As part of a group of eight players added to NFL clubs through the NFL International Pathway program, Basil Chijioke Okoye’s arrival to the Los Angeles Chargers was announced on May 4.
Just more than three months later, CJ Okoye, a defensive lineman, played a football game for the first time in his life and came away with a sack of a national champion that elicited hardy cheers from his teammates.
It was the latest announcement that Okoye has arrived.
“It was an amazing moment for me,” Okoye said Tuesday, via team transcript, of his fourth-down sack of Los Angeles Rams quarterback Stetson Bennett to wrap up the Chargers’ 34-17 preseason win.
Okoye’s sack came on the Chargers’ final defensive play in a game that had long been decided. But it was a moment to remember, and one his new teammates rejoiced in then and in the days following it.
“Watching it is like putting all this together, in one, it was a moment for me,” Okoye said. “It was [an] amazing moment seeing my teammates, see my D-line room go crazy like that. I wish to go back there again.”
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A 21-year-old Nigerian, Okoye is in the infant stages of even learning the game considering Saturday stands as his first time playing an organized game of football. In contrast, the quarterback on the wrong end of Okoye’s sack was the 25-year-old Bennett, who’s won twice as many national titles for Georgia (two) as Okoye has played in organized games.
“This time last year, I was in Nigeria,” Okoye said. “I didn’t even know if I would come to the [United] States or play football. Sometimes it hits me, ‘You’re in the States with the Chargers in the NFL. You need to make the most out of it.’ I’m shocked every day, but I still need to go out and do my thing.”
Players such as Jakob Johnson, Efe Obada and most notably Jordan Mailata have been produced by the International Pathway Program. Despite garnering buzz and a must-see highlight in his first game, Okoye remains grounded in the reality that a long road lies ahead.
“I don’t think I’m a celebrity yet, it’s just my story,” Okoye said. “I have never played football, just magically got a sack. I won’t lie, it’s an awesome feeling but you don’t go too high, you don’t go too low just stay in the middle and do your thing. For me, it’s just learning the most I can do, go out there and learn because we have the best D-line in the entire league. I want to learn more plays and learn more techniques.”
Okoye, who got nine snaps on Saturday, remains an underdog for the Chargers’ 53-man roster, but with his raw ability could project as a practice squad addition who could develop.
Perhaps Okoye is a natural. Or maybe he’ll just be a preseason footnote. Only the autumns ahead will tell, but for now he’s a feel-good story as the Chargers zero in on the regular season.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to play the next snap,” he said, “so every opportunity I get, I go 100 percent.”
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