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Big Plans in Store : Azusa Businessman Okoye Yearns to Get Back in the Business of Pro Football

August 11, 1994|KIRBY LEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shoplifting may be an ongoing problem for merchants nationwide, but the owner of an Azusa sports apparel store nestled near the San Gabriel Mountains reports no such trouble.

Then again, not many store owners stand 6-foot-1, weigh 260 pounds and can boast of being the 1989 AFC Player of the Year.

"My picture in the front of the store scares them away," Christian Okoye said.

Shoplifters appear to share a common bond with NFL teams: Each is reluctant to test the speed of Okoye, whose pro career came to a halt last year after his release by the Kansas City Chiefs. Okoye, who has undergone surgeries on both knees and his back, says he is healthy.

"As far as my health, I'm fine now and my speed is up," Okoye said. "I'm 32 and people might say, 'He's getting old,' but I've played only six years in football and I didn't play in high school so I'm probably healthier now than people in the NFL. There are still guys in my age group playing so I'm not ready to retire. I'm still fresh and miss the game.

"The only thing I can do is stay in shape until a team calls me so I can go back to work."

The San Diego Chargers and the Arizona Cardinals have expressed interest in the two-time Pro Bowl selection and the Raiders gave him a tryout this summer, but contract offers have yet to materialize for the former Azusa Pacific University athlete.

So Okoye keeps in shape by training four hours in the mornings at Azusa Pacific before coming to work at his store in the afternoons. His 1989 Pro Bowl jersey hangs above the front counter and posters and photographs from his playing days with the Chiefs line the walls of the store, which is located across the street from the school where he first gained fame.

The native of Enugu, Nigeria, Okoye had never seen a football until he arrived at Azusa Pacific in 1982 on a track and field scholarship.

A 17-time National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American, Okoye set NAIA records in the 100 (10.15 seconds), 200 (20.57) as well as the discus and 35-pound weight throw to help the Cougars to four NAIA team championships.

Okoye decided to give football a try in 1984 after failing to make the Nigerian Olympic team. Azusa Pacific coaches had to place a large sign with a black arrow on the field to show Okoye which direction to run during his first season of football.

Okoye proved a quick learner, setting a school-record 3,569 yards and 34 touchdowns in two seasons and leading the NAIA with 1,680 yards in 1986.

NFL teams were intrigued with his size and speed and the Chiefs made Okoye a second-round pick in 1987.

Okoye, who gained acclaim as the "Nigerian Nightmare," rushed for 4,897 yards and a team-record 40 touchdowns in his six seasons with Kansas City and is the only Chief to rush for more than 1,000 yards in two seasons. Okoye also holds Kansas City single-season records for rushing attempts, yardage and most consecutive 100-yard games with three.

A knee injury forced the Chiefs to put him on injured reserve during the 1993 exhibition season, which prompted a request from Okoye for an injury settlement in lieu of missing the entire season.

Okoye had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, but did not recover in time to play. He also had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after the 1992 season in which he started only five games and gained a career-low 448 yards after leading the team in rushing four of the six previous seasons, including an NFL-leading 1,480 yards in 1989.

"When I left the Chiefs nobody knew what was going on," Okoye said. "The knee injury wasn't a torn ligament or anything serious like that. I always had plans to come back. I got my release from the doctors in the middle of the free agency market and I came out late so I think that worked against me."

This summer, Okoye's prospects were hampered by minor back surgery for a herniated disk to correct a condition incurred while playing with the Chiefs, according to his agent, Jack Mills, who speculates teams have been apprehensive because of concerns about Okoye's health.

"It's out of my control, I'm just waiting for the phone call to come from the right team," Okoye said. "I know there is a salary cap but I can't understand what the problem is."

His affinity for Azusa Pacific, where he received a physical education degree and once worked as a janitor for three years to help finance his education, were among the factors that prompted the Nigerian to open his business in Azusa.

"I've always liked the area because I have so many friends here," said Okoye, who lives in Alta Loma. "I had the store in mind for a while, but I really started to get serious about it in February when the space became available.

"A lot of people come in for autographs but most people come to shop and check it out because they like what they see. We have some nice stuff here. We're breaking even and given time it will improve. Any time you start something new, it's always turns out harder than you think."

So has Okoye's return to the NFL.

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