How Christian Okoye is still making an impact 30 years after his debut

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Thirty seasons ago, Christian Okoye blasted his way into pro football lore by rushing for 105 yards -- including a 43-yard touchdown burst -- in his first NFL game. From 1987 to '92, Okoye was one of the league's best running backs for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was power and speed -- at 260 pounds he ran a 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, faster than Jerry Rice or Michael Irvin -- packaged in enormous shoulder pads.

Plus, he had that nickname.

The Nigerian Nightmare -- a label affixed by Chiefs teammate Irv Eatman -- was the AFC Offensive Player of the Year and an All-Pro in 1989, when he led the NFL in carries (370) and rushing yards (1,480). Despite injuries that ate into his playing time and shortened his career, Okoye was a two-time Pro Bowler and twice ran for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

"It was, 'Look out, world, here comes the Nigerian Nightmare,'" Eatman said about his reaction to seeing Okoye run over defenders in practice and exhibitions.

While his impact on the field, and opposing tacklers, was substantial, a quarter century after he retired, Okoye's greatest legacy might be as a pioneer who blazed a trail as the NFL's first Nigerian-born non-kicker. Thirty-five players with Nigerian roots were with NFL teams in training camps this summer, and dozens more have played in the league in the three decades since Okoye's debut.

His name continues to resonate with Nigerian-American players, who see him as the link between their community and their sport.

Okoye says he knew nothing about American football in 1982 when he arrived at Azusa Pacific University in the Los Angeles area. A sprinter and thrower in high school in Nigeria, he became a multiple NAIA All-American in the shot put, discus and hammer. Though he ranked as Nigeria's top discus thrower, he wasn't selected to the 1984 Olympic team. It was then, at age 23, he decided to try football. Three seasons later -- after learning the game's rules and how to read a playbook, block and catch -- the Chiefs took him in the second round of the 1987 draft.

"We thought he was almost too good to be true," said Jim Schaaf, the Chiefs' general manager at the time. "Our personnel people said this kid's got everything. He's got the size, he's got the speed, he's got the intelligence, he's got the character."

Okoye remembers how some analysts called him "a project." He quickly proved them wrong.

Retired defensive end Adewale Ogunleye calls Okoye "the godfather" of football for Nigerian-Americans. "He's a legend. A legend," Ogunleye said. "Like folklore."

Ogunleye was born and raised in New York City, and he says his parents -- like many Nigerian immigrants -- had a laser focus on education.

Ogunleye was 10 when Okoye made his NFL debut, and by the time he was in high school, the Okoye name was famous. For kids his age, Ogunleye said, "Christian was 'That Guy.'"

"The No. 1 way to be successful in Nigerian culture is to really make your name a proud name," said Ogunleye, a Pro Bowler in 2003. "You become a lawyer, become a doctor. That's how you did it. If you can get that 'Dr.' in front of your name, you were looked at in a higher light.

"What Christian was able to do was spin that to where if you can make it in American sports, American football -- and a lot of credit's got to go to [Hakeem] Olajuwon, too, on the basketball side -- that last name, you're able to give it some recognition, it really gave parents [the idea] to give their kids some leeway to play the sport."

When Ogunleye's parents learned he could earn a college scholarship for football, they let him play as long as he kept up his grades. He went on to get a Bachelor of Arts and master's degree and play 10 NFL seasons with the Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears and Houston Texans.

"You have to give him credit for opening the eyes of the Nigerian community to this sport," Ogunleye said.

Lou Ayeni, associate head coach/running game coordinator at Iowa State, grew up in Minnesota and was 11 when Okoye retired. He went on to play at Northwestern as a running back and safety and had a brief NFL career before going into coaching. He has recruited and coached numerous Nigerian-Americans and believes Okoye paved their way.

"When my parents would have their friends over with their kids, and we'd go to their houses, it was 'the Nigerian Nightmare, the Nigerian Nightmare!' and we'd go play football in the yard," Ayeni said. "It was a sense of pride. You felt so much inspiration, to us all, just because you see a guy like you."

His parents' priorities for him were school and soccer, but that changed.

"[Okoye] became a big deal and football became OK," he said. "He was the guy where everybody's talking about, 'You need to be like him. Go play football.'"

Emmanuel Acho, a former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker whose brother Sam plays for the Bears, is part of the younger generation influenced by Okoye. Acho, 26, never saw Okoye play, yet he grew up knowing about him. When he set up his first email account his address included the phrase "nigeriannightmare."

"I think every Nigerian-American -- especially so many players I played with in college and in the pros -- is aware of Christian Okoye and what he meant to the game," Acho said.

It was never Okoye's intent to lead others into the game, but he's loved seeing the parade of Nigerian-American talent, meeting younger players and learning he helped inspire them.

"Some of them told me," he said. "Some of them tried to reach me. I've seen a lot of their interviews, and they referred to me, which gives me great pleasure."

At 56, Okoye is a busy man, living in Rancho Cucamonga and focused on the work of his Christian Okoye Foundation (in its 27th year) and the California Sports Hall of Fame, which he founded.

His foundation helps kids use sports as a vehicle to pursue educational and life goals. He expanded the program to Nigeria several years ago and has made two trips to his birth country this year. The California Sports Hall of Fame has been inducting classes since 2007, but there's still no building. So, there's fundraising and event planning to be done. Also, since retirement, he's invested in an independent baseball league and a health and nutritional supplements company and appeared on reality TV shows such as "Pirate Master," "Pros vs. Joes" and a celebrity boxing event.

During football season he always carves out time to watch "my Chiefs," who host the Washington Redskins on Monday night.

Despite all the pounding he took and the multiple injuries he suffered -- he had surgeries on his neck, shoulder and knees -- Okoye says he feels good. He plays golf and tries to stay active for both physical and mental fitness.

"Still standing, walking around, breathing," he said. "I thank God for that. I see a lot of guys who are not doing so well, but that goes with the game. If you play long enough, you'll have some issues."

It was those issues that forced his retirement. After rushing for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in a Pro Bowl season in 1991, Okoye's production dropped to just 144 carries and 448 yards in 1992. He says his whole body hurt when that season ended. He knew it was time.

"If I had played one more year, I don't know if I'd still be walking today," he said.

Okoye's reach as an influential NFL star is long, but it doesn't extend in the same way to his homeland.

In Nigeria, soccer is king. American football is a distant and mysterious game. Okoye says when he works with children through his foundation there, most have no idea who he is. But he and some Nigerian-American players have demonstrated the sport there, and he would love for kids to learn the game. He has plans to start a flag-football league as a way to introduce the game.

"It will be easier to put in football after that," he said. "That's what the plan is."