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Okoye, NFL players return to Nigeria


When defensive tackle Amobi Okoye moved from Nigeria to the United States at age 12, he knew very little about American football.

Okoye has come a long way in the last eight years. At 16 years old, he was the youngest player in college football when he enrolled at Louisville in 2003. The defensive tackle was selected tenth overall in the draft last year and went on to set a Texans rookie record with 5.5 sacks.

In March, Okoye returned to Nigeria and realized how much farther he has to go in his journey to help the people of his native country.

"It was overwhelming what needs to be done there," Okoye said. "There are so many needs in Nigeria. That's why we planned this trip."

Okoye and three other NFL players of Nigerian descent, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora and Chicago Bears defensive linemen Adewale Ogunleye and Israel Idonije, decided to travel home for a charity mission they titled, Athletes in the Diaspora: Community Interventions.

At the heart of the mission was a scholarship program called Changing Africa Through Education (CATE), which the players established to finance 20 scholarships at 10 Nigerian universities.

{QUOTE}The foursome also distributed HIV testing kits to clinics, built water wells in villages, such as Ogunleye's native city Emure, and they provided apparel and equipment to a youth soccer team.

"The Enugu Rangers is a soccer team there that we all knew," Okoye said. "During the Civil War, they were known to give hope to the Ibo tribe. A lot of people watched them growing up. A lot of people played on the team growing up, so we wanted to sponsor them with Nike equipment."

The players' work did not go unnoticed. They met with civic leaders, officials of the National Universities Commission and Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua. And they drew praise from the Nigerian media.

"It was sometimes hard to believe all we were doing," Okoye said. "We had talked about it for so long, but being there with the president or being in the villages – sometimes it didn't seem real."

Okoye began brainstorming the trip with his family during the 2007 season. After his older brother, Arinze, and a cousin, Okey Chidume, developed several of the charitable projects for the mission, Okoye asked other players in the league with connections to Nigeria to join him on the trip.

Okoye loosely knew Umenyiora, Ogunleye and Idonije, but they enthusiastically agreed to what became a family affair. The fathers of Okoye and Ogunleye reached out to contacts in Nigeria to help set up the charitable projects. Okoye's brother and cousin hammered out the itinerary.

The four players also reconnected with relatives they had not seen for years. Okoye had not returned to Nigeria since his family packed up and left the country for Alabama. Umenyiora, who born in London to Nigerian parents, was able to visit his mother and brother who now live in Lagos.

Between seeing family and meeting with university, government and health officials, the players were able to start a few pet projects. Okoye not only supported a national youth soccer team, he taught youngsters about American-style football.

"When I was there, I knew nothing about the sport," Okoye said. "When I moved to the States, I had to learn from scratch. The one thing that intrigued all of us was the interest level. They are very, very interested in wanting to learn more about the sport. They want us to bring the sport down to Nigeria. In the next couple of years, we are going to start with some flag football camps. We just want to give the youth role models to look up to."

The players gave the youngsters a taste of NFL fandom, giving them team paraphernalia and signing autographs.

"I think we've got a couple of Texans fans there," Okoye said. "We've got a couple of Chicago Bears fans. And we've got a couple of Giants fans. We handed out some memorabilia to them. They were excited to have it."

The trip resulted in some magical moments for the players who felt a spiritual connection to the country. Now, they are talking about expanding the charitable projects and returning next year with more NFL players who have connections to the country.

"I would like us to add 10 athletic scholarships," Okoye said. "There is so much more we athletes can do to help Nigeria."

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