Toledo senior linebacker, Richard Olekanma is a part of the growing story of Nigerians excelling in American football.PHOTO: UTROCKETS.COM.
With a population estimated at nearly 200 million people, Nigeria has just about everything. The economic engine of western Africa, Nigeria is a major producer of petroleum, cocoa beans and gold, products that wind up in just about every country in the world. However, in recent years one special Nigerian export has had just one destination—football players bound for the United States, reports utrockets.com.
Since 1987 when the Kansas City Chiefs selected running back Christian Okoye in the second round of the NFL Draft, 50 Nigerian-born players have made it to the NFL. Seven were selected in the 2018 NFL Draft. Hundreds more have played college ball.Toledo senior linebacker Richard Olekanma is a part of the growing story of Nigerians excelling in a sport that is rarely, if ever, played on the African continent.Born in Lagos in 1996, Oleknama is the third native of Nigeria to play for the Rockets (T.J. Fatinikun and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi are the other two).
Olekanma came to the United States with his family when he was five. He came with his father, Uchenna, who took up residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Ill. after graduating from medical school in Nigeria (Richard’s mother, Vera, had emigrated to the U.S. a year earlier).Though happy to be rejoining his mother, Richard was otherwise less than enthusiastic about the move at the time. And his initial reaction to Chicago was somewhat chilly.
“I didn’t want to go,” he recalled. “I was a typical kid. I didn’t want to leave my friends and my home. When we first got there, I remember being lost all the time, not knowing where anything was. And I remember the cold. I wasn’t used to that kind of cold.”
The Olekanmas’ plan was somewhat fluid at the time, but Uchenna thought he would get his education in the U.S. and then someday return with his family to Nigeria to practice medicine. Before long, however, that idea became more remote.“Our family assimilated into America so well so the idea of going back to Nigeria was put on the back burner,” said Uchenna. Instead, the Olekanmas made the Chicago area their permanent home. Richard and his father became proud U.S. citizens in 2007, joining his mother, who already was a citizen, and sister, Kessie, who was born in the U.S.
Richard excelled in school and soon became enamored with sports, especially football (the American version, not the kind with the round ball that most Nigerians play). He had help learning the new game from his uncle, Uchenna Asonye, who had been living in Chicago for a number of years.“My uncle was a huge Bears fan. We used to watch Bears games with him and my cousin Daniel,” said Richard. “He taught us all the rules of the game. So we started playing football in the backyard, and then pee-wee football. I’m very competitive, so my motivation at the time was to try to be better than my cousin, who was a very good football player.”
The support of Richard’s parents was crucial in nurturing his development in football. While many immigrants find the sport maddeningly incomprehensible, the Olekanmas embraced it, partly because they were athletes themselves back in Nigeria. Uchenna was a boxer and played soccer, while Vera ran track.“Richard just loved football,” said his father.” He couldn’t get enough of it. It’s the iconic American sport so we were very happy for him.”
Like typical American parents, the Olekanmas went to their son’s games, bought him the latest gear and loaded up the car for football camp road trips.“I didn’t really start to appreciate what my parents have done for me until I came to college,” said Richard. “I was a typical high school kid who thought their parents were lame. But I started to think about how they came to all my games, drove me to camps every weekend. I remember the first camp I went to was 12 hours away in Rochester, N.Y.
“I think my dad had to take off three days of work to drive me there. And it wasn’t fun. It was raining the whole time. I hated that camp, actually. But I appreciate that my dad took me there.”Richard excelled enough at football to earn a scholarship at UT. A key player on the defense now, Richard’s college career has had its challenges. He played in a limited role as a redshirt freshman in 2015, then missed most of 2016 due to injuries.
Last season, however, he played an important role on the team, playing in every game and making 45 tackles. As a senior this season, he is expected to assume a role as a leader for the defending MAC champions.While Richard has seen many of his teammates move on to the NFL (including fellow Nigerian Adeniyi), he knows his future will more likely take place off the playing field. A bioengineering major, Richard is still deciding what aspect of the medical field will suit him best.
“I’ll probably wait until the last second to decide,” he said with a laugh. “I’m trying to think about what will make me the most happy in the future.”One thing on Richard’s future to-do list is a trip to Nigeria. He has not been to his native land since coming to America all those years ago. “I want to go but I’ve always been too busy with school and sports. Hopefully, I can visit there someday soon,” he said.
Uchenna said he is looking forward to a return trip to Nigeria with his son. It would certainly be a moment for both of them to reflect on how different their lives have become since leaving their homeland.“If you had told me back then that Richard would be playing college football in America, I would have said no, no way,” said Uchenna. “It is really what is called the Great American Dream.”