Fly; meet windshield. Scissors; meet rock. Linebacker; meet Christian Okoye.
For the better part of six all-too-brief years with the Kansas City Chiefs, Christian Okoye was equal parts ballerina and bulldozer. He terrorized opposing defenses with a freakish blend of power and precision. His body moved efficiently and powerfully toward one goal – and one goal only – the end zone.
I remember when I first became a football fan. It was 20 years ago, right around the period of my childhood where they stopped allowing us “nap time” in school. Once I started learning what was what within the world and realized the cool kids in kindergarten stopped watching “Sesame Street,” I needed something more menacing and action-packed to hold my attention.
Okoye (and, I suppose, the Muppets) more than quenched my juvenile viewing thirst. His body appeared to careen off defender’s bodies like a ferociously chucked bowling ball with spikes. Fully grown behemoth specimens were being knocked in all directions by the awe-inspiring destructive power of the most valuable African import since ivory.
Nigeria to be exact. A man of this rare stature could only come from a location so exotic and mysterious. His unlikely journey from an African inner city to center stage in the center of the United States is a shocking testament to his raw, unhinged talent.
You see, Okoye never played a down of organized football until he reached the age of 23. Most 23 year olds still fortunate enough to be playing football are in their senior year of college – having played the game for as many as 15 or more years.
Up until that age, Okoye was merely a 6-foot-1, 260-pound track-and-field prodigy, winning seven collegiate titles in the hammer throw, shot put and discuss. He racked up this impressive hardware while attending not-so world famous NAIA Azusa Pacific University. (That’s right, the school wasn’t even big-time enough for Division III.)
Okoye walked on to the football squad in 1984 and excelled immediately. His running style was simple: Get to the goal line, and don’t let anyone get in the way.
It’s an overused cliché, but Okoye was a diamond in the rough his entire life. When the Chiefs decided to take a chance on him in the second round of the 1987 draft (picked No. 35, which he would later wear as his jersey number), it could’ve been considered a colossal mistake. After all, they had just selected a relatively untrained player from a completely obscure college and an even more obscure origin.
But, oh, you had to see him run. In his rookie year, he rushed for over 600 yards. Statistics only tell part of the story. It was the way he piled up that yardage – carrying multiple defenders on his back, knocking 300-pound linemen straight backwards – that was both brutal and poetic in a pure and awesome sense.
Despite playing in just half a season the following year, he still managed almost 500 more yards. His talent was undeniable. With just a little more experience and the good fortune of good health, he would be poised for a breakthrough.
That breakthrough came in the form of the 1989 season. Okoye carried the ball 370 times that year and gained 1,480 yards – not one of them easy or cheap. If ever there was a runner whose style was tailor-made for those slow-motion NFL Films highlight reels, complete with a big brass soundtrack and John Facenda’s baritone, it was Christian Okoye. Watching the mystery man run was like watching a runaway Mack truck slam into a row of Toyota Corollas.
It was the force of his awesome power that ultimately led to his undoing. Okoye was so successful, so large and contact-hungry; he left himself vulnerable to crippling injury. In 1990, he tore his knee, forever robbing him of his great speed and unparalleled strength and durability. He played just two more years, and though he’d reach the Pro Bowl again in 1991, it was clear he’d never be the swirling tornado he once was.
What if he wasn’t chopped down like a mighty redwood in his prime? What if he managed to hang on and play a full compliment of games? Would he be regarded as one of the all-time greats?
I offer you this seemingly outrageous comparison: Christian Okoye was the Jimi Hendrix of football.
He had all of the God-given talent in the world, with little formal training. If Okoye running made a noise, I’m sure it’d sound just like the bone-crunching feedback of the solo to “Stone Free.”
Both were cut down in their prime (though Okoye, fortunately, is still with us), and both weren’t immediately understood. Okoye also proved fullback-sized ball carriers could possess halfback speed. To this day, nobody’s embodied that combination more completely. His stunted, yet stunning, stint in the NFL was outsized and outlandish – an immovable mountain in the middle of the Kansas City plains.
Okoye was professional football in its entire testosterone-fueled, V8 Engine truck commercial, blazing rock guitar glory. And, yet, beneath the punishing plowing and “Nigerian Nightmare” moniker, he possessed a paradoxical quiet calm.
-originally posted on 12.14.2007 at The Love of Sports