The NFL has been in existence for over 100 years.
Despite the league’s longevity, it continues to surprise each and every year.
Whether it is a team outperforming expectations (or underperforming) or an athlete that has come from nowhere, storylines abound.
It is virtually guaranteed that this coming NFL season will showcase a team that wasn’t supposed to contend.
Another guarantee is that an athlete almost no one has heard of will capture the imagination of NFL fans.
Such was the case during the 1987 NFL season.
That’s when a relatively unknown running back from tiny Azusa Pacific University burst onto the scene.
In the second round of the 1987 draft, Kansas City selected Christian Okoye.
Okoye would quickly become one of the league’s most popular players as the “Nigerian Nightmare.”
Although his career was short, Okoye is still remembered for his thunderous runs and powerful frame.
He is also remembered for a monster hit from a certain Denver Bronco in which Okoye was the recipient.
This is the story of the “Nigerian Nightmare.”
I know Derrick Henry is a big dude but younglings….let me introduce you to Christian Okoye pic.twitter.com/sXr1k3MZ8e
— Jay Guest (@JayGuest3) January 19, 2020
Early Life and College
Christian Emeka Okoye was born on August 16, 1961, in Enugu, Nigeria.
He is a member of the Igbo ethnic group, a group that can also be found in present-day Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Growing up in Nigeria, Okoye was enamored with sports.
He participated in soccer as well as track and field.
In his late teens, Okoye stopped playing soccer to concentrate on his track events.
His ability in the throwing events (discus, shot put, hammer) helped him get a scholarship at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California in 1983.
Part of Okoye’s decision to attend APU was to prepare for the 1984 Olympics.
After arriving in the States, Okoye was coached by Dr. Terry Franson.
Under Franson’s tutelage, Okoye excelled.
In four years, he helped lead APU to four NAIA Track and Field titles.
In addition to the titles, Okoye won seven titles combined in the discus, hammer throw and shot put.
He was the first athlete in NAIA history to win the discus four years running.
In 1985, Okoye set an NAIA record with a throw of 208’4 in the discus.
The following year, he was named NAIA’s Most Outstanding Performer for his performance in the outdoor championships after he won both the shot put and discus.
Okoye also did well on the indoor circuit, twice being named an NAIA champion for his shot and discus ability.
Hurtful Omission Leads to a Career in Football
In the lead up to the 1984 Olympics, Okoye had the throw marks necessary to compete for Nigeria.
However, the Nigerian government decided not to include Okoye on its team.
The news crushed Okoye and he decided to pursue a different outlet for his frustrations.
During his time at Azusa, Okoye continued to compete in track, but he also discovered football.
When he initially saw a game, Okoye thought the sport was rather boring.
However, even though he had never played the sport, he believed he might be able to do fairly well given his strength and athletic ability.
Before going out for the team, Okoye sought Franson’s permission.
Knowing Okoye was left off the Nigerian Olympic team, Franson gave his blessing.
Next was the matter of choosing a position to try out for.
Okoye had watched an NFL game where he saw a player in a Raiders jersey score a touchdown.
He asked a coach who the player was and what position he played.
The coach responded that the player was Marcus Allen and that he played running back.
Okoye decided that he, too, would be a running back.
Curious, the coach set up a 40-yard dash to see how fast Okoye was.
To the coach’s amazement, Okoye blazed through the finish line in a time of 4.38 seconds.
Not only was the time remarkable, but the fact that Okoye accomplished the feat at 6’1”, 260 pounds was astounding.
Now that Okoye had his position selected, he had to learn the nuances of the game.
With help from his coaches and fellow players, Okoye slowly but surely figured out the sport.
There were hiccups, of course.
For example, when he first scored a touchdown, Okoye was not sure what to do.
He stood still in the end zone until a referee asked him for the ball.
There were times when Okoye considered giving up football.
Despite his size, he did not like the physical aspect of the game.
Thankfully, Franson, teammates and friends talked him out of quitting.
Okoye would be glad they did.
From Enugu, Nigeria — to a workout for the Chiefs in Asuza, California — to NFL All-Pro — to the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Honor — to founder and member of the California Sports Hall of Fame.
Christian Okoye. pic.twitter.com/Kti1GYGrfQ
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 16, 2020
By the time his eligibility at APU ended, Okoye was one of the best small college backs in America.
He set 14 program records for APU and led the nation with 186.7 rushing yards per game in 1986.
Even with his accomplishments, Okoye was not selected for any postseason All-Star games after the ‘86 season.
That changed when a running back slated to play in the Senior Bowl chose not to attend.
Okoye was asked to play in his place and he jumped at the opportunity.
Though he was playing on an injured ankle, Okoye rushed for four touchdowns during the game.
That is a record that still stands.
Destiny Calls Okoye
Okoye’s play in the Senior Bowl raised eyebrows.
Among the raised ‘brows were members of the Kansas City Chiefs coaching staff.
They brought word back to their bosses and the entire staff poured over stats and film of Okoye for the next few months.
There was the issue that the young back was still learning the game and that he had played at a tiny school.
However, his skills were undeniable.
With the 35th overall pick of the second round in the 1987 NFL Draft, the Chiefs selected Okoye.
Not long after arriving in KC, Okoye was timed in the 40 again.
Mouths flew open when Okoye’s time was announced at 4.45 seconds.
Christian Okoye running the 40 for scouts. I think he ran a 4.45 of 4.55 pic.twitter.com/QCCnstbY1x
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) October 31, 2018
His new teammates marveled at the specimen before them.
Not only was Okoye fast, his size was impressive.
At the time, he had a 34-inch waist and 28-inch thighs.
Okoye could squat 725 pounds, bench press 405 and power clean 395.
Kansas City Chiefs running back "The Nigerian Nightmare" Christian Okoye was the NFL rushing leader in 1989 and a 2 time pro bowler during his 6 year career, ended prematurely because of injuries. #ChristianOkoye #NigerianNightmare #KansasCity #Chiefs #KansasCityChiefs #football pic.twitter.com/aleFJlx2zY
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) January 18, 2021
“Back in the day, everyone started talking about big 300-pound linemen. Christian was sitting there in the locker room right before a game one day and I was like, ‘Christian, step on the scale.’ We had one of those big scales. He’s got his helmet, shoulder pads, everything. He steps on the scale and the dude was 300 frickin’ pounds! And I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” said former teammate Deron Cherry.
During his rookie year, Okoye became an instant hit.
He started 12 games and rushed for 660 yards on 157 carries and scored three rushing touchdowns.
Okoye proved a light touch as a receiver as well when he hauled in 24 passes for 169 yards.
The Chiefs in 1987 were not very good, ending the year at 4-11.
One of the lone bright spots was Okoye who ran over, through and around opponents.
In his first season, each opponent took a moment when taking in the sight of the Chiefs’ running back.
It didn’t take long before they did their best to steer clear of him during the game.
“They (Kansas City) had a huge offensive line back in those days, too, and they had Barry Word, who wasn’t much smaller than Okoye. The left tackle, John Alt, was 6-foot-8. They had Dave Szott, who was a really good Pro Bowl-caliber guard. If you got a stalemate and were able to get off a block, here comes 260 pounds running fast. Okoye was just a fricking monster,” said former Seahawk and Bronco Dave Wyman.
In 1988, Okoye battled a thumb injury and played in only nine games.
His numbers fell to 473 rushing yards with three scores and eight receptions for 51 yards.
The Chiefs went 4-11-1 and head coach Frank Gansz was fired at the end of the year.
Schottenheimer Arrives in KC
With the departure of Gansz, the Kansas City brass were looking for someone to turn around the fortunes of their club.
Meanwhile, coach Marty Schottenheimer was leaving Cleveland despite taking the Browns to back-to-back AFC Championships in 1986 and 1987.
The Chiefs didn’t waste any time and quickly hired Schottenheimer.
The turnaround was immediate and Kansas City benefitted from Schottenheimer.
During the 1989 season, the Chiefs went 8-7-1, but did not make the playoffs.
Okoye enjoyed his best season as a pro when he led the league with 370 carries and 1,480 yards.
He scored 12 touchdowns as well.
After the season, Okoye was named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Year, a First-team All-Pro and was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
The Atwater Hit
1990 was shaping up to be a big year for Kansas City.
That year, the team rode both Okoye and Barry Word, who would receive Comeback Player of the Year after his 1,015 yards for the season.
Because of Word, Okoye’s role was reduced slightly.
He still rushed for 805 yards and seven touchdowns in ‘90.
By then, Okoye’s origin story and bruising running style had brought him fame throughout the league and birthed a nickname, the “Nigerian Nightmare.”
Talking about Sodiq Yusuff, Dana White says there used to be "Nigerian Nightmare" in boxing. All due respect, you have to praise the first and greatest "Nigerian Nightmare" Christian Okoye! #ContenderSeries pic.twitter.com/LnDptQOmvv
— Michael Stets (@Michael_Stets) July 25, 2018
Although, according to his coaches, the “Nightmare” was still learning the game, even during his fourth season.
“We were having a meeting and we had rules for 3-4 and a 4-3 [defensive alignments] — these were your passing assignments, who you blocked on pass plays. Christian waited ’til everybody left and he said, ‘Coach, what is a 4-3 and a 3-4?’ Great question, dude. Good thing you asked! That happened real early with us together. Then I knew what I had to do to teach and make sure he was ready. No one studied it harder. What a joy he was to coach,” said former Chiefs running backs coach (and current Buccaneers head coach) Bruce Arians.
There was no denying that, even though he was still learning the game, Okoye was a load to bring down on the field.
“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,” said Arians.
An ‘ooooooh’ of a different kind occurred during the Chiefs Week 2 game against the Denver Broncos.
The game was tight and would end with the Broncos winning 24-23.
At one point during the contest, Okoye took a handoff and was skirting through a hole in the Chiefs line.
Suddenly, Broncos safety Steve Atwater arrived and planted Okoye on his back.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) February 7, 2020
Broncos fans went nuts at the sight of the huge Okoye being de-cleated by the lighter 6’3”, 218 pound Atwater.
The play was shown on highlights for weeks after.
However, to this day, Okoye and his teammates swear the hit was not all it appeared to be.
“The one thing I guess everybody talks about is the hit, all the folks in Denver do, about this amazing hit that Steve Atwater put on Christian,” said Cherry. “We watched it and that is a little different hit if Christian had both his feet on the ground. He was jumping over somebody and it just happened that Atwater came up and hit him at the right time. It would be a lot different story if he had both feet on the ground because he probably would have run him over.”
“He (Atwater) was a good football player,” Okoye said, “but that one play that everybody talks about, he just caught me off-guard. I had my head down, so I didn’t expect the hit. Everybody makes a big deal about it, but it was just a football play.”
In fact, Okoye has repeatedly mentioned that the hardest hit he ever received in football was not from Atwater, but former Bears All-Pro Richard Dent.
“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,” said Okoye.
The Chiefs finished the ‘90 season 11-5 and faced the Dolphins in the Wild Card Round.
KC led Miami 16-3 after three quarters. However, they couldn’t hold on and lost 17-16.
1991 and 1992
In ‘91, Okoye rushed for over 1,000 yards for the second time in his career.
In addition to his 1,031 yards, Okoye also added nine rushing touchdowns.
He was named to his second Pro Bowl and selected as a Second-team All-Pro.
First Kansas City Chiefs player you think of?
Mine is Christian Okoye…Tecmo Super Bowl bias… pic.twitter.com/oWHzvGsC9p
— onemillioncubs (@onemillioncubs) February 5, 2020
After the Chiefs ended the year 10-6, they squared off against their hated division rival, the Raiders, in the Wild Card Playoffs.
KC used their running back tandem of Word and Okoye to beat their rival 10-6.
“There was a psychological effect on defenses — even the Raiders, which was our super rival. Marty Schottenheimer couldn’t stand the Raiders,” said former Chiefs strong safety Lloyd Burruss. “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.”
The following week the team faced Buffalo and were run over 37-14.
Neither Okoye or Word could find any traction against a tough Bills defense.
The constant pounding on Okoye’s body was taking its toll by the 1992 season.
Limited by injuries, he started only five games.
His totals for the year were 144 rushes for 448 yards and six touchdowns.
Most of Okoye’s carries in ‘92 were near the goal line and his last carry as a Chief was an eight-yard touchdown run.
Kansas City finished 10-6 and were blanked by the Chargers 17-0 in the Wild Card Round.
In Okoye’s first two seasons in the NFL, his rushing attempts were 157 and 105 respectively.
During his next three seasons, he toted the rock 370, 245, and 225 times.
Schottenheimer was a coach known for his belief in a strong running game.
However, that philosophy turned out to be a detriment to Okoye.
“Christian actually intimidated and punished defenses,” said former KC quarterback Steve DeBerg. “Defensive linemen were OK with hitting him, and he was bigger than linebackers. Defensive backs absolutely did not want to have anything to do with him. He was just an extremely physical runner who had extraordinary speed for the size that he was. He was different. He was kind of like Earl Campbell, that style. He did punish the defense, but in the process, you punish yourself, too.”
“Christian had the size, but you talk about 30 carries and you’re getting hit by guys that are just as big as you or bigger [with fewer nickel defenses], eventually it takes a toll on you. I don’t care who you are,” added Cherry.
Okoye came back for the 1993 season, but was clearly beset by injuries.
Before the ‘93 season began, Kansas City placed him on injured reserve.
He then underwent surgery on both knees and the Chiefs released him with an injury settlement.
Okoye committed himself to rehab and intended to try out for other teams.
However, he began to see football more as a job and decided to retire.
“I stayed with football because my coaches and friends said I was good at it,” Okoye said. “Football wasn’t in my culture growing up, so it didn’t hit me as hard as it would someone who played it at an early age. I was actually happy to leave.”
In just six seasons, Okoye rushed for 4,897 yards in 1,246 attempts and 40 touchdowns.
At the time of his retirement, Okoye was the all-time Chiefs rushing leader.
His totals have since been surpassed by Priest Holmes, Marcus Allen and Larry Johnson.
After retiring, Okoye became an investor in the Golden Baseball League and owned Okoye Health and Fitness.
He also runs the Christian Okoye Foundation which helps Nigeria host sporting clinics for underprivileged kids.
Don’t under estimate the influence that Christian Okoye has had on his home country Nigeria when it comes to American football ….camps,clinics and mentoring young men! Congratulations to Kwity Paye on being draft in the 1st round( great story of family perseverance ) pic.twitter.com/mfkajOIm3V
— Tim Grunhard (@grunny61) April 30, 2021
Okoye has been recognized for his athletic talents by being inducted into the APU Athletics, Chiefs, NAIA Track and Field, Senior Bowl and Missouri Halls of Fame.
He helped found, and is a member of, the California Sports Hall of Fame.