Nigerian Nightmare: The legend lives on, 30 years later

Bigger than a linebacker, and with the speed of a man 50 pounds lighter, Christian Okoye was the last thing defensive backs wanted to see coming directly at them. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

These weren't quite the NFL's dark ages, but believing in legends was easier back in 1987 than it would be in today's world of comprehensive coverage.

TV viewers were just beginning to see live scores for out-of-market NFL games with the unveiling of a "10 Minute Ticker" on NBC. Fans seeking to learn more about players could hope for a feature story to appear in newspapers, magazines or on TV. Another eight years would pass before ESPN.com arrived. NFL RedZone was 22 years away.

By the time Christian Okoye made his way from the discus rings of Enugu, Nigera, to the backfield at Azusa Pacific University and onto the NFL's radar as a physically dynamic curiosity with only two years of football experience, he might as well have been 10 feet tall instead of his listed 6-foot-1. A 260-pound prodigy with 4.45-second speed in the 40-yard dash and Olympic-caliber credentials in the discus, Okoye would become the Nigerian Nightmare.

"Back then, we relied on legends," former Broncos and Seahawks linebacker Dave Wyman said. "When we played Marcus Dupree in college, you couldn't really see highlights of him unless you watched the game film. You heard all these stories about how he was like a pro football player playing high school football. Okoye fell into that category where the legend around the NFL sort of built around him. You remember how it was described to you -- even his nickname, the Nigerian Nightmare -- and there was exaggeration."

The truth would have sufficed.

A 1987 Sports Illustrated story noted that Okoye threw the discus 212 feet, 4 inches, which would have placed seventh in the 1988 Olympics. He long-jumped 23 feet, 10 inches, which would have placed 20th at the 2017 NCAA outdoor meet. Okoye, sporting a 34-inch waist and 28-inch thighs, squatted 725 pounds, benched 405 and power-cleaned 395 before stepping into an NFL weight room for the first time as a second-round choice.

Thirty years after Okoye flashed onto the NFL scene, his legend endures among those old enough to remember. Okoye rushed for 4,897 yards and 40 touchdowns over six seasons for Marty Schottenheimer's ball-control Kansas City Chiefs, producing one spectacular season and a few good ones before his body, indestructible as it appeared when equipped with shoulder pads on loan from a Transformers action figure, could withstand no more.

Deron Cherry: 'Christian, step on the scale'

Cherry was a 1980s All-Decade Second Team free safety with six Pro Bowls, three All-Pro selections and 50 interceptions from 1981 to '91. In the 14 starts he made against Denver, the Chiefs limited John Elway to nine touchdown passes with 24 interceptions.

"Back in the day, everyone started talking about big 300-pound linemen. Christian was sitting there in the locker room right before a game one day and I was like, 'Christian, step on the scale.' We had one of those big scales. He's got his helmet, shoulder pads, everything. He steps on the scale and the dude was 300 frickin' pounds! And I said, 'You gotta be kidding me.'

"They get into the fourth quarter or late in the third quarter and Marty is just handing him the ball. These linebackers are getting pounded by these legitimate 300-pound linemen who are probably weighing 340, 350 with all their pads and equipment on, and then you got a 300-pound running back running 4.45 in the 40 coming through and hitting you right behind them. By the fourth quarter, they don't even want to tackle him anymore."

Bruce Arians: 'Our whole sideline was, Ooooooh'

Current Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was the Chiefs' running backs coach from 1989 to '92, a period for which Okoye ranked fifth in rushing yards and third in rushing touchdowns behind Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. It didn't take Arians long to figure out how much football Okoye had to learn -- or how devastating Okoye could be.

"We were having a meeting and we had rules for 3-4 and a 4-3 [defensive alignments] -- these were your passing assignments, who you blocked on pass plays. Christian waited 'til everybody left and he said, 'Coach, what is a 4-3 and a 3-4?' Great question, dude. Good thing you asked! That happened real early with us together. Then I knew what I had to do to teach and make sure he was ready. No one studied it harder. What a joy he was to coach.

"I think it might have been Ronnie Lott who got him pretty good on a cutback and we said, 'We are going to run that again, he is going to fill that same hole and you have to drop your shoulder on him.' And we had old, hard AstroTurf in Kansas City at the time. Christian bounced Ronnie off that AstroTurf and our whole sideline was, Ooooooh. They loved watching him run."

Lloyd Burruss: 'It was beautiful'

Burruss started 103 games for the Chiefs as a strong safety from 1981 to '91, earning Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors in 1986, when he picked off future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts three times in one quarter, returning two of them for touchdowns during a wild 42-41 victory.

"Christian and Barry Word, they were something. They were a blessing to us on defense. In the NFL, all those games come down to the wire, and it was just great to be able to sit on the bench and watch your two big boys and that offense just run the clock out, first down after first down. It was beautiful. I chewed tobacco at that time. When we would run that four-minute offense, I would always put a pinch in, knowing we wouldn't have to go back on the field.

"There was a psychological effect on defenses -- even the Raiders, which was our super rival. Marty Schottenheimer couldn't stand the Raiders. We just game-planned it that way and said, 'Look, we are going to get that ball at the end of the game and we are going to run it, make them jump offsides, things like that.' Really, after three quarters and heading into the fourth, I think guys were very wary of having to tackle that guy, mentally and physically."

Dave Wyman: 'He was just a fricking monster'

Wyman started 83 games at inside linebacker for Seattle and Denver from 1987 to '95. He tackled Okoye six times during a 1989 Seahawks-Chiefs game that saw the Nigerian Nightmare carry the ball 37 times, including seven carries during a nine-play opening drive to a touchdown -- a drive that ended with Okoye carrying four straight times from the Seattle 25-yard line in.

"I have to give myself up and my pride to talk about Christian Okoye. He got me in shape to do radio. They had a huge offensive line back in those days, too, and they had Barry Word, who wasn't much smaller than Okoye. The left tackle, John Alt, was 6-foot-8. They had Dave Szott, who was a really good Pro Bowl-caliber guard. If you got a stalemate and were able to get off a block, here comes 260 pounds running fast. Okoye was just a fricking monster.

"I met him after we retired and found that he is just the sweetest guy in the world. I wish I had known that. I felt like psychologically it would have made it easier."

John Elway: 'That is the best hit I've ever seen in my life'

Okoye's upright running style meant he could be vulnerable to taking big hits, not just dishing them out. The one he took from Broncos safety Steve Atwater during a Monday Night Football matchup in 1990 season became one of the more iconic hits in league history, simply because it was so shocking to see anyone rock Okoye.

"You are talking about a guy that was 260 pounds and he was a monster -- big. Back in those days, everyone looked bigger because we actually wore shoulder pads, right? Nobody wears shoulder pads anymore. So, he even looked bigger. I always loved Steve Atwater and I thought he was a great player, but when I saw him come up and knock the dog out of him, I absolutely say that is the best hit I've ever seen in my life. To have a guy come up and lay out his body knowing he is going to hit a 260-pounder that was just rolling. ... That is what I remember."

Steve DeBerg: 'You punish yourself, too'

DeBerg spent the 1988-91 seasons with Kansas City as part of an 18-season career spanning 1978-93, plus a stint with Atlanta in 1998, when he was 44. In 1990, with Barry Word rushing for 1,015 yards and Okoye gaining 805, DeBerg threw 23 touchdown passes with only four interceptions while averaging a league-leading 7.6 adjusted net yards per attempt.

"Christian actually intimidated and punished defenses. Defensive linemen were OK with hitting him, and he was bigger than linebackers. Defensive backs absolutely did not want to have anything to do with him. He was just an extremely physical runner who had extraordinary speed for the size that he was. He was different. He was kind of like Earl Campbell, that style. He did punish the defense, but in the process, you punish yourself, too. Steve Atwater got famous for hitting him when Christian was off-balance. For a defensive back to actually stop him in place was extremely rare."

Steve Atwater: '[The hit] had nothing to do with his demise'

Atwater was an eight-time Pro Bowl free safety for the Broncos and a 1990s All-Decade First Team choice. The thunderous hit he delivered on Okoye in a 1990 Monday Night Football game was cast as the play that hastened Okoye's demise, but Okoye carried 23 times for 122 yards and a touchdown the next week. Okoye played more games after the hit than before it. He was 31 and breaking down physically when he played his final game on Dec. 27, 1992.

"We had certainly heard about [Okoye] and we watched quite a bit of film leading up to the games when we played them. Dennis Smith and I, we were developing as a nice safety tandem at the time and we viewed it as a challenge, like, 'Hey, we are supposed to be pretty good and he is supposed to be pretty good, too, so are we going to be up to the task?' We got fired up when we played against the Chiefs. His reputation certainly preceded him.

"The truth about the hit I put on him is that it had nothing to do with his demise. He and his wife had a child that passed away [shortly before camp in 1990]. My heart went out to him for that and still goes out to him. If he had continued playing for another 4-5 years and continued to be the bruising back and running over anybody, I don't think that hit would have stood out nearly as much as it does now, because people think he retired after I hit him, which was not the case."

Cherry: 'That was misrepresented'

If you watch the Atwater hit closely, you'll notice Okoye hopping and then landing before the collision, which could help explain why Okoye was on the wrong side of the equation.

"The one thing I guess everybody talks about is the hit, all the folks in Denver do, about this amazing hit that Steve Atwater put on Christian. We watched it and that is a little different hit if Christian had both his feet on the ground. He was jumping over somebody and it just happened that Atwater came up and hit him at the right time. It would be a lot different story if he had both feet on the ground because he probably would have run him over."

Christian Okoye: 'I couldn't feel the right side of my face'

Marty Schottenheimer collected 200 victories as a head coach, many fitting the formula Kansas City used to beat Mike Ditka's 1990 Bears, who were 7-0 at home entering this December game at Soldier Field. The Chiefs possessed the ball for 41 minutes with a power running attack and DeBerg's magical sleight of hand in the play-action game, while their defense held Chicago to 5-of-23 passing. Okoye closed out the victory with 16 carries in the Chiefs' final 23 scrimmage plays. One carry still resonates as perhaps the biggest hit Okoye delivered (or took).

"I was running a stretch play to my left side. Richard Dent comes around. I have to get my first down, right? I saw him coming, lowered my shoulder and we collided really, really hard. He fell this way, I fell that way. I got up, I couldn't feel the right side of my face. We never spoke about it until I believe it was Super Bowl weekend two years ago. Somebody just asked him, 'What was the worst hit you took?' He pointed at me. And when he pointed at me, I remembered!

"I said, 'Man, that was mine, too.' He got up and couldn't find the huddle. I couldn't feel the right side of my body. Steve DeBerg called the same play again because we were successful, and I said, 'No, no, Steve, we gotta change it.' He asked me if I was OK. I told him I was all right, but I couldn't run the ball right then. He changed it to a pass play. Richard came back to me and said, 'Man, I'm so glad you guys didn't run the ball again.' I said, 'Guess what? I had to change it.' "

Burruss: 'A gentle giant and a really super, super nice guy'

"On the field, I don't think the league has seen anything quite as big and as fast. Just a super athlete. He threw the discus. He ran track. Most of the football players played as young kids all the way up through, but not him.

"Off the field, he was just a gentle giant and a really super, super nice guy. He kind of halfway called himself a cook. We lived in the same apartment complex for a while. I'm a hunter and I like venison and wild game, rabbits and wild turkey and things like that. I always got teased by people like [cornerback] Kevin Ross because I hunted. Kevin is from the city looking at me like, 'What, you hunt?' He once put raw T-bone steaks in the helmets of all the guys on the team who hunted and said it was because we don't ever shoot anything.

"Well, Christian ate goat. He said he would cook some for me. I think he made a stew. I had never had it, and I don't think I will have it anymore. Let's just leave it at that. [big laughter] I just wasn't used to that. But what a great guy."

Cherry: 'Eventually it takes a toll on you'

Okoye had five games with at least 30 carries during the 1989 season, making him one of nine players in league history to have so many 30-plus games in one season, all since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Earl Campbell, Jamal Anderson, Eddie George and Larry Johnson each did it twice. Curtis Martin, John Riggins, Emmitt Smith, James Wilder and Okoye did it once. Those nine backs averaged 230 pounds by their listed weights.

"Today, if you don't throw the ball or have a quarterback to throw the ball, you are not going to win because of how the rules are set up. Marty believed in physicality and wearing a team down offensively by running the ball. Steve DeBerg was our quarterback and even though 'Bergie' was good throwing the ball down the field, he was really good at play-action pass. And if you had a good running game with the play-action pass, you could really make your offense go.

"That was an era where everybody had big backs. Earl Campbell, Chuck Muncie, Eric Dickerson. I can remember playing against the Chargers and they had Marion Butts and Rod Bernstine, and of all the people that I hit in my entire life, the guy I hit the hardest and it hurt the hardest was Rod Bernstine. He was supposed to be the next prototype of Kellen Winslow when he came into the league out of Texas A&M, a tight end. He was a load.

"Christian had the size, but you talk about 30 carries and you're getting hit by guys that are just as big as you or bigger [with fewer nickel defenses], eventually it takes a toll on you. I don't care who you are."