Listen up, kids. If you want to be a big, bad fullback in the National Football League, here’s what you have to do: Be a good person. Always mind your manners. And most important, eat all your goat meat.
Unconventional, perhaps, but that’s pretty much the blueprint for success employed by Christian Okoye, the Kansas City Chiefs’ sensational rookie running back from Nigeria. After signing a two-year contract worth $275,000, making him the wealthiest Ibo tribesman in the NFL, Okoye, 26, promptly peeled off $25 for a goat and another $25 to have it slaughtered. “He’s in the freezer now,” says Okoye (pronounced Ah-coy-ya). “It’s great. You cook it just like beef.”
Snicker if you must, but the man is obviously not what he eats. Back in his home village of Enugu, his pals called him Cho Cho, a play on the letters in his name. Now his Kansas City teammates call him Choo-choo, as in locomotive. “Tackling him is like getting hit by a train,” explains Dino Hackett, the Chiefs’ veteran linebacker. “I’m glad he’s on our side. He scares me.”
If Okoye, who never held a football until 1984, scares his teammates, he inspires dread, angst and abject terror around the rest of the league. He is a massive 6’1″ 253 lbs., with blazing 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. No need to worry about jukes, head fakes or fancy cuts; his style is pure Metroliner. “I enjoy running over people,” says Okoye in his clipped British accent. And that’s exactly what he does. Although the Chiefs are firmly ensconced in last place in the AFC West division, Okoye “is one of our bright spots,” says head coach Frank Gansz. “Just wait till he learns to play the game,” adds Paul Coffman, KC’s three-time All-Pro tight end. Okoye’s not doing badly so far. In his NFL debut, he ran for 105 yards; currently he is the league’s top rookie rusher, running up 402 yards in six games.
Still, in terms of football development, Okoye is but a babe. It was just five years ago that at a friend’s suggestion, he left Nigeria for a track scholarship at Azusa Pacific, a small Christian university near Los Angeles. A world-class competitor in the shot put, discus and hammer throw, he had never even seen an American football game. But in 1984 his pals at Azusa, awed by his size, speed and strength, pleaded with him to give the gridiron a shot. “I didn’t want to mess with this crazy game,” he says. “I didn’t understand it. And the ball was funny-shaped—hard to catch.” But mess with the game he did. “He knew nothing about the game or the rules,” recalls Jim Milhon, the school’s head coach. “Once we told him to block a linebacker on a pass if the guy blitzes. This big flash goes through the line, and he levels the linebacker. I said, ‘Christian, you only block him if he comes to you.’ ”
Culture shock haunted him off the field as well. Okoye was able to handle Azusa’s strict regimen, such as mandatory Bible studies and thrice-weekly chapel. But he was thrown for a loop by the school’s cafeteria. “They gave you Mexican food and lasagna,” he says, shuddering at the memory. Christian had grown big and strong on goat meat and fufu—a stew of beef, tomatoes, spinach, fish, okra and red peppers. To keep himself in ready fufu, he worked part-time as a janitor on campus. But he was also painfully homesick. “I really missed my family,” says Christian, one of seven children of a retired Nigerian military officer. “I’d wake up at night and cry for my mother. It was bad for a long time.”
On the field was a different story. In his senior year he led the nation in rushing with an astonishing 186.7 yards per game, averaging 7.2 yards a carry. He went on to score four touchdowns in the annual NFL showcase, the Senior Bowl, and the Chiefs took him as a “long-term project”—meaning big gamble—in the second round of the NFL draft. Okoye was a fine physical specimen, but the coaches had doubts about his temperament. To be brutally honest, they feared he was too nice for the game. “He’s such a mild-mannered person, he’s like a preacher,” says Billie Matthews, the Chiefs’ running-back coach. “We didn’t know what would happen when guys started slapping him around. The violence of the game is hard for some guys to accept.” In fact, Okoye radiates decency. His teammates picked up on this early on, and in training camp they spared him the traditional rookie hazing. “He’s so damn good and polite,” complains tight end Coffman. “How could you give heat to someone like that?”
Okoye wasn’t expected to start for a year or two, but progressed quickly and proved that he’s not too civilized to play NFL football. Let him take off the pads and helmet, though, and he reverts to being the soul of decorum. When Lauren Brown, his 19-year-old girlfriend from Azusa, comes visiting, they spend their nights at Christian’s $425-a-month apartment in Blue Springs, Mo., in separate bedrooms. “Sex before marriage is not a good thing for us,” says Lauren. “We just don’t think it’s morally right.”
Christian’s goals are similarly modest. “My biggest one is to be a good person,” he says. He already is that, so when pressed, he admits he’d also like to be named rookie of the year. A freezer full of goat meat says he just might make it.