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Derrick Nnadi could be the next Nigerian sensation for the Chiefs

If his father Fred has anything to say about it, it’s a lock.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Michigan vs Florida State Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

It all started with Christian Okoye.

The story is quite familiar to longtime Kansas City Chiefs fans. In 1982, Okoye emigrated to the United States to run track and field for California’s Azuza Pacific University. After winning college titles in the shot put, discus and hammer throw, he hoped to be named to the Nigerian team for the 1984 Olympics.

He was passed over.

Bitterly disappointed, in 1984 he switched to Azusa Pacific’s football program — a sport he had never played. As legend has it, after he watched his first football game, he pronounced it “boring.”

But it wasn’t boring when Okoye was playing.

Christian Okoye

In his first season, his coaches had to place a large black arrow on the field so he’d know which way to run. But as a senior, he led the NAIA with 1,680 rushing yards, and finished his three-year college career averaging 6.8 yards per carry with 34 touchdowns. After setting a Senior Bowl record with four touchdown runs, the NFL took notice.

And in 1987, he was drafted by the Chiefs in the second round of the NFL draft.

Okoye didn’t tear up the NFL at first. Hampered by a thumb injury in his second season, he was held to less than 700 yards in each of his first two seasons. But when Carl Peterson and Marty Shottenheimer came to town, things started working.

As the offensive line began to gel, Okoye became spectacular, becoming a consensus All-Pro after leading the NFL with 1,480 yards in 1989.

And his teammate — right tackle Irv Eatman — dubbed him “The Nigerian Nightmare.”


Okoye wasn’t the first Nigerian to play in the NFL. But he was its first Nigerian star. Many others would follow.

And another could be waiting in the wings.

As he stood before the media after Tuesday’s practice session at Chiefs training camp, rookie nose tackle Derrick Nnadi spoke about his father, who emigrated to the United States after surviving the bloody war between Nigeria and its secessionist state Biafra, in which more than a million Nigerians died.

“He’s told me tons and tons of stories,” he said. “When he was new in the country, it was just him and my mother and one of my siblings. They survived a whole year on $2,000. And that means a lot.”

His father Fred Nnadi faced a lot of struggles as a recent immigrant to the United States. In an interview given for a 2017 article about the influence of Nigerian athletes on American sports, he talked about arriving in America with three college degrees — and having difficulty finding employment.

“I went to a job interview one time. I had three degrees going in,” he said, per CBS Sports. “I applied to be a meter reader. The supervisor doesn’t have the degree I have.

“He hired me and didn’t say a word. When I left, he started [to] tell me … he wished he had the education I had. I had to feed my family. That’s why we emphasize education.”

Indeed they do. Fred and his wife Christy have seven children. Derrick’s brother Bradley is an actor. His sister Ashley is studying nursing. And according to Derrick, it’s all due to the influence of his father and mother.

Florida State v Mississippi Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

“He came to America with just his uncle. He built his life from the ground up — living in a little apartment, and having to build his own house for his family, with just his wife, to raise... man, I got a big family.” Derrick paused as the reporters laughed. “To raise four brothers and two sisters. And me. Seven kids. Just by themselves. All of my siblings have a wonderful life right now. It’s all thanks to my father and mother being great parents.”

And according to Derrick, his father’s technique was simply to be unrelenting in the quest for excellence. “My father is a stubborn man. So if I’m doing something good, he’ll say, ‘Good job. Keep going. But I want you to do better.’” he said.

“Coming to the NFL level, every day I talk to him, and he tries to give me the right mindset. He’ll say, ‘OK, you’re here. Now what? You have to prove yourself every day on the field.’ He’s been saying this to me since middle school. ‘You want to be the best of the best of the best of the best of the best.’”

Then Derrick chuckled. “You have to say it five times.”

But Fred Nnadi doesn’t consider his son to be a ticket to the gravy train. When asked if he was planning to do something special for his dad, Derrick said, “My father told me a long time ago, ‘Honestly, son, there’s nothing I want from you — other than for you to better yourself.

“In this career, there are going to be a lot of people that are going to call you. And every time they call you, they’re going to want something. As your father, when I call you, there’s only one thing I want from you: that’s to be a better you.’ So there’s nothing he wants from me except for me to have a better life.”

The Chiefs expect a lot from Fred Nnadi’s son. They traded two picks to move up in the third round to draft him, after all. But this is the NFL, and it’s hard to say what the future will hold for this young man.

But when you know a little more of his story, it’s sure hard to root against him.

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