Small Colleges / Alan Drooz : Okoye, at 250, Leaves Track, Running Wild

Over the summer, Christian Okoye convinced his father that football wasn’t overly hazardous “when you know what you’re doing.”

Only two years ago, Okoye, a track star from Nigeria, would watch football and wonder about the players’ sanity.

“It looked dangerous,” he said in his British accent. “It was scary. Friends said I should try it. I said, ‘No way.’ ”

But curiosity got the best of Okoye, an NAIA national discus and hammer champion at Azusa Pacific University, and he approached Coach Jim Milhon about trying out in the spring of 1984.

Now, Okoye is not only respected as a football player among the small colleges of California but has caught the attention of professional scouts. In fact, if everything works out this season, he may have to choose between the NFL and the 1988 Olympics.


Okoye got off to a good start Saturday, earning NAIA player-of-the-week honors with 206 yards rushing in a 37-14 victory over Whittier. Okoye scored a school-record four touchdowns on runs of 56, 65, 47 and 1 yards as he gained 197 yards in the first half, also a school-record.

He lost a 90-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage of the second half because of a clipping penalty or he would have shattered Jim Farmer’s 1973 school rushing record of 238 yards.

At 6 feet 2 inches and 250 pounds, Okoye is a running back with Earl Campbell thighs and Vasili Alexeyev strength. He also runs with a track man’s speed, having been consistently timed by NFL scouts in 4.5 seconds for 40 yards. In class one day recently, he long-jumped more than 23 feet.

Although he has only a season’s experience, Okoye’s physical preeminence is a coach’s dream.

“Physically, he’s way more a football player than normally plays here,” Milhon said.

The coach, however, is quick to discourage comparisons. “I don’t want him to have to live with if he is the equal of this guy or that guy,” Milhon said. “I want him to create whatever he does on the field for himself.”

Okoye spent the summer of 1984 learning to catch a football. Milhon brought him along slowly, allowing him two carries in the first three games. But after four straight losses Milhon let him play.

Okoye gained 108 yards against Redlands and picked up 169 yards in 8 carries the next week against UC Santa Barbara, including an 86-yard burst. He finished the season with 554 yards and three scoring runs of 45 yards or longer. He averaged six yards a carry, and Azusa Pacific didn’t lose another game, winning its last six straight.

Milhon shakes his head, and says that Okoye developed so quickly that he can’t take credit for much more than teaching him the plays.

“He does some things--cuts, movements with the ball--that we couldn’t have taught him,” Milhon said. “I think his soccer background taught him about movement with the ball.”

Once he realized that Okoye had a feel for the game, Milhon’s biggest worry was whether he would take to the contact.

“He’s got a very gentle personality,” Milhon said. “I wondered what would happen when some linebacker just comes up and nails him.”

Milhon needn’t have worried.

“He likes it,” Milhon said. “He’s an outstanding blocker. That’s the thing we found out he could do first.”

Okoye was already an outstanding track man when he arrived at Azusa Pacific three years ago, thanks largely to sprinter Innocent Egbunike, his friend and countryman. They have led Azusa Pacific to three straight NAIA national track titles, and Okoye has won nine All-American listings.

During the summer, he competed for Nigeria, setting an African record in the discus, 213 feet, and placing fifth in the recent World University Games in Tokyo. Okoye has already qualified for next summer’s Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is a probable 1988 Olympian--unless football intrudes.

That’s why Milhon didn’t approach Okoye about playing, even after he saw him work like a madman in the weight room, adding 40 pounds of muscle.

“I was pretty much committed to not try to persuade him to play,” Milhon said. “But if he’d come to me we’d be interested. Between his sophomore and junior year, he came to me. (Okoye, 24, can graduate this year but has another season of football eligibility.)

“We started him slowly. His first start he gets 21 yards. From there he just continues to develop.”

Okoye returned from Tokyo only two weeks ago but was impressive in a scrimmage and shocked Milhon with his recall of plays.

“I’m starting to know it,” Okoye said. “I’ve been thinking about it over the summer. Sometimes I’d sit down and draw plays.”

Okoye’s father, a retired soldier, his three brothers and three sisters live in Enugu, Nigeria, but he said that once his father learned that Christian could make a living in sports in the United States, he encouraged him.

“He wasn’t happy at first, till he heard I was doing good,” Okoye said. “My dad told me I shouldn’t hurry about coming back. There aren’t a lot of jobs around in Nigeria.”

The quiet Nigerian’s catch phrase for the season is: “Don’t be the nail, be the hammer.” His favorite plays, he said, are power blasts and sweeps.

If he continues to improve, opponents may need power tools to stop him.

“This is one of my biggest thrills in 28 years of coaching, to see him learn to play,” Milhon said. “I really don’t think we can take credit. It’s something he had.”

Okoye wasn’t the only one to have a successful opener for Azusa Pacific. Milhon believes that a balanced offense will keep the pressure off Okoye, and quarterback Dave Russell certainly helped on that score by completing 12 of 14 passes for 163 yards against Whittier.

It was the best passing game the two-year starter has had.

The defense was also effective, sacking Whittier’s quarterback eight times and holding the Poets to a net of one yard rushing.

College Notes

The University of Redlands was recently named the 1984-85 all-sports champion for men’s teams in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Redlands won league titles in tennis, golf, basketball and baseball. Occidental placed a close second. . . . Redlands quarterback Jamie Garton led a 61-yard drive that culminated in a three-yard pass to Ed Soto with 13 seconds left for a 21-17 victory over the University of San Diego. Soto, a 5-8 tailback, scored all three touchdowns. . . . Another opening-day standout was Jim Gleed of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He rushed for 173 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-29 victory over highly ranked North Dakota State.