Mike Tunsil presented Chidi Okeke with a choice during his introduction to football in 2013.
“It was either get beat up by Travonte Valentine,” Tunsil said, “or fight back.”
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Valentine spent the first year of his college career at LSU in 2014, never playing a down and eventually being dismissed last summer after a repeated violation of team rules.
Valentine helped break in Okeke, the native Nigerian now competing for a starting spot on LSU’s offensive line. The two played for Tunsil at Champagnat Catholic High School near Miami. The then-senior Valentine introduced the then-junior and football rookie Okeke to this physical, collision-filled game.
“He got real tough quick because he was lining up against Travonte,” Tunsil said. “He was the only big kid Travonte’s size.”
Two-and-a-half years later, Okeke is flourishing so much during LSU’s spring drills that coaches have moved him to left tackle, the premier spot on the line usually reserved for the best linemen.
Two weeks into practice, the redshirt freshman is competing at left tackle with Maea Teuhema. It’s a reach to think the big African will start at that spot this upcoming season, coach Les Miles indicated last week. After all, Okeke has played the sport for three years, but Miles doesn’t hide his shiny outlook for the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder.
“Excited about him,” Miles said. “I don’t know if he’ll be ready to play a lot of football early next year, but he’ll play a lot of football.”
Okeke’s path to LSU was a winding one.
It started at a sports camp in Africa. He was one of several thousand unknown Nigerian teenagers working out in front of leaders of the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation.
Weeks later, Okeke found himself in Miami, missing his African home and playing a different sport (football) than he was originally sent to America to play (basketball).
The next stop was Georgia, where he started for Faith Baptist Christian Academy and developed into one of the country’s most sought after-prospects.
It’s been a whirlwind — and it still is.
“I’m still learning,” Okeke said last week during his first interview with reporters since August. “Football is not a game we do in Africa. I have to learn more than anybody.”
What’s an audible, a blitz and a bootleg? What’s a hard count, a lateral and a pull? What’s the neutral zone, a holding penalty and a hurry-up offense?
They’re all things he’s had to digest in his first three years in the U.S. — the first in Miami, the second in Georgia and the third in Baton Rouge.
“There’s a guy that went over an ocean, defied (a) language barrier to learn a game that’s certainly not normal to anybody,” Miles said.
It’s even surprised Okeke at times.
“Before when I was back in Nigeria, I watched football. I was thinking, ‘I can’t play this game. It’s too rough,’ ” he said. “I didn’t believe that I could come over here and play football. When I got here, I saw my high school (team) practicing. My coach persuaded me to join the team. Started going to camps. I started loving the game.”
It wasn’t always this rosy.
“I’m not going to lie,” Tunsil said, “the first month, I thought we were going to lose him.”
“I wanted to go back,” Okeke said of that time. “Mostly everything was new. It was a big change. The culture. You’ve got to adapt.”
One of the first hurdles he overcame: looking into adults’ eyes. That’s a sign of disrespect in Nigeria. Here in the U.S., it’s the opposite, especially for a high-schooler.
“In my high school in Florida, sometimes when my teacher is talking to me, she’d ask me to look her in the eyes. I was like, ‘I can’t look at you in the eyes,’ ” Okeke said. “Back home, it’s a sign of disrespect. When an (older) person talks to you back home, you don’t have to look at him or her. That shows disrespect. You’ve got to look down.”
Gathered around a group of reporters last week, Okeke kept his head high and his eyes focused on the questioners before him.
“I can do it now!” he said with a smile and laugh.
Okeke attributes his journey here to what he calls “the foundation.”
The Ejike Ugboaja Foundation is a non-profit group aimed at securing high school and college scholarships in the United States for Nigeria’s most talented teenagers. Ejike Ugboaja is a native Nigerian and a former second-round draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He started the foundation in 2006 as a way to connect talented teens in Africa’s most populous country with the burgeoning American high school and college sports scene.
Henry Ugboaja, the brother of Ejike, assists in running the foundation.
The foundation hosts several camps each summer in Africa, according to its website. Among the hundreds — and sometimes thousands — at these events, foundation leaders select a small handful to move to America, most of them for basketball. That was the case with Okeke. He made the cut in the summer of 2013.
By fall of that year, he’d already switched to football — a sport that foundation leaders are quickly embracing.
The success of Sunny Odogwun, now a redshirt junior and projected starting tackle at Miami, spurred the Ugboaja brothers to shift their basketball-only focus. They began funneling players to that other sport, and, already, it’s produced some major talent.
Okeke is one of at least three four-star prospects in the 2015 class who are now enrolled in major colleges, joining Florida State offensive lineman Abdul Bello and Auburn defensive lineman Prince Tega Wanogho.
“It’s surprising to me because it’s taken off so fast. We never expected it to grow this much this soon,” Ejike said in an interview in February with BleacherReport.com. “I was thinking basketball was the one thing that everyone would warm up to. But when Sunny switched to football, a lot of people saw the progression he made in football. They see that his future is now in the game of football.”
Henry Ugboaja, an adjunct professor at Ohio Mid-Western College, worked as an educator and admissions counselor in Nigeria. He told BleacherReport.com that he works with the U.S. Embassy in clerical matters, helping kids earn visas for entry into the U.S.
The foundation helps find host families for the teens, and it foots the bill for their living expenses in high school. Financial troubles have hit the group, Ejike suggested in an interview last summer on CNBCAfrica.com.
“I really need financial support for this thing to grow further,” said Ejike, who’s spent the past decade playing for European professional basketball teams. “I can’t go all the way. If (I get) no help and I retire from basketball, I might not do it no more.”
Financial issues might be behind Okeke’s move from Miami to Georgia.
Okeke lived with Ejike some while in Georgia, according to BleacherReport.com. Miles called the home a “halfway house.”
“They did a great job (of doing) what (was) needed to allow him to be comfortable in his environment,” Miles said. “There was a group of 10-12 guys that lived in Atlanta in the house.”
Tunsil said Henry is Okeke’s guardian — a reason, the player said, for the move.
“My guardian lives over there. I felt better to stay close to my guardian,” Okeke said. “When I was in Florida, I was living in (school dormitories). I decided to switch to Georgia to be closer to my guardian.”
Okeke speaks to his parents through Skype, phone calls and texts at least three times a week. They’re back in Nigeria, along with his eight siblings — four girls and four boys. He’s the baby of the group, a kid well-versed in many sports.
He played soccer in Africa along with basketball. He was a 240-pound striker — a position that now helps him as a tackle.
“I can move myself as a skill player,” he said.
Three years and 70 pounds later, he’s focused on one sport — and one position. Oh, and eating, too, to maintain his weight.
“I eat every food,” he said with a smile. “For real.” I don’t have any choice.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.