CHIKE OKEAFOR has long admired the way Bruce Lee chopped down larger opponents, but he never knew what kung fu could do for his game until he checked out Sifu Eric Oram's Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy in L.A. three years ago while playing for the 49ers. "Learning the philosophy, I was like, man, this is exactly what I need. It's a form created for a smaller person to handle a larger person--which sums up what I do," says the 6'4", 265-pound Okeafor, who works with Oram to prepare to take on linemen who commonly weigh more than 325 pounds.
"Wing Chun's concepts apply to football because players are in hand-to-hand battles," says Oram, who studied under Lee's teacher, William Cheung. "They're not fighting, but principles apply to focusing on balance, angles of approach and coordination of simultaneous deflects and attacks."
Okeafor, 28, says Wing Chun improves his reflexes, power and strategy. He had career highs of 47 tackles and eight sacks in '03 and has 5.5 sacks this year. "It's perfect because I'm not as strong as my opponent," says Okeafor, raised in West Lafayette, Ind. "The way to get around the size difference is efficiency of movement, straight lines and quickness--I need to beat him to the punch." Here's how he trains to do just that:
1. MERIDIAN STRETCHES (WARMING UP) Before practice and games Okeafor does poses that stretch what he calls his "meridians" or "energy lines." Says Oram, "On a surface level he's stretching the underneath of the forearm and getting his hands, arms and wrists loose and relaxed. On an internal level he's stretching the lung, pericardium and heart and increasing circulation." (The forms and theories on this page are described in detail on the academy's website, www.lawingchun.com.)
2. SHIL LIM TAO FORM (REACTION TIME) "The purpose of the exercise is to focus your mind, body and internal energy at the same place at the same time with minimum conscious awareness," says Oram. "Ultimately, the subconscious is the realm of the reflexes." The exercise is, in essence, a moving meditation.
3. GUARD POSITION (BALANCE) In this breathing and centering exercise, says Oram, "his conscious awareness is in the dan tien, the literal center of the body, about an inch and a half below the navel. That's where the center of your energy and your physical center of gravity are." Okeafor practices guarding his center line by assuming a combat-ready stance and sparring with Oram, alternately taking strikes and striking back. When Oram's not there, Okeafor often spars with his wife, Stephane.
Okeafor, whose full first name, Chikezie, means "well made by God" in a Nigerian dialect, tries to live the truly good life:
* "I always eat organic," he says. "Natural is the best way."
* He replenishes his system with multimineral and herbal supplements and a protein supplement.
* To "link the mind, body and spirit" Okeafor meditates in the morning and evening. He also runs trails with his Great Danes, Mystique and King.
* In the off-season he does Pilates and also does yoga with Stephane. "She's getting into hot yoga," says Okeafor. "I think I'll try it."
* He drinks at least seven 16-ounce bottles of ultrapurified water a day.
* He is anti--anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen. "They're synthetic," he says. "They work for symptoms but have side effects. The body knows the difference between natural and synthetic."
* He runs on "cleaner fuel," though he's no extremist. Okeafor's favorite morning meal is eggs scrambled with avocado, tomato and cheese. For lunch he loves a turkey sandwich, piled high with swiss cheese, spinach, lettuce and pickles. Dinner? "I've spent a lot of time in the Midwest," says Okeafor, who went to Purdue, "so I have a lot of love for the old steak and potatoes."