A Bruiser from Azusa

Christian Okoye, a 25-year-old sleeper out of Nigeria and Azusa Pacific, has NFL scouts agog
April 26, 1987

The six men from Nigeria are packed into the studio apartment at Azusa Pacific University, 25 miles from Los Angeles, speaking in their native Ibo tongue and dancing to Afro rock songs.

Christian Okoye, 25, from Enugu, Nigeria, who is Africa's best discus thrower and America's best small-college running back, stands over the kitchen stove, stirring a dish called fufu. It is a pungent Nigerian stew made of beef, smoked fish, spinach, tomatoes, a dash of red pepper and lots of pureed okra.

Into a pot of boiling water, Okoye (pronounced oh-KOY-yea) dumps half a bag of flour. Up bubbles a gigantic mound of dough. The dough is used to mop the fufu off the plate. It is inappropriate to eat fufu any other way.

Okoye believes in this delicacy the same way Popeye believes in his spinach. A little more than a year ago Okoye claimed that in the 35-pound-weight throw he couldn't go farther than 54 feet. Then, just before the Los Angeles Times indoor track meet on Feb. 21, 1986, Okoye says, he devoured a big batch of fufu. Ta-da. His top throw that night was a personal best 69'1¾".

"After each throw, Christian would shout, 'Can you see what fufu is doing?' " countryman Innocent Egbunike, a world-class runner in the 400 meters, says, laughing. "Pretty soon, every athlete at Azusa Pacific was on his doorstep, begging to try the stuff."

Okoye is one of the most intriguing and multitalented candidates for the NFL's collegiate draft, which this year is on April 28. He holds the African record in the discus (212'4") and is a 17-time NAIA All-America in the discus, shot put and the 35-pound-weight and hammer throws. Three years ago, he took up football after having seen the sport only a few times on American television. He twice became an NAIA first-team All-America.

Last season Okoye averaged more rushing yards per game (186.7) than any college runner in the nation. In the Senior Bowl, with dozens of NFL bird dogs watching, he scored a record four touchdowns, leading the South to a 42-38 come-from-behind victory, and was his team's outstanding offensive player.

Okoye's physical and athletic skills are breathtaking. At 6'3", 255 pounds, he runs the 40 in 4.45 seconds. He has a 35-inch vertical leap and can long-jump 23'10". Strength? Okoye bench-presses 405 pounds and power-cleans 395. He squats an amazing 725 pounds, making him one of the most powerful football players anywhere, college or pro.

All this from a body with a 34-inch waist and 28-inch thighs. The Ultimate NFL Big Body.

"Christian is one of the best big athletes in the world," says Dr. Terry Franson, who has coached the Azusa Pacific track team to four straight NAIA championships.

It's because of prospects like Okoye, who have overwhelming rèsumès but limited experience, that NFL teams budget roughly $750,000 annually for collegiate scouting. The Bills and Redskins have already visited Okoye three times each this spring. On one recent day, the Azusa Pacific practice field looked like a cattle auction, with Okoye prancing around for scouts from the Bengals, Colts, Raiders, Steelers, Dolphins, Jets and Buccaneers. The Oilers flew him to Houston for a closer look.

NFL teams have wildly different opinions about Okoye. "I don't think he'll go later than the second round," says Dick Steinberg, the New England Patriots director of player personnel. "He's behind in experience, but he makes up for it with so much ability. There are never a lot of big backs in any draft. He's a commodity."

Says Ernie Accorsi of the Cleveland Browns, "Okoye is a bull fullback with halfback speed. He could be a first-rounder.... I don't worry about his age. The NFL life expectancy of a running back is five years.... He'll have younger, fresher legs than every other running back his age."

Others are not so sure if Okoye can make it, classifying him as a "project player," a middle-to-late-round pick who will need at least two years of tutoring before becoming an NFL starter.

"We've all got to be careful," says George Young, the New York Giants general manager. "Are we becoming too imaginative in the draft? Are we trying to make guys into players?"

Says Reed Johnson, head of player personnel for Denver, "Think of the acceleration from Azusa Pacific to playing against the Raiders! What a shock." Especially for someone who fumbled 26 times in 28 games at Azusa.

Okoye grew up in Enugu (pop. 800,000), in eastern Nigeria. His father, Benedict Ike, now 63, was in the military. His mother, Cecilia, died of a stroke at 48, two years before her son left for the United States. The fifth of seven children, Okoye goes by the nickname "Cho-Cho."

"When I first got here, I couldn't cope," Okoye says. "I'd wake up at night, calling out for my mother. I'd lie there and cry, trying to be quiet.

"I moved into an apartment with Innocent and two other fellows. We ate fufu, played music and talked about life in Enugu."

The Okoye family belongs to the Ibo tribe. When Cho-Cho was six, Ibo insurgents seceded from Nigeria and established the Republic of Biafra. Four of Okoye's uncles fought in the resulting civil war, from 1967 to '70. "People carried machine guns in the streets," Okoye says. "I used to hide in my grandfather's basement." After the defeat of Biafra, the Okoyes were spared, but the Ibo are still sometimes discriminated against.

At the Uwani Secondary School, Okoye played on the volleyball, soccer and handball teams. He was also a table tennis fanatic and ran hurdles and threw the discus. When he was 17, he caught the eye of Patrick Anukwa, a Nigerian state track coach, while throwing the discus in the state meet.

"Patrick began training me," Okoye says. "He bought eggs and other food that would help me get bigger."

Anukwa was also working with a young sprinter from Enugu named Innocent Egbunike. The two promising athletes became close friends. Together they plotted a course to America.

"My parents were fearful that once I got to the U.S. I'd get involved in drugs and ruin my career," Egbunike says. "That's the image Nigerians have of American teenagers."

Egbunike's father insisted he find a small religious college. Poring over pamphlets at a local minister's house, he came upon Azusa Pacific.

Okoye opens his photo album to a picture of two smiling teenagers standing on a dirt road by a ramshackle building. Their arms are wrapped around each other. "Here I am," Okoye says, pointing to the skinny kid on the left, "taking Innocent to the plane when he left for America."

That day Egbunike made a promise to Okoye. "I will get you to America," he vowed. "We will be together again." Sure enough, several scrapbook pages—and one year—later, there's another picture of Okoye, on his way to Azusa, Calif., 8,000 miles from home.

Ask an Angeleno where Azusa is, and he probably hasn't a clue. In fact, it's east of Los Angeles. The Azusa Chamber of Commerce can't even explain for sure the origin of the city's unusual name. One theory is that a publicity-seeking early resident devised "Azusa" because it was "everything from A to Z in the USA."

Azusa Pacific University, with an enrollment of 1,500, lies at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Three times a week, students must attend chapel, and 18 units of Bible studies are required for graduation.

Dr. Paul E. Sago is the school's president. He regularly eats in the student cafeteria, and he used to watch the school's football games from a lawn chair in the end zone. Sago was in a hotel bathroom in Hong Kong when he heard about Okoye's Senior Bowl exploits, on Armed Forces Radio. "By the time I got to Seoul, I was able to see highlights on TV," says Sago, who had been overseas for a conference. "Christian didn't put Azusa Pacific on the map. He put us on the globe."

There are no full athletic scholarships at APU, and most athletes must work on campus to pay for their tuition. For 20 hours each week, Okoye and Egbunike were janitors and dorm painters. The school's highest draftee so far is defensive end Doug Barnett, an L.A. Rams fifth-round pick in 1982.

The football program barely survives on a $26,000 yearly budget. There is no mandatory spring practice or training table. Some of the team's equipment is eight years old. The coach is Jim Milhon, an associate professor of physical education and recreation, who zips around campus on a 10-speed bike.

The track program gets by on an $18,000 budget. Until a new facility was completed last fall, the Cougars couldn't stage a home meet because of a dilapidated track. To Okoye and the other Nigerians, track coach Franson and his wife, Nancy, and their three daughters are their family in America.

"It never fails," Okoye says. "I'll be sitting in my apartment, watching TV, and the Fransons show up with a birthday cake and a present.

"To survive emotionally so far from home, I had to create another family for myself. Coach Milhon is like my mother; patient. Coach Franson reminds me of my father; he has all the answers."

But both men were surprised when Okoye approached them in the early summer of 1984 about playing football. At the time, Okoye was distraught over being left off Nigeria's Olympic team.

Though Nigerian officials claimed otherwise, Franson said he sent numerous documents verifying that Okoye had surpassed the country's qualifying standard for the discus. Okoye still wonders if he wasn't being punished for being Ibo; Nigerian officials deny it.

Fearful of another slight before the 1988 Games, Okoye went to Franson with the brainstorm about football.

"It's rough," Franson said. "An injury would ruin you for the discus."

"Football is very dangerous," Okoye replied. "I know. I've seen it on TV."

"Why do you want to play, then?" Franson asked.

"Because I think I could be a professional player," Okoye said.

"All right, you have my good graces," Franson said. "But if you only want to try it, to try it, the answer is no."

Milhon had a long list of football basics to teach Okoye. It didn't include how to put on the uniform. "I found out by watching guys around me," Okoye says.

In the beginning, Okoye ran too upright, didn't shorten his stride to make cuts and failed to use his legs to power through tacklers. He couldn't get a grip on which hand should carry the ball, and when he finally got that straight, he had an even tougher time holding on to the darned thing.

"Catching is still the hardest for me," Okoye says. "The ball is abnormal. It is not round."

Says Milhon, "The first time I handed Christian the ball, he looked at it curiously and said, 'Very interesting...but very impractical.' "

The idea of specific plays and designated blockers made sense to Okoye; it's just that he wasn't sure when to block and when to let others block for him. One day teammate Joe Schulter placed a large black arrow on the field to show Okoye where to run.

Then there was that pass play at practice. Milhon pointed to a linebacker and told his neophyte running back to block him only if he blitzed. When the linebacker dropped back to help cover the receiver, Okoye took off downfield and leveled the linebacker—flattened his own teammate.

"Are you crazy?" the startled Cougar screamed.

A hurt look came over Okoye's face. "I was told you were my man," he said sheepishly.

And did anybody think to instruct Okoye in touchdown protocol? "On his first touchdown, Christian stood in the end zone, embarrassed," Milhon says. "He didn't know what to do with the ball." Finally, and correctly, he simply handed it to the official.

Okoye often thought about quitting, but Franson talked him out of it. "He made me believe that I looked good out there," Okoye says. "I liked playing running back. It's so basic: You run with the ball, and people chase you.

"The spirit is great. You know that each time a guy comes at you on the field, he'll give you all he's got. That psychs you to protect yourself. Guys will cheap-shot you at the bottom of the pile, cuss at you. But if you ignore them, pat them on the back, soon they'll be nice to you, and they'll help you up."

As Draft Day nears, Okoye has been wondering about life in the NFL, and he is questioning whether he can manage without the security of Azusa Pacific, his coaches and his friend Egbunike. The Fransons had him to dinner a while back to point out the hazards of fame and fortune. "I have thought about it all," Okoye says, "and I have reaffirmed my values. I will not let the world gobble me up."

Benedict Ike wants to come to America to see his son play football. Emmanuel Okoye, 27, wants to study in the U.S. like his brother and has applied to Purdue. And 19-year-old Gertrude, the youngest Okoye, has her heart set on the Azusa Pacific School of Nursing. Their dreams can come true only if Cho-Cho makes it in the NFL.

"I'm surprised I've done all this," he says. "This has all been possible through hard work. I wanted it, and then I went out and got it.

"Sometimes, when I sit by myself in my apartment, I think about how lucky I am. I think about playing football, what I should do in certain situations. You know, I'm ready right now."

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONAn improbable burner at 6'3" and 255 pounds, Okoye can sizzle the 40 in 4.45.
PHOTORICHARD MACKSONOkoye hoists some big numbers in the weight room, and he cuts quite a figure himself. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONA latecomer to football, Okoye also excels in field events, and the discus in particular. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONFrom the start Franson and his family made Christian feel at home at Azusa Pacific.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)