Life’s A Message Of Hope For Houston Rookie Okoye

By Megan Manfull
Updated: August 6, 2007

HOUSTON — Texans rookie Amobi Okoye can understand why people would think he has lived a charmed life.

The defensive tackle didn’t touch a football or even catch a glimpse of the sport until he was 12. Yet by 16, he was enrolled at the University of Louisville on a full scholarship as the youngest player in college football. By 19, he had earned his degree in psychology and become the youngest player selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1970.

When the regular season kicks off in September, Okoye, who turned 20 in June, will be the youngest player in the NFL. However, he wants to be known for more than that.

Off the field, Okoye wants to help children in the community whose lives are anything but charmed. There’s a connection he feels to them that few understand.

“Most people just know about the positives of my life story,” Okoye said. “But I’ve been in situations when I was younger where things were perfect and where everything was just outrageously terrible.”

As recently as eight years ago, Okoye worried almost daily that his father Augustine — or someone else he loved — might be killed by simply opening his mouth. In 1993, when the military overthrew the government in Nigeria, turmoil erupted in Okoye’s native country.

“When the military took over, they were very hostile,” said Augustine, who owned his own business and was a major contractor for the government before the coup. “They went from being hostile to a dictatorship. No freedom of speech. If you said something, you were either killed or something. It got real bad.

“I’m not the kind of person that likes to keep his mouth shut. I like to say my opinion.”

Edna and Augustine Okoye tried to shelter their three children — Chioma, Arinze and Amobi — from the danger in Lagos, Nigeria, the capital of the country and its largest city. But none of the children was oblivious to the chaos.

“When riots were going on, our mom would say, ‘You’re not going to school today. You just stay home and read your books,’ ” said Arinze, 21. “It wasn’t safe. You’d be driving on the road, and they would literally stop your car and ask who you were voting for. If you said the wrong person, they were liable to do some things to you. So my mom would just keep us home.”

Ready to make the move

Eventually, living in Nigeria became too dangerous for the Okoyes. Augustine had attended college at Prairie View A&M and often traveled to the United States on business, so relocating the family to the U.S. was an easy decision.

Augustine made the first move, leaving Nigeria and settling in Huntsville, Ala., a town he thought would be perfect for raising his children. In October 1999, he sent for his family.

Amobi, then 12, and his siblings were excited about the move. They spoke English along with Igbo, their native language, and the American culture already had begun seeping into their lives. They liked the cartoon Tom and Jerry and the movie The Sound of Music. They were well-versed in American music and hung on their father’s every word when he recounted his experiences in America — a country they associated with hope.

“In Nigeria, I just saw us losing everything we had,” Amobi said. “It was kind of like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’

“That’s why I say I do things for my parents — because they uplifted us. They did everything as a parent that they were supposed to do, and I just hope I can become as good of a parent as they have been.”

The move turned out to be everything Edna and Augustine had hoped for their children. Amobi, now , realized his American dream by signing a six-year contract worth as much as $17.6 million with the Texans.

Yet despite such good fortune, Okoye cannot accept the notion he moved to Houston solely to play football.

“I feel like I wasn’t put here for people to just see what I’ve accomplished but to spread out like a tree branch — just spread farther out,” said Okoye, who always dreamed of becoming a doctor or child psychologist. “And I really feel like that’s what my plan and purpose here is.”

That belief is what led him to the Krause Center in Katy two days before the start of his first NFL training camp. At the residential facility for abused and neglected children, the 6-foot-2, 302-pound Okoye, wearing a white polo shirt emblazoned with the Texans’ logo, was an impressive figure.

The boys at the center, ranging from 11 to 17 in age, were awed by his presence.

But Okoye wasn’t there to boost his ego or to fulfill a commitment to the team — he was visiting on his own and before his contract was signed. During his two-hour stay, he toured the facilities, played basketball and talked about life.

He spoke about football and being part of a team. He talked about his education and his constant desire to succeed so his parents will be proud. Anything the boys asked, Okoye answered. The turmoil he encountered in Nigeria never was mentioned, but all of his stories had an underlying message of hope.

A childhood of learning

“(Living in Nigeria) helped me become who I am,” Okoye said after he left the Krause Center. “It’s sad that I want to say this, but I think everybody should go through something like that.

“If people can get to being a so-called, quote-unquote normal human being who is humble, respectful and people-smart without going through that, it would be lovely. But experience is the best teacher, as they say, and things like that do humble you and make you appreciate what you have. It makes you just want to give thanks.”

And in Okoye’s case, give back.