NEWPORT BEACH — Mr. Irrelevant met the Nigerian Nightmare for the first time. Cheta Ozougwu was just happy to hear his name pronounced correctly by someone other than his Nigerian parents.
Christian Okoye said “oh-ZOO-goo” just once. To the former running back for the Kansas City Chiefs, Ozougwu was still Mr. Irrelevant, the last player picked in the NFL Draft.
As for any advice for Ozougwu, who will try to make the Houston Texans, Okoye chuckled at first. The laughs started well before a roast of Ozougwu at the All-Star Lowsman Banquet at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa on Wednesday.
A couple of days before the event in front of former NFL standouts and coaches, Ozougwu hoped the jokes would be tasteful. He worried for the sake of his parents, Aja and Josephine, who are devout Christians.
They actually laughed the hardest.
Aja and Josephine were not about to stop the barrage of jokes aimed at their 22-year-old son. Even when Mike Haynes, a Hall of Fame player, asked if Ozougwu was smart, his parents busted up laughing.
Ozougwu sat through all the abuse with a huge smile.
Okoye, sitting next to Ozougwu, knew the insults were nothing compared to what Ozougwu will experience in the NFL. Okoye used to run over players like Ozougwu during his playing days.
Okoye was a 6-foot-1, 253-pounder for the Chiefs from 1987 to ’92. Ozougwu is 6-2, 247 pounds right now and he is trying to be an outside linebacker.
That explains how big Okoye was back in the day.
When Okoye was drafted in the second round as the 35th overall pick in 1987, people called him a project because he only had three years of organized football. Can you imagine how Ozougwu felt when he heard that? Remember, he was the 254th pick.
Okoye told Ozougwu that the label pushed him. Okoye went on to make the Pro Bowl twice and lead the NFL in rushing in 1989, when he gained 1,480 yards.
When asked if Ozougwu stood a chance at tackling him back then, Okoye grinned.
“Anybody can tackle anybody,” Okoye said.
Okoye has seen dozens of players with Nigerian ties make it in the NFL. He is proud to have blazed the trail, even though he came to the U.S. to compete in track and field — the discus throw and the shot put — at Azusa Pacific University.
The Nigerian Nightmare made a name for himself. Time will tell if Ozougwu will get the chance this year because of the lockout.
Clay Matthews Jr., who spent 19 years in the NFL, told Ozougwu no one cares where he went in the draft. All that matters is putting in the work to contribute to a team. He would know, because John Ireland, a Corona del Mar High graduate, joked that Matthews’ entire family played in the NFL.
Ozougwu believes he has what it takes to be an NFL player. Until that happens, Mr. Irrelevant cannot get rid of the nickname.
“He hasn’t showed me anything yet,” Okoye said.