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A LOOK AT SUNDAY'S RAIDER, RAM OPPONENTS : Okoye Plunging Ahead--Nigeria to Kansas City

December 12, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY — What are the odds that a discus thrower from Nigeria and a baseball player from the Deep South would find each other playing football here on a sub-freezing Sunday in December?

From Africa comes Christian Okoye, a humble giant for whom track and field blazed an unlikely trail to the Kansas City Chiefs.

From Bessemer, Ala., and another dimension comes Bo Jackson, pumping life into a Raider season that had all but flickered and died.

As they meet, Jackson leads National Football League rookies in rushing with 553 yards. Okoye is four yards behind. Small world. But, as Okoye sees it, it's all Bo's.

"I've seen him play twice (on TV)," Okoye said of Jackson. "He's a good athlete. I'm not experienced like he is. He's been playing football all his life. This is my fourth year, and I don't see myself as good as he is."

One could stretch a point for comparison. Both are big--Jackson weighs 230 pounds, Okoye 253--and fast, but Okoye defers without argument.

"He's faster. I'm bigger. But he's got the quickness. He's better than I am."

There he goes, Okoye is told, being modest again. Hasn't he left his own cleat marks on a few defenders?

"I've done it a couple of times. The two times we played the San Diego Chargers, I can recall running over people. But I think it was the defensive backs, not linebackers--the smaller guys.

"When I saw Bo run over Brian Bosworth, if I was there I shake his hand."

Their life styles have little in common. Next spring, Jackson will be back in Kansas City in the stadium next door, playing baseball. Okoye hopes to be a high school physical education teacher in Southern California, perhaps after a trip home to Nigeria. He can flat guarantee he won't be playing baseball.

"Oh, no," he said, laughing. "If you talk about sports that I hate, I hate baseball. I think it's very boring. I don't think I'll ever play it. The longest I've seen of (a baseball game) was maybe two minutes or a minute and a half."

When Okoye (pronounced a- coy -ya) arrived in the United States in 1982 to enroll at Azusa Pacific University, he was known only as a guy who wanted to throw some weight around--discus, shot, hammer, whatever--and help the school win some track and field championships in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics, which it did in each of his four seasons.

He still holds the African record for the discus and would like to represent Nigeria in the '88 Olympics but realizes it's a remote possibility, considering the conflict with football.

On the other hand, considering what has already happened for Okoye, almost anything is possible. His story is the stuff of legends, especially around Azusa and Enugu, his hometown of 187,000 in Nigeria:

Big, humble kid from another country sees first football game, thinks it looks like fun, tries it. Instant sensation, drafted by pro team, more success. People back home have no idea what he's doing but the money looks good, and he's still the same sweet kid he always was.

"I'm not a very good spender," Okoye said. "I don't have very much things to buy, except a few clothes."

There is no chance, he said, he'll ever be too Americanized to go home to Nigeria, where he is known by his nickname, Cho Cho.

"No, I'm a down-to-earth person," he said. "When I go back to Nigeria I'm still the same person.

Okoye is the fifth of seven children. His mother died in 1980 and his father is a military officer. At 26, he is old for a rookie, but then, Jackson is 25.

Whereas Bo's arrival in the NFL was delayed by baseball, Okoye spent two years working in Nigeria before he could come to the U.S., then had to support himself by working as a janitor his first year because he had only a partial track scholarship at Azusa Pacific. He got a full scholarship when he started playing football as a sophomore.

He gained 3,569 yards in three years and even though he wasn't playing against major competition, the Chiefs traded up 11 spots last spring to get him in the second round.

He has been one of the few highlights of a 2-10 season and a larger factor than Paul Palmer, the Heisman Trophy runner-up from Temple. Okoye has started all nine non-strike games and, besides his rushing, has caught 18 passes for 132 yards.

Chief coach Frank Gansz said, "Paul is not as large as Christian, so when you start to play the teams with the outside linebackers that really come after you, you've got to think about your pass protection as well as running the ball. Paul can do those things, but he doesn't have the size.

"But Christian is an outstanding fullback. When he came in here, the first time he lined up and ran out for a pass you could see the guy was very talented.

"And he's so impressive, so conscientious. He's really a professional, just an outstanding young man."

But he's not Bo Jackson, and the Chiefs don't ask him to be.

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