Life lessons from parents continue to drive Bears’ Amobi Okoye
SEAN JENSEN ON THE BEARS August 28, 2011 9:46PM
Amobi Okoye (91) poses for a photograph at Bears Training Camp Friday, August 19, 2011, in Bourbannais. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:28AM
NASHVILLE — Amobi Okoye, sweat dripping from his forehead, smiles and exchanges a laugh with a few teammates in the visitors’ locker room at LP Field on Saturday night.
The Bears have depended on No. 91 to deliver game-changing plays, and Okoye — taking over the jersey number and part of the void left by his friend Tommie Harris — has provided all three of the team’s preseason sacks, including one in a 14-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Afterwards, though, Okoye doesn’t want to talk about locking up a roster spot or proving enough in three preseason games to skip the final one Thursday at Soldier Field.
Instead, Okoye focuses on a lesson from his father, Augustine.
“At the end of the day, ask yourself this question: ‘Did you truly and honestly put everything you had to make yourself successful?’ ” Okoye recalls his father often saying. “If you can say, ‘Yes I did,’ then you can be at peace.”
The 10th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Okoye still stings from the rejection by the Houston Texans. He was released last month, due in part to salary cap reasons, after the team could not work a trade He missed just two games in four seasons but the Texans elected to cut him loose, especially after hiring Wade Phillips — who employs a 3-4 scheme — as its defensive coordinator.
With a number of options, Okoye selected the Bears and signed a one-year, $1.38 million contract and summoned all the lessons he learned from his parents, Augustine and Edna, as he works to overcome this latest setback.
There are many documented examples of Amobi Okoye’s uniqueness.
He passed on Harvard to play football at Louisville, enrolling when he was just 15 years old and finishing early with a degree in psychology. At 19, Okoye was the youngest player drafted in the first round and later that year, he was the youngest to appear in an NFL game since 1967.
But while he brushes over such personal distinctions, Okoye enjoys telling the remarkable story of his parents.
Augustine attended two colleges in Houston, before heading back to Nigeria, where he met his wife, Edna.
He was a marketing and management professor at a university, while Edna was a secondary school teacher. In addition, Augustine had an import/export business.
The family started construction on a six-bedroom, 5,000-plus square foot house.
Amobi fondly recalls his childhood in Nigeria, especially the annual visit with his grandparents. The family would go to his father’s parents in a village about four hours from Lagos. On the way, they always stopped by to see his mother’s parents.
Amobi’s family are proud members of the Igbo tribe — considered the largest and most influential in Nigeria — and he relished any family occasion, especially the Christmas feast.
Among his favorites were Jealouf rice which was seasoned with plantains, as well as goat meat in tomato-paste stew.
“Those days were very fun,” Amobi says.
But in the 1990s, General Sani Abacha tyrannized Nigeria, executing political opponents and reportedly funneling billions of the country’s money to the bank accounts of himself and other relatives.
Amid the chaos, with the economy tanking, Augustine wanted stability for his wife and three children. Since he studied in the U.S., Augustine was able to return, but he didn’t have the doctorate necessary to continue as a college professor.
Desperate for any job, he ended up in Huntsville, Ala., where his brother taught at Alabama A&M, and he worked on an assembly line.
The job title was less distinguished, but Augustine didn’t have time to be proud.
“One thing I have always believed in is, poverty is not a shameful thing,” he says, “as long as you put in enough effort and your conscience tells you that you did your best.”
Besides, Edna and the children needed the money to survive in Lagos.
With the economy struggling, Edna couldn’t find steady work, and she and the children lived in the still-under-construction house, which meant they didn’t have windows, nor all the doors.
They didn’t miss any meals because they farmed on their property but the portions were sometimes modest, and stew often didn’t include meat.
“Times were hard,” Amobi says. “But we just had to look around us. We were lucky to have shelter.”
The American dream
But after a couple of years, Augustine was able to bring his family to Alabama, and Edna joined him on the assembly line, where they made computer parts. Eventually, they saved some money and opened up a dollar store then a very successful medical supplies business.
“My life is a roller coaster,” Amobi said. “We were wealthy at one point, poor at another, then got wealthy again. But it teaches you a lot about life.”
Augustine and Edna demanded that their children take school seriously, motivating them with lavish dinners and treats when they posted the highest grade in their respective class.
In fact, in Nigeria, Amobi started school before he was three, and he skipped the sixth grade there.
When he hires someone, Augustine thinks back to his own experience, showing grace to those who don’t have any gaps in their resumes.
“What it tells me is, this person works hard,” Augustine says. “He knows he has to put food on the table. He’s not lazy.”
So Augustine is sensitive to the way his son was treated by the Texans, an experience that started with a limo ride and ended with his unceremonious release.
After tallying 5½ sacks as a rookie, Amobi managed just 5½ more over the next three seasons.
“I always tell my children, ‘Have I put in my best?’ ” Augustine recalls. “If the answer is, ‘Yes,’ and someone says, ‘Your best is not good enough,’ then tell that person to go to hell.”
Amobi admits that the rejection “hurts,” yet he also insists that he will rise to the challenge.
Just 24 years old, Amobi believes his best years are in front of him, and he hopes to play at least eight more seasons.
“That’s what I love about football,” he says. “You get knocked down, then what are you going to do after that?
“You just got to shake it off and move on.”