Christian Okoye is a native of Nigeria and former running back for the Kansas City Chiefs. He attended Azusa Pacific University before playing six seasons for the Chiefs (1987-92), where he broke records for number of rushing yards, bore the title of National Football League Running Back of the Year (1989), won many awards and made multiple appearances in the Pro Bowl (1989, 1991).
Christian Okoye, center, uses his NFL experience playing for the Kansas City Chiefs to bring attention to his foundation to help students in education and sports.
In 1990, Okoye started a foundation in his name to aid underprivileged children through education and sports. He also does motivational speaking and hosts free athletic clinics. Below is an edited transcript of a conversation between Roman Gabriel III and Okoye about football, faith and a current NFL controversy.
Q: When did you start playing football?
A: I did not try out for football until I was in college at Azusa Pacific. I was working so hard in track to make the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I attended college near Los Angeles at Azusa Pacific so that I could get training to prepare for the Olympics. That was my goal, so I worked extremely hard. I trained hard and I made my mark. I was the discus thrower back then, and I was competing against the best in the world. But when the Olympics came around, for some reason, Nigeria left me off the team. It was a big blow. But because of my size, speed and strength, a bunch of coaches and friends wanted me to go out for football.
Q: How surprised were you that a large American college (Azusa Pacific) wanted you, a guy who had never played football?
A: Well, because I had never played or experienced football, I didn’t want to play. But coming off the big disappointment of not making it to the Olympics, I decided to give it a chance. I realized that my opportunity at track and field had passed me by, so that’s why I decided to go play football. I was surprised by the amount of support I received from my fellow teammates and coaches, never having played the game. Everyone was encouraging me, and I was blessed by God, and so here I am.
Q: Wouldn’t any coach – with a 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound guy, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds – be extremely excited to have you on his team?
A: Coach told me that he didn’t want to pressure me to play football, and one day I walked into his office, sat down and told him that I wanted to come out for the team. It was so funny; he asked me “What position would you like?” Of course, I had no idea about what position to play in football. I had seen a guy in the last Super Bowl run 70 yards with the football for a touchdown, and that was Marcus Allen when the Raiders beat the Redskins in 1982. I asked the coach what position Allen was playing. He said running back, and I replied that’s what I want to play.
Christian Okoye spent six seasons playing for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Q: Of course, the rest is history. You went on to the NFL to have a successful career with the Kansas City Chiefs. How did the nickname “The Nigerian Nightmare” come about?
A: That started in practice. The coaches were always telling us to give 100 percent, full speed. Being a rookie, trying to prove myself and make the team, I was going full speed at everything and knocking people over.
It was our big offensive tackle, Irv Eatman, who named me the “Nigerian Nightmare.” It picked up from there, especially after he told ESPN about the nickname.
Q: How did the people respond in Nigeria, your home country, to your incredible success with the Chiefs?
A: Everyone was happy and knew my name, because they saw the TV coverage with the Chiefs. I think it really took off when the NFL Network traveled to Nigeria to do a story. They talked to my former coaches in my old high school, and that story really took off. Nigerian parents began to put their kids in to Pop Warner Football. And that has been a blessing, as it has caused many Nigerians to play college football and to play in the NFL now.
Q: You went on to be the NFL American Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year as a running back for the Chiefs. How awesome is it to see how your platform has impacted so many people’s lives?
A: Yes, I have been trying to establish the game of football for many years in Nigeria. Of course, soccer is huge in Nigeria. In a small Texas-sized country, we have 175 million people living there. Football, baseball and basketball have been introduced to Nigeria, and for the last five years I’ve been working hard to introduce football, in particular. Since contact football is a very expensive sport, we have tried to introduce flag football so kids can get an idea of what football is about and learn the rules and so on.
Q: You have been such a strong Christian athlete, and have been such an influence in Nigeria, but has your foundation had a big impact in your home place of Southern California?
A: Yes, I’ve been working with the Christian Okoye Foundation for 27 years to get the kids in tough situations in life to change their outlook and to look at their life’s goals, and to set goals. We use football and soccer clinics as tools, and bring out professional athletes – active and retired – as strong role models to speak to the kids. It’s so cool to see kids that we have worked with, now as working as business and community leaders.
Q: What is your opinion on the kneeling protests?
A: Unfortunately politics has been brought into the game of football. When Collin Kaepernick (former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers) started kneeling down for the pre-game national anthem, everybody was upset and nobody knew why he was doing that. He began to speak out about police brutality towards black people – that’s the one side. But on the other hand, you’re going to rub a lot of people wrong. There’s a bunch of guys that have been in the military. My friends have had their arms and legs blown out, and their whole body burnt. These are my friends, people that I hang out with and try to help. Those guys are hurt when they see this on TV. There’s got to be a middle ground where people can come together and talk about dealing with this. Now, it is just making a lot of people upset. We know what has happened, but there has to be a time for action. That’s where I am at.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Roman Gabriel III is an evangelist and motivational speaker. Visit the Faith Family Sports website: fspn.net. Hear his Sold Out Sports Talk Radio program on American Family Radio in 200 cities nationally or streaming live at afr.net. Visit his website: soldouttv.com; Facebook: Roman Gabriel III; connect on Twitter: @romangabriel3rd. Contact at (910) 431-6483 or email: [email protected].)