A snake is loose in Amobi Okoye's garage. It just slithered in, about five minutes ago, and curled up between two duffel bags by the back window. It looks to be a Texas copperhead, dark brown, three feet long if completely uncoiled. It raises its flat head and wags its little tongue whenever anyone gets close. ¬∂ Okoye, the rookie defensive tackle for the Texans, is at practice. Snake--handling duties fall to his older brother, Arinze, and his cousin Okey Chidume, who moved to Houston in the summer for just this sort of occasion. Arinze dials the police. Chidume dials animal control. No one answers.
This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2007 issue
"Can I call 911 for a snake?" Arinze asks.
The copperhead, not uncommon in East Texas but an obvious injury risk, has to be gone by the time Okoye gets home. Arinze deftly removes the two duffel bags by the back window. He positions an empty cardboard box on the ground. He picks up a white shower rod. And in one motion, like a hockey player taking a wrist shot, he sweeps the snake into the open box.
Chidume grabs another cardboard box off the ground and slams it over the one holding the snake. The cousins stand in silent shock. Then they leap into each other's arms. "Protect this house!" they yell in unison. "Protect this house!"
When Okoye returns hours later, he has no idea of the excitement he missed. He only learns that his roommates have a new pet, named Malik, ensconced in the garage.
WHILE ARINZE and Chidume handle reptiles in the Houston suburbs, Okoye takes on a different sort of beast: 300-pound offensive linemen, also spewing venom. In his first NFL game, a preseason test against the Bears, Okoye dropped into his stance and heard a lineman bellow, "We got a young one over here. We got a real young one."
The youngest, mind you. At 20 years old Okoye is the youngest player in NFL history. Or as Texans coach Gary Kubiak puts it, "He's not even legal yet." Regardless, Okoye may never have to show I.D. in Houston. One month into his pro career he already has four sacks, including one of Peyton Manning in Week 3. Against the Dolphins on Sunday he had three tackles and an assist in a 22--19 win that lifted the Texans to 3-2, their best-ever start.
Okoye has been a quick study since he left the crib. He started reading before he was three and entered high school at 12. By 15 he was getting letters of interest from Harvard. He graduated from Louisville at 19. The one subject he came late to was football.
Okoye was a freshman at Lee High in Huntsville, Ala., when a substitute teacher looked him over and asked, "You want to play football?" Okoye, a chunky 12-year-old who had just moved from Nigeria, was confused. "What's that?" he replied.
The teacher, Greg Campbell, also happened to be the school's defensive line coach, and he had never heard of a boy in Alabama who did not know football. So he gave Okoye a Madden NFL video game, thinking it was the easiest way to teach the sport. Okoye was raised to read books, not play video games. But he made this one exception.
From Madden, Okoye learned about first downs, touchdowns and holding penalties. From Campbell, he learned almost everything else. The coach set up trash cans in the school gymnasium as makeshift offensive linemen. He showed Okoye how to take the best angles, shoot the correct gaps, stunt behind the right receptacles.
Eight years later Okoye walked into Reliant Stadium, a 6'2", 302-pound man-child expected to shore up the Texans' defense. To welcome him on his first day, veteran defensive end N.D. Kalu hung a Nigerian flag on the wall in the locker room. "Everywhere I went, I could feel the expectations," says Okoye, who was taken with the 10th pick of the 2007 draft. "I could feel the pressure."
Mario Williams laughs. Last year Houston drafted Williams at No. 1, ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young. Now that was pressure. When Okoye arrived in Houston the night of the '07 draft, Williams picked him up at his hotel and took him to dinner. Williams, himself a 22-year-old defensive end, would show this rookie the ropes. "I know how tough it can be, and I didn't want him to have it the same way," Williams says. "I wanted him to know that I was always going to be here for him."
IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL, the best defensive linemen can usually get by on pure physical force. They bulldoze their way into the opposing backfield. They do not need to worry much about hand position or footwork. They just need to muscle up and charge. But in the NFL, offensive linemen are often as strong as their defensive counterparts, and usually trickier. They grab and nudge and hip-check a pass rusher off course. In training camp, whenever Okoye failed to beat his man, he felt as though everyone was looking at him, judging him—and usually he was right. "He hit the wall very early," says Texans defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina, a 15-year veteran. "He didn't make plays, and then he got frustrated."
Before every play Okoye was listening intently to the linebacker's calls, trying to calculate whether he should rush or drop, swim or rip, go inside or out. Bent over in the Houston heat, he felt as though he had stuck his head under a massive blow-dryer. "It was hell," Okoye says. "I could do nothing right."
He certainly couldn't carry a tune. As part of Okoye's rookie hazing, veterans ordered him to sing Candy Rain (the '90s hit by Soul for Real that featured 14-year-old lead vocalist Jason Dalyrimple), but they determined that he lacked conviction, especially on the lyric about candy-coated raindrops. "He's a great guy and a great player," says defensive tackle Tim Bulman. "But that was a horrible rendition."
Okoye finally felt his age. When he looked for teammates to dine with after practice, many had to go home to wives and children. When he asked Kubiak if he too could go home, even though rookies were confined to a Houston hotel, Kubiak told him to get back to his room.
When Okoye was eventually allowed home, Arinze and Chidume were waiting. All three grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, members of the Igbo tribe. When they were kids, Nigeria was a military state, overrun with riots. Okoye would watch gunmen march into his neighbors' houses at night and wonder when they would march into his.
Okoye's father, Augustine, had attended Prairie View A&M in southeast Texas and believed the U.S. could provide a safe haven. He moved to Huntsville in 1997 to lay down roots. Okoye's mother, Edna, arrived with Arinze and Amobi two years later. Chidume eventually followed. While the parents still live in Huntsville, the boys are in a five-bedroom house 30 minutes west of Houston that Amobi bought after signing a six-year, $17.6 million contract. They speak English, Igbo and their own made-up language, called Evrefresh. "It combines English and Igbo," Chidume says. "Like Spanglish."
Arinze, 22, and Chidume, 24, help manage Okoye's career, but they also steered him out of his training-camp rut. The three of them watched Okoye's college tapes in their home theater, looking for what he was doing right at Louisville. They practiced new pass-rush techniques in the living room. And when they got tired, they plopped into the pool, the perfect place to work on swim moves.
Okoye stood in water up to his waist, lining up as a defensive tackle. Chidume was across from him, pretending to be a guard. Behind Chidume was the Jacuzzi, playing the part of immobile quarterback. Chidume gave Okoye five seconds to reach the Jacuzzi. One Mississippi ... two Mississippi ... three Mississippi....
"It was good practice," says Chidume. "I even blocked him sometimes." That is hard to believe, considering Chidume weighs 210 pounds. But as Okoye splashed around his new pool, abusing blockers, he regained some of the enthusiasm that training camp had sapped from him.
AFTER THE season opener against the Chiefs, Kubiak said Okoye played like a "young kid." In the second game, at Carolina, Okoye missed a key assignment. Enraged, he told his teammates, "I'm going to make up for it." On the next play he got his first career sack. A series later he got another. When Okoye arrived home, Arinze and Chidume presented him with a cake, the time of each sack scrawled in frosting. That cake sits three-quarters eaten in the refrigerator, along with another congratulating Okoye for being named defensive rookie of the month for September.
He is starting to put his quick mind to work and build on his experience. Last week Kalu jotted down a few basic offensive formations and presented them to Okoye. Kalu, now in his 11th season, explained that over the next couple of years Okoye needs to start studying various offensive formations so he can recognize if a pass play or run play is coming. Okoye took one look at the formations, drawn carefully on a piece of paper. "Thanks a lot," he said, "but I already know these." Kalu, a fellow member of the Igbo tribe, did not take offense. "That's why the guy graduated at 19," he said.
College graduate at 19, Pro Bowl player at 20? Okoye is too smart to make any wild predictions. But if his NFL learning curve continues its steep ascent, he can start dreaming about a week in Hawaii, afternoons at the beach and all the virgin Mai Tais he can drink.