Coaching for Impact
In 2007, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rolled out a series of popular public service announcements. The commercials simply stated, “There are over 380,000 student-athletes, and most of us go pro in something other than sports.”
Christian Okoye ’87 did both. The Nigerian native picked up American football at age 23 at Azusa Pacific University and later found success in the National Football League (NFL), earning a pair of trips to the Pro Bowl and an AFC Offensive Player of the Year honor in 1989. After wrapping up a successful six-year career on the gridiron, he’s gone pro in a new field, making a big impact in his local community.
Far removed from his playing days, Okoye now runs the Christian Okoye Foundation he established in Rancho Cucamonga in 1990, which offers free summer football and soccer clinics to kids unable to afford them. But his vision goes beyond sports. Okoye works to instill leadership qualities, build relationships, and improve the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the kids he works with—all qualities he developed during his time at Azusa Pacific. “My passion for giving back to the community and encouraging kids is because of my experience as a student-athlete at Azusa Pacific. I learned how to be a football player, but I also learned to be a better person. Sports have a way of developing and preparing kids for life.”
That’s something Azusa Pacific Athletics has strived to do since Cliff Hamlow ’56 started the program in the 1950s. It continued when Terry Franson, Ph.D., took over as athletic director in the mid-1990s and through Bill Odell’s 16-year tenure, and now thrives under Gary Pine ’84, MBA ’05. The development of the student-athlete as a whole person remains the constant thread, and Okoye, like thousands of others who competed for Azusa Pacific, felt the tangible benefits of that philosophy.
“I believe the only reason I had a successful career in the NFL is because of my APU family,” said Okoye. “Through their love and patience, I moved beyond track and field and was molded into the football player and person that I became. And when you get treated the way I did by the people at APU, you want to give back. When I work with kids in my foundation, and they thank me for caring about them, I know it’s because of APU’s influence.”
More than three decades later, the relationships still flourish. “The connection I have is strong because of the love and understanding I was shown from the first time I stepped on campus. It’s people like Franson, Jim Milhon, Hamlow, Pine, Elaine Baugus, and others. They realized I left everything at home in Nigeria, and they embraced me as one of their own. They made Azusa Pacific feel like home.”
Then the head track and field coach, Franson recruited Okoye for his team. Okoye later picked up football, and the rest is history. “Coach Franson was such a positive influence on me. He showed me love. When I went to the Senior Bowl, he was the one I called for encouragement. When I went to play for the Kansas City Chiefs, we kept in contact. His prayers and encouragement pushed me through injuries and tough times.”
Okoye makes it a point to return to Azusa Pacific often to see Franson and others. He attends many home football games and tries to make every home opener and Homecoming game, often reconnecting with former classmates, professors, and coaches. “I often say I am blessed because God brought me to APU. The people here genuinely love the students, and when they interact with them, it’s like they are interacting with their own kids. That’s how it was when I was there, and that’s how it is now. The campus has changed through the years, but the culture and the values haven’t. This place impacted me, and almost 30 years later, I want to help others the way this place helped me.”
For more information, watch Christian Okoye: A Football Life, an NFL Network documentary that premiered September 18, 2015.
Posted: December 28, 2015