Passion and genetics fuelling a Nigerian surge in U.S. sports

Hakeem Olajuwon and Christian Okoye led a wave of Nigerian athletes in the U.S. Graphic by Michael Meredith

These are the stories that I live for because they show that we are not all Evans the kidnapper or drug dealers. Yes, Nigerians excel at things too and this should be noted. Wizkid is taking our music to America and beyond; Nollywood is now a force to reckon with. And sport? We just keep getting better and better and better!

According to Bobby Burton of 247Sports, this trend has been growing for a while now. Burton lives in a Houston recruiting hotbed, and started noticing some patterns. Who were these kids with the strange names? They were polite, dedicated and often studs. They were Nigerian, or the second-generation offspring of Nigerians, playing the hell out of American football.

Their story, however, goes beyond college football – or even college athletics. Forget any athletic stereotype, CBS Sports reports that Nigerians have a fierce family pride and dogged belief in education – particularly higher education – that allows them to succeed in the States.

We are the kings of “I must hammer”. Success is our watchword, possibly the only thing we really, truly respect. So it makes sense that our names keep popping up in draft picks and halls of fame.

Here are some names of Nigerians tearing it up States-side:

  1. Oluwole Betiku might be the next Nigerian phenom in the NFL. The sophomore linebacker is already the talk of Southern California, where they affectionately they call him “Wole”. Betiku was discovered at a basketball camp in Nigeria. At age 15, he rode 11 hours in a bus to that camp in hopes of finding a better life for his impoverished family.
    Oluwole Betiku – “Wole” – is one of a handful of players with Nigerian roots playing at USC. John McGillen
  2. Samuel Onyedikachi and Emmanuel Chinedum Acho are brothers, both of them Texas/NFL linebackers. They are second generation Americans, but are connected to Nigeria, having done more than 15 trips to the motherland, partaking in various humanitarian projects.
    Sam and Emmanuel Acho (currently a free agent) both made it to the NFL. USATSI


  3. Lou Ayeni is the Iowa State’s running backs coach and born to Nigerian expats to the US. His parents, Babs and Flora, both have PhDs. His father is a statistical engineer, his mother, a biomedical statistician. One sister, Tina, is a nationally noted oncologist who treated the mother of Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. Before coaching, he played tailback and safety for the Wildcats under Randy Walker and surviving eight surgeries in his career.
  4. Running back Kene Nwangwu was the state high jump champion out of Dallas, not the kind of player who come to Ames, Iowa. He was offered by every Big 12 school. Iowa State got him.
  5. All-American linebacker Brian Orakpo came out of Houston to win a national championship at Texas. He has been selected for the Pro Bowl in half of his eight pro seasons.
  6. Emeka Okafor was the first member of his Nigerian family born in the United States. The former UConn basketball star and No. 2 overall draft pick played 10 NBA seasons. Distant cousin Jahlil Okafor was the No. 3  pick overall in 2015 out of Duke.
  7. USC tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe is as American as apple pie. He was born in Nigeria but grew up in suburban Atlanta before signing with Florida and immediately transferring to USC.  Imatorbhebhe’s mother is a biomedical consultant. His father worked for a mortgage company before the financial crash. His brother, Josh, is a Trojans receiver.
  8. Six years ago, Morolake Akinosun was a promising teenage sprinter from Chicago. One day the Nigerian native randomly tweeted the hopes and dreams of a 16-year-old girl: graduate from college, go to the Olympics and win a gold medal. She accomplished all three.

Ancestry is not necessarily destiny. That you were born with excellent muscle tone or the potential to become a world-class athlete does not mean that this will necessarily happen for you. But to the Nigerians making the difference in sports in America, we say a hearty congratulations.

Some excerpts taken from CBS Sports.

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