The story of Chukwuma Okorafor, 23-year-old Nigerian ruling American football

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Chukwuma Okorafor born August 8, 1997, is a Nigerian born professional American football offensive tackler for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League (NFL). At age 7, his parents—both medical professionals—moved from Nigeria to South Africa, to Botswana, and then the United States where education was central in their plan for their kids and Chukwuma Okorafor, the eldest, thankfully excelled in school. His schoolteachers, however, envisaged a different path.

For years, fellow teachers had been alerting Tim Conley, veteran coach of Pittsburg Steelers club to the sight of large kids roaming the halls of the suburban Detroit school, wondering if they could help impact his football team. The coach often walked away from such meetings disappointed. Big did not necessarily mean athletic. Even those students who looked the part sometimes had no interest in playing.

The Nigerian-born Okorafor was different in many ways. At age 14, he stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 230 pounds with room to grow. Just watching the youngster move around the ping-pong table, returning volleys, Conley could see the fluidity of motion, the supple hips.

The coach was certain of the asset before him, as was Okorafor who wanted to play ball. But his parents were reluctant, their eyes on education over sports. When they finally conceded tentatively, Conley embraced the task of honing a player now one of America’s most illustrious in the game.

Okorafor’s agility marvelled his coaches, who had begun work on him. “Years of playing soccer had blessed him with good footwork,” the romantic journalist writes again, adding that “Okorafor became an immediate starter” at Steelers.

His size—now at 23, he is 6 foot 6 and 320 pounds in weight—his size played a big part, but so did his energy and grind. Within two years at Steelers, his fame grew with his achievements and soon a scholarship came calling.

“I didn’t think it was real even though I had it in front of me,” notes Okorafor, known as Chuks by his teammates—short form of Chukwuma. “I didn’t know you could go to school for free because of a game.” He enrolled at Western Michigan University, moving right into an environment famous for American soccer.

He soon found acclaim given his accomplishments in the game and was named to a preparatory All-Star game that pitted Michigan against Ohio. “Conley could not believe how quickly his new teammates gravitated to him. Every good block, according to Conley, drew chants of ‘Chooooks!’ from the sidelines,” Tom Reed writes again in praise.

“What I like about football is how it brings guys together,” Okorafor says in the interview with Reed. “It’s about a bunch of different guys coming from different places, whether it’s the same country or different countries, and having the same goals and mindset.

“It’s crazy what football can do for you. I’m not just talking about myself. But seeing where people come from and where it can take you and your family is amazing.”

Becoming a third-round draft pick in 2018 exceeded Okorafor’s wildest expectations. Attending his first training camp at Latrobe with a fellow Nigerian took the experience to another level.

Steelers linebacker and special teams contributor Ola Adeniyi, another Nigerian, is one of Okorafor’s best friends. They met in college when Adeniyi played for MAC rival Toledo.

When Okorafor was learning the game’s basics in Detroit, he had no idea about the lineage of Nigerian-born players in the money-spinning NFL. There are at least 30 fellow Nigerians who have played in the league, including famous Christian Okoye.

“I always like to find out what it took for our guys to get here,” Okorafor tells Reed of the Nigerian contingent. “There’s something special about it.” Indeed, there is and it’s called the Naija spirit.

His reviews are great and, at 23, his path leads to more greatness. Despite his fame in the game here in America, Okorafor remains “simple” and humble, his friends say. He was instrumental to Steelers defeating Texans 28-21 recently and is in form for matches coming in no time.

Last year, Okorafor and the rest of his family became United States citizens, and his gratitude endures for the country with kindness for immigrants. “America has changed my life,” he tells good-natured Tom Reed. “It’s given me so much. There’s nothing I could say bad about it.”

It is what they say in Nigerian-American circles despite occasional laments about the country: that it certainly gives back to those who patiently work for it.

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