At 28, Christian Okoye still calls his father, who lives seven time zones away in Enugu, Nigeria, for advice. "He is a very wise man who knows what is right," says Okoye, the extraordinary third-year running back for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Once a month Okoye writes his family to describe his life in America. "It is a country with very many opportunities, but those opportunities are often misused," he says in a clipped, British-sounding accent. "I would say to each American, 'If you can, go to Africa. There, people live life. They appreciate life every day.' "
Okoye is engaged to his college sweetheart, Lauren Brown, who is a 21-year-old senior at Azusa Pacific University, in California. As a devout Christian, Okoye is adamantly opposed to premarital sex. When Brown visits him in Kansas City, he says, they stay in separate rooms in his apartment. "That is really the way it should be," he says. "We are not married yet."
After gaining 148 yards on 32 carries in the Chiefs' 26-21 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Okoye was vying for the league lead in rushes (288) and rushing yards (1,191). But his 1989 wages—$215,000—amount to about one-seventh of the salary of the Indianapolis Colts' Eric Dickerson. Okoye doesn't complain. "Being too rich can be a problem," he says. "Man does not live by money alone. If you can eat and raise children and live comfortably and give help to people who need it, that is good."
December 11, 1989
Is this guy's act for real?
"It's real," says K.C. quarterback Ron Jaworski, a 15-year veteran who is on injured reserve. "I guarantee it's real. He's such a good guy. We just love him." Kansas City tackle Irv Eatman calls Okoye "the most humble superstar I've ever seen."
Okoye seems too good to be true on the field as well. Six years after he first touched a football, as a sophomore at Azusa Pacific, an NAIA school where he had enrolled with a partial scholarship as a track and field athlete, Okoye has become the most dangerous runner in the NFL. To understand why, consider these two factors:
1) He weighs as much (260 pounds) as Chiefs center Mike Webster.
2) He runs as fast (a 4.48 40) as San Francisco 49er wide receiver Jerry Rice.
Also consider that this season Okoye has been relatively injury-free—except for a nagging thigh bruise, which caused him to miss a critical game against the Denver Broncos in Week 10—after sitting out seven games in 1988 because of various thumb, back and hand injuries. In his first two seasons he gained a total of 1,133 yards.
In addition, he has the right coach this year. Marty Schottenheimer, who took over in Kansas City last January, believes in the rushing game as much as any coach in the league. "I feel you have to run to win," says Schottenheimer. "It gives you confidence knowing you can control the ball on someone."
Schottenheimer took one look at Okoye at the Chiefs' minicamp last spring and decided: If he's healthy, he's my workhorse. That would not have been a difficult decision for any coach to make if he had seen what Schottenheimer saw at that camp. After timing Okoye at 4.48 in the 40, he checked the stopwatches of five assistants for confirmation, and then had Okoye run another 40, just to be sure. This time the watches all came up around 4.5. Schottenheimer was euphoric. "I can remember Marty asking me, 'How many times do you think you can carry the ball in a game?' " says Okoye. "I told him I once carried 40 times in college. I told him I often carried 30 times a game at Azusa. Marty was surprised. I told him I could do that. It is no problem for me."
Schottenheimer also inherited an offensive line that was one of the NFL's hidden gems. It averages 6'5" and 287 pounds, and its members love to run-block. But the Chiefs had had a pass-oriented offense the previous six years under coaches John Mackovic and Frank Gansz. That isn't a knock on those regimes. Kansas City hadn't had a great back since Joe Delaney, who died before the 1983 season. Since then the Chiefs have finished 28th, 27th, 28th, 27th, 19th and 22nd in the league in rushing.
But with Okoye healthy and Schottenheimer committed to the ground game, things would be different. "Running the ball sends a message we've needed to send on this team," says Eatman. "Want to hear an offensive lineman bitch? Throw the ball nine times in a row. You can't dominate someone as an offensive lineman by pass blocking. You want to bludgeon people."
Shottenheimer's plans were almost derailed when Okoye injured his neck during preseason drills and missed five weeks of training camp. "But for a guy who hasn't been playing football for long," says Schottenheimer, "it was remarkable how, intellectually, he just picked the offense up when he came back." Okoye didn't have a single carry in K.C.'s exhibition games, and he got just five in a season-opening loss at Denver. Over the next eight games, however, he averaged 26 carries and 114 yards. Impressive figures, especially considering that no K.C. back had exceeded 110 yards in a game since 1981. "I would have to say it is quite amazing," says Okoye.
In the space of a month Okoye tied the Chiefs' record for carries in a game (30, on Oct. 8 against the Seattle Seahawks), broke it (33, Oct. 22, against the Dallas Cowboys) and broke it again (37, Nov. 5, against Seattle). "The key was that Marty has pushed Christian and didn't let the fact that he didn't see Christian in camp affect his plans," says Kansas City president and general manager Carl Peterson. "I don't think he'll continue to run this much. When he ran 30 times against Seattle, I talked to Marty about it, and we figured that maybe 22 to 26 carries a game would be about right. Then he runs 37 times, and I'm saying, 'Wow, we're going the other way.' "
The Chiefs wisely reduced Okoye's load after he missed the game on Nov. 12. In the next two games, he averaged 21 carries. Then he came roaring back against Miami, and in the process he broke the team record for rushing yards in a season.
Okoye is still learning, of course. He runs too upright; defenders get too many open shots at him, and even though they generally bounce off, the hits take a toll. "I am very sore on Monday," he says.
Okoye also needs to protect the ball better in traffic; he has fumbled six times this season. He needs to hit holes more precisely and quickly. And he needs to become a better receiver; he has only two catches for the year. However, those improvements will come with time. "Some things in football you learn as a junior high or high school player," says Peterson. "But you've got to realize he never was one."
In high school, at the Uwani Secondary School in Enugu, Okoye became a discus thrower, and he says that if he had not decided to come to the U.S. to study and be a track and field athlete, he would probably be coaching track at the school today. The first time he picked up a football, he tried to play catch but couldn't figure out how to handle the ball. Okoye made the Azusa Pacific football team in 1984, and in '86 he led all collegians in rushing yards per game, with 186.7. In the '87 draft, K.C. gave up second-and fourth-round choices to move up 11 spots in the second round, where it claimed the unpolished Okoye.
Talent has sufficed so far. On Oct. 8 in Seattle, Okoye took a handoff from Jaworski at the Seahawk 13. He shrugged off an arm tackle from linebacker Tony Woods at the line and churned over linebacker David Wyman, who was flat on his back, at the 11. Safety Nesby Glasgow and end Jeff Bryant had shots and missed. Cornerback Patrick Hunter and safety Eugene Robinson dived at Okoye's legs at the five, and he pistoned through them. At the goal line, cornerback Melvin Jenkins made a fruitless grab for him. Seven Seahawks had tried to stop Okoye, and seven had failed. What's remarkable is that none of them even swayed the guy. Okoye hardly broke stride.
"You try to think of who he reminds you of," says Webster, who has been in the league for 16 years. "Earl Campbell is the only guy who comes to mind. But he was 35 pounds lighter than Christian, and Christian is probably faster. Look at how Christian is built. The guy ought to be blocking for me."
"To feel the force he runs with is amazing," says Eatman. "He has slammed into my back on running plays a few times, and the only way I can describe what it feels like is to imagine standing on the street and getting hit by a car going 50 miles an hour. And he's just getting a head of steam by the time he gets to me. Imagine what it's like to tackle him."
The 6-6-1 Chiefs are one of the league's more promising clubs, and Okoye's teammates are giddy about the guy's future. "He's a military weapon yet to be fully tested," says Eatman. They figure he hasn't taken the pounding that other backs in their late 20's, like Dickerson and Herschel Walker, have taken. They figure his combination of size and speed is so exceptional that teams will have to gang up on defense to stop him, leaving the rest of the Kansas City offense wide open. They figure that when the game becomes instinctive to him, he'll devise even more ways to shuck off the bodies trying to cling to him. "It's almost like every day you're opening a Christmas present, because you see something new and so exciting," says Peterson.
Okoye's teammates got one of those presents a few weeks ago in the game against Seattle. There was a TV timeout in the second half. Jaworski spread the word that the next play would be a 2 Flip Wide 36, a straight-ahead, man-on-man-blocking play in which Okoye would pick the best hole and try to blast through the line.
"Linemen! Linemen!" said a huffing and puffing Okoye from the back of the huddle. His teammates were stunned. He never talked in the huddle. When they all looked, Okoye said, "I'm going to cut this one back, linemen!"
Okoye's confidence is growing, but opponents still taunt him and try to break his concentration. "Sometimes the other players cuss me out and say bad words," he says. "Or they'll say things like, 'Not today! Not today!' Silly things. But it is nothing. After the game everyone shakes hands, and all is forgotten. I do not hate them. There is no one I do not like.
"But," he adds, "I do like to beat them."