There are some athletes that are ingrained in the memories of those who had the privilege to watch their craft. Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, and Joe Montana just to name a few. For Kansas City Chiefs fans, this rings true especially for one the franchises biggest icons. He only played six seasons, but he retired as the Chiefs’ all-time leading rusher, and created an impact that is still felt today.
They called Christian Okoye the “Nigerian Nightmare” due to his large stature and his ability to break would-be tackles. The fact that Okoye originally was interested in being an Olympian makes this story all the more interesting. Okoye had hopes to join the Nigerian discus team, and moved to America in order to go to school and train. However, shortly before the 1984 Olympics, the future NFL star was left off the national discus team.
It was then that Okoye turned his attention to football, although it wasn’t exactly a love affair. When he first saw a game of American football, he thought the game was boring. Okoye didn’t know of any positions in the sport, but thought it’d be cool to emulate Oakland Raiders star Marcus Allen. His college coach lined him up in the backfield, and the rest is history.
Okoye was a bit of a legend before he even stepped onto a NFL field. He was clocked as running a 4.45 40-yard dash, which caught the eye of many given his 6’1″, 260 lbs frame. Despite his omission from the Nigerian Olympic team, he had the credentials to qualify for the event. In 1987, Sports Illustrated reported that Okoye threw a discus almost 212.5 feet, long jumped almost 24 feet, squatted 725 pounds, benched 405, and power-cleaned 395.
The Kansas City Chiefs took Okoye in the second round of the 1987 NFL Draft. His rookie year showed a bit of promise. He rushed for 660 yards on 157 carries. His sophomore year was limited due to a thumb injury, and he rushed for 473 yards in nine games. In 1989, the Chiefs hired Marty Schottenheimer as head coach, and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians was brought in as the running backs coach.
Okoye thrived in the Chiefs new system. He led the league in rushing attempts, and was the first Chiefs player to ever lead the league in rushing yards. His 370 carries for 1,480 yards were enough to give Okoye his first Pro Bowl selection, as well as his only first team All-Pro nomination. He was also named AFC Offensive Player of the Year.
While Okoye was selected to the Pro Bowl and second team All-Pro team in 1991, the rest of his career was hindered by a knee injury. In 1990, Okoye rushed for a little over 800 yards as the Chiefs made the playoffs for the first time in four years. However, they lost to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card Game. In 1991, Okoye once again eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing, and the Chiefs won a playoff game before losing in the AFC Divisional Round to the Buffalo Bills.
In 1992, Okoye’s role diminished in large part to his knee injury. Despite undergoing surgery on both knees prior to the 1993 season, Okoye was released with an injury settlement. Okoye had hopes of rehabbing his injuries and working out for teams, but ultimately decided to retire. Okoye was inducted into the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2000.
His legend comes from those who were around him. Arians once said of the Nigerian Nightmare, “I think it might have been Ronnie Lott who got him pretty good on a cutback and we said, ‘We are going to run that again, he is going to fill that same hole and you have to drop your shoulder on him.’ And we had old, hard AstroTurf in Kansas City at the time. Christian bounced Ronnie off that AstroTurf and our whole sideline was, Ooooooh. They loved watching him run.”
Former Chiefs safety Lloyd Burruss thought having a bruising back like Okoye was a joy. “There was a psychological effect on defenses — even the Raiders, which was our super rival. Marty Schottenheimer couldn’t stand the Raiders. We just game-planned it that way and said, ‘Look, we are going to get that ball at the end of the game and we are going to run it, make them jump offsides, things like that.’ Really, after three quarters and heading into the fourth, I think guys were very wary of having to tackle that guy, mentally and physically.”
While many believe that Okoye retired due to a crushing hit delivered by Denver Broncos linebacker Steve Atwater, the former Olympic hopeful has said that it wasn’t the hardest hit he received.
“I was running a stretch play to my left side. Richard Dent comes around. I have to get my first down, right? I saw him coming, lowered my shoulder and we collided really, really hard. He fell this way, I fell that way. I got up, I couldn’t feel the right side of my face. We never spoke about it until I believe it was Super Bowl weekend two years ago. Somebody just asked him, ‘What was the worst hit you took?’ He pointed at me. And when he pointed at me, I remembered!
“I said, ‘Man, that was mine, too.’ He got up and couldn’t find the huddle. I couldn’t feel the right side of my body. Steve DeBerg called the same play again because we were successful, and I said, ‘No, no, Steve, we gotta change it.’ He asked me if I was OK. I told him I was all right, but I couldn’t run the ball right then. He changed it to a pass play. Richard came back to me and said, ‘Man, I’m so glad you guys didn’t run the ball again.’ I said, ‘Guess what? I had to change it.’ “
Okoye, described as a “gentle giant” by former teammate Burruss, continues his impact off the field. He founded the California Sports Hall of Fame, and began the Christian Okoye Foundation. The Foundation aims to “help underprivileged children assume their role in society through education and sports.”
Christian Okoye never really chased the spotlight. He was a guy who teammates described as the type to just do his job. Never the one to be flashy, never the one to be a showboat, Christian Okoye was just an absolute nightmare to anyone who had to face him. He created an impact on the field, and has since worked to create one off the field as well.
You can find more information about the Christian Okoye Foundation here.
Photo Credit: USA Today