He was the very reason I became a Chiefs fan. The year is 1987 and, at 10 years old, I faced peer pressure to hurry up and answer who my favorite team and player was. Some quick research revealed the Nigerian Nightmare - the perfect blend of size and speed who would go on to become a 2-time Pro Bowler and a Chiefs Hall of Famer. I was hooked.
While some believe it was an injured knee, Christian Okoye actually walked away from the NFL on his own terms in 1992. In his six seasons, Okoye gave fans a rushing title in 1989, renewed hopes for team success with the one-two punch of the relentless ground game with Barry Word and made Marty Schottenheimer a hero for KC fans. Off the field, he continues to impress with his charitable work for underprivileged children through the Okoye Foundation.
We recently sat down with Okoye to discuss his playing days, why he walked away and his time off the field. Here, in Part One (Part Two will run tomorrow), Okoye gives us the lowdown on working with Coach Schottenheimer, why there was never any bad blood with Barry Word and how he actually wishes he could have caught the ball more.
AP: As you're coming into the league in '87, what were the Chiefs saying to you about your role before anything even started?
Christian: Of course, when I got to the Chiefs in '87, I was so new to the game that I'm kinda like, 'Um, whatever comes along, I'll try to deal with it.' [Laughs] Actually, my third year when Marty Schottenheimer came around, he actually called me in before the off-season program started and before the training camp started and he met with me for a day and explained to me what he intends to do as far as getting the team moving forward. He told me he was going to focus on the running game to start with and then that would help us out. I said, 'Coach, I'm just ready so you let me know.' So that's what he did and that year I led the league in rushing because of that.
Christian: [Pause] I don't think so. We just planned on trying to improve the team with the running game first and and that was the game plan. He just stuck with it and it worked out. The previous two years, we had only won eight games put together and that third year we won eight games. So that was the start of a good thing for the Kansas City Chiefs.
AP: What about your own mindset? When Marty says the ground game is the focus, how do you change your own preparation?
Christian: I didn't change anything honestly. I was so young in the game that running was really the only thing I knew. [Laughs] So I worked hard at it and knew they would put me hard at work doing what I knew best. It wasn't me going out there and catching balls, so I loved it.
AP: You mention that you weren't catching the ball out of the backfield, but your first year that seemed like it might be part of the Okoye package. You caught 24 that year and that became by far the most you ever snagged. Was that something you were hoping to do more of or was that part of Marty's ground game plan?
Christian: Well, I was hoping I could catch the ball more, but I didn't the opportunity to do it. We just focused so much on the running game to help us with the passing game. So I didn't mind it. I didn't mind it at all.
AP: So take me back to that season in '89 which was such a great year for you and a breakthrough year for the Chiefs. They started that year much like this one by cleaning house and bringing in Carl Peterson and Marty Schottenheimer. Did you guys feel like things were really changing for the better?
Christian: Well, we knew things were going to change for the better. I mean, they did change everything when Carl came in. There was a new focus. Before you couldn't give away a ticket and then when they came in, we were selling out. Obviously the running game picked up and when a team runs the ball, people tend to enjoy watching them better and then you have more chances of winning and that's exactly what happened to us.
AP: What kind of a coach was Marty for you?
Christian: I don't have a great story on him or anything, but I just really respect the man. Of course, he was the only coach I ever had in the NFL. But he was a good one. I respect him. He knows what's he doing. He's a coach's coach.
AP: What do you mean by coach's coach?
Christian: When you talk to him, he comes across as if he knows what he's talking about. There's no question that he knows the game. He knows how to get his team up to play definitely - with preparation and everything. He studies the other team very, very well and he can get you the details of what's going to happen and everything we should do. He prepares very, very well.
AP: What about competition within the ground game? For example, with Barry Word's success...
Christian: We didn't have any problem at all. The thing is that the press in Kansas City tried to play with that a bit, but in the locker room we didn't have any problems. Barry didn't have any problems and I didn't. Of course, I was there first and then he came second, but we shared the role very well. The only thing I had to do was the concentrate on my own game and better myself and everything else will be taking care of. We're playing for the same team, so that's all that matters. Before Barry came, I was taking care of the entire load and when he came, I probably played a year longer than I really should have.
AP: At what point did the knee start hurting?
Christian: You know, my knee really wasn't that much of a problem. When I left the game, I left the game because I wanted to. My knee is fine. That last season when I didn't play in '93, I had my knee scoped. It was just a scope to clean it out, so that's not an injury that will keep you from playing. I just decided to leave the game.
AP: So is there any looking back on your part?
Christian: You know, no, I didn't. When I left, I left. I didn't want to prolong anything.
AP: That's interesting because that next year, the Chiefs win the division and go on to a couple of 13 win seasons.
Christian: Well, it would have been sweet, but I was done, so I was happy for whoever was there. There's nothing I can do about that. I've had my cake so somebody else is enjoying his.
Part two of the interview is here.