another Louisville coach, who waved over another, and soon the entire staff circled to watch. When practice ended, Cox draped his arm over Amobi's pads and offered him a scholarship. "You're phenomenal," the coach said. "You're a phenom."
The words were less a compliment than a revelation. "It was breathtaking," Okoye says. "It was like, If they recognize me as a phenom, I guess it's what I am."
A few months later, Okoye read a cover story in a prep sports magazine about a hoops prodigy from Akron. Coupled with what Cox had said, everything suddenly fell into place. "I thought about him a lot, him being young too," he says of LeBron. "I thought, I can be the youngest player in the NFL."
From the moment he stepped onto the Louisville campus, "he took pride in being a phenom," according to defensive coordinator Mike Cassity. It drove him as he moved from fourth to second on the depth chart as a 16-year-old freshman and when he was frozen out by older players. And it drove him when he dined alone at Applebee's while other players hit the clubs. But it didn't stop him from calling home to Huntsville to complain about missing the camaraderie of high school. "It was hard for Amobi," says Cardinals cornerback Malik Jackson, one of Okoye's best friends. "There was some animosity toward him."
Once again, Okoye reached out, bonding with the freshmen and sophomores who'd witnessed the way he weathered the upperclassmen's resentment -- and lent a hand when their homework got too tough. And, of course, he overachieved: He dropped a biology major for psychology so he could graduate a semester early. By his senior year, Okoye had become such a popular Cardinal in the locker room and around campus that
players voted him a team captain.
Okoye pushed harder. As a 312-pound junior, he was known more as a run-stopper than a pass-rusher. A year later, he had dropped to 295 and vowed scouts would never be able to criticize his intensity or his ability to collapse pockets. In the fourth quarter against Wake Forest in January's Orange Bowl, Okoye dug under the Deacons' right guard, driving him seven yards backward, before sacking Riley Skinner. A few minutes later,
despite the Cardinals being up 24-13 with 11 seconds left, Okoye raced 25 yards downfield after a completed pass to make the tackle. It was the last play of his last game in a season that elevated him to a potential top-10 pick, and it was, as usual, phenomenal.
"He's not your typical 19-year-old," says Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt. But then he raises the concern of every team thinking of drafting Okoye. "There's no easy answer as to how he'll fit in. You can only look at how he's handled himself."
You can, in fact, look at what happened when he tried to dress down his team at that November practice. When their captain's words escaped him, all the other Cardinals went quiet for a minute. Then they sauntered over to his locker -- and burst out laughing. They did impressions of him and let him know the moment would be retold over and over.
And guess what? Okoye laughed too.
Can Okoye make a LeBron-like impression on the NFL? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.