Even as he was barging to an NFL rushing title and becoming the Chiefs’ career leading rusher at the time, Christian Okoye recalled Thursday, he became a U.S. citizen along the way.
But that didn’t mean Okoye, who came to the U.S. at 21 to attend college at Azusa Pacific, ever renounced his love for his native country.
And that emotion was evident as he spoke over the phone Thursday about his anger with the Nigerian government’s plodding response to the abduction last month of 276 schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram.
Only protests in America and Europe and international news attention, he said, engaged the government’s attention.
“Otherwise, they wouldn’t have done anything,” said Okoye, 52, who now lives in California. “I am happy that all parts of the world, especially the U.S. government, are speaking out and trying to do something about this.”
He added, “Boko Haram has been causing havoc for a long time in Nigeria. … It’s incredible, going into churches and just massacring people, just killing people. Now, when people are protesting and (the group) has taken over 200 kids from school, hopefully enough is enough and this will be the end of it.”
The cycle of violence may resonate in a deeper sense with Okoye, who upon being inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2000 told The Star’s Randy Covitz of the strife he had faced as a child.
Per Covitz’s story:
The name Okoye in the Igbo language means “Sunday, the day of peace of reflection,” but life was anything but tranquil for young Christian Emeka Okoye, who grew up in Enugu, Nigeria, a city of 800,000.
One of six children, Christian was 6 when Igbo insurgents seceded from Nigeria and formed the Republic of Biafra, kicking off a war that ran from 1967 to 1970. He frequently woke up at night to the sound of bullets piercing the air.
“People carried machine guns in the streets,” Okoye recalled. “I used to hide in my grandfather’s basement. It was a very difficult time.”
On Thursday, Okoye stressed that it was not such circumstances in his life but his desire for an education, and to prepare for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in track and field, that led him to attend Azusa Pacific in 1982. Okoye qualified for the team in the discus, but Nigerian officials were skeptical about his chances to earn a medal and surprised him by not entering him on the team.
That led to Okoye’s touching a football for the first time at age 23. He ultimately became a sensation as the so-called “Nigerian Nightmare.”
His game and the nickname he embraced made him one of the most recognized Nigerian athletes in the world, and today Okoye is dedicated to his foundation focused on at-risk youth. The organization will hold a celebrity golf fundraiser on June 14 at Staley Farms Golf Club.
But a true Nigerian nightmare, he knows, is what’s happening now, and it’s not just because of his own prominence that he’s speaking out.
“It’s every Nigerian’s responsibility, it’s everybody’s responsibility, to speak out,” he said. “There’s no reason why anybody should sit back and let this kind of thing go on. The more you let it go, the more it emboldens Boko Haram. It’s wrong, and (it) has to pay for all this nonsense.
“And if the Nigerian government can’t do it,” he added, he is thankful for the impending intervention of the U.S., France and others.
“I’m praying,” he said, “a solution will come very, very soon.”