The Republic of Ghana is located in West Africa between Burkina Fasso, Ivory Coast and Togo. The name of the country was given due to its history and the timing of its independence. The word Ghana actually means “Warrior King”. Ghana achieved independence from the British in 1973, becoming the first sub-Saharan African nation to do so. Ghana is a country that many Americans travel to because the history of the slave trade and its origins on the Gold Coast. Ghana’s main natural resource is cocoa and it is the 2nd largest producer of it in the world. Another astounding fact about Ghana is that it is the home of the largest artificial Lake in the World, Lake Volta.
“Football” in the United States means American football, and though it is the most popular sport in the United States, it does not get much traction outside the country. While passion for American football remains almost exclusively rooted in North America, the players increasingly are from diverse backgrounds, and more and more of them are from Africa. The number of first- or second-generation American athletes from Africa has multiplied over the past few decades.
African athletes already have established a solid presence within the U.S. National Football League (NFL). In fact, an outstanding University of Nebraska athlete whose mother is from Jamaica and father from Cameroon — Ndamukong Suh — is a top professional prospect in the United States.
One of the first African-born players to stand out in the NFL wasChristian Okoye of Enugu, Nigeria, the Kansas City Chiefs running back from 1987 to 1992. Nicknamed “the Nigerian Nightmare,” Okoye still is very popular, and is remembered for his surprising speed and ability to break free from tackles.
Some 20 years later, the NFL boasts dozens of athletes who are recent immigrants from Africa. Nearly every team has at least one such player, and both the Chicago Bears and the St. Louis Rams have four each. Immigration trends have something to do with this: more sub-Saharan Africans have immigrated to the United States over the past few decades than at any other time in history. The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that the influx of Nigerians, Ethiopians and Ghanaians (the three largest groups of African immigrants to the United States) had increased by 370 percent, 220 percent and 235 percent, respectively, in 10 years.
Despite these gains, the sub-Saharan African-American community remains small, representing only 3.7 percent of the U.S. population, larger only than the community of immigrants from Oceania. But it is the presence in the NFL of athletes of African and Polynesian descent that has increased most dramatically in recent years.
Football requires speed, strength and size. The African football players have these traits, and they have something more: the drive and discipline to succeed on and off the field. These athletes have been shaped by challenges they faced as immigrants, and by a will to succeed instilled by parents who came to the United States to offer them a better life.
SUCCESS IN THE CLASSROOM, POWERHOUSES ON THE FIELD
Nearly all American professional football players join the NFL after going to university and playing college football, which has slightly different rules from the professional version. Though American schools offer both athletic and academic scholarships, most students obtain only one, and the competition to attain either is intense. But many of these African-American athletes in the NFL have managed to do both. For example, for several Nigerian-American athletes currently playing for the Houston Texans, achieving academic excellence is just as important as displaying physical prowess on the field.
Xavier Adibi, the Texans’ linebacker, is the son of an immigrant who came to Oklahoma State University to play soccer and eventually earn a doctorate in biochemistry. Along with his brother Nathaniel, Xavier attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute after graduating from high school as a Virginia state champion. Throughout his high school, college and professional careers, Adibi has been praised for being smart as well as fast.
Frank Okam, a defensive tackle, earned his degree in sports management from the University of Texas in three and a half years. Despite the class load, Okam was a five-time member of the university’s Athletic Director’s Honor Roll and a member of a national championship team.
Amobi Okoye, also a defensive tackle, is considered by some to be one of football’s most remarkable prodigies. Born in Anambra, Nigeria, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, at age 12. After spending two weeks in middle school, he was promoted to high school freshman. As a sophomore, he took up football and quickly mastered the sport as both a defensive and an offensive lineman. At 16, he entered the University of Louisville and became the youngest player in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Also graduating a semester early, Okoye became the youngest player to be drafted in the first round of the draft by the NFL at age 19. He plans to continue his education at Harvard University, where he was accepted in 2005, after he retires from professional football.
LIVES TRANSFORMED, CAREERS SHAPED BY HARDSHIP
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Mathias Kagimu Kiwanuka, a defensive end for the New York Giants, is also a proud son of Uganda. While studying at Boston College, Kiwanuka kept a Ugandan flag on display in his dorm room in remembrance of his grandfather Benedicto Kiwanuka, who was elected the first prime minister of Uganda in 1961 and assassinated by Idi Amin supporters in 1972. Shortly after fleeing the political turmoil that left thousands dead during Amin’s dictatorship, his parents divorced. His mother began a housecleaning business to provide for her three children.
Minnesota Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe was born in Birmingham, England, shortly after his mother escaped Liberia as civil war broke out in 1980. Fearing that her sons’ lives might be endangered by the conflict that ravaged the country for nearly two decades, she left a comfortable lifestyle and eventually sacrificed her marriage to secure a safe environment in Washington for her children. Working two jobs and sewing her own clothes, she has provided Shiancoe with a lifelong role model, and he credits his ability to bounce back on the field to his African mother’s unwavering resilience.
AFRICAN AND AMERICAN CHAMPIONS, LOCAL AND GLOBAL ROLE MODELS
Akinola “Akin” Ayodele, a Nigerian-American linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, is famous for his strong faith and commitment to giving back. Having already won several awards for his advocacy on behalf of the poor and the sick, he recently founded Akin’s PATH, a charitable organization that partners with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami to mentor underprivileged youth. The foundation also calls on all Dolphins fans to volunteer as mentors.
Cincinnati Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe belongs to a prominent Nigerian-American family. His older brothers include Ikechuku Ndukwe, an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Kelechi, an Iraq war veteran who currently serves as the U.S. Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate. After attending Harvard Business School during the offseason, Chinedum began a trust fund with his brother Ikechuku, with the intention of launching a charitable organization that would enable them to give back to both their hometown and their homeland. The now-operational Ndukwe Foundation promotes well-being and healthy lifestyles in local communities and across the Atlantic. In addition to financing an entire football season for a youth team in one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio, Chinedum visited Nigeria with Ikechuku to start a football camp where their parents were born and raised.
New York Jets safety James Ihedigbo’s parents, Rose and Apollos, left Nigeria in the 1970s and settled in Amherst, Massachusetts, where they raised four children and both earned doctorates from the University of Massachusetts. After playing basketball, lacrosse and track in high school, James also went on to study at the University of Massachusetts, majoring in sociology. His combined passions for athletics, education and social issues have led him to reach out to youth in both the United States and Africa. He frequently visits schools to engage students in discussions about the importance of hard work and faith. He also advocates for, and spends time with, children suffering from sickle cell anemia, a disease affecting about one in every 500 African Americans. Following his parents, who returned to Nigeria to establish the Nigerian Agricultural Technical Community College, James recently founded the Hope Africa Foundation, a charitable organization that provides young Nigerians with scholarships to ensure the completion of their education.
Ashton Youboty, a Liberian-American cornerback for the Buffalo Bills, told the cable sports network ESPN in 2006 that “good athletes come from all over. I’m sure there are a lot of world-class athletes in Africa right now, people whose skills would allow them to play in the NFL if they just got the right break. I was lucky. … How many other African kids do you think there are who could do the same thing if they learned the game? The truth is, a lot, I’m sure.”
IRVING — Charlie Peprah has never lived in Ghana and has barely visited there, but the West African country still considers him one of their own. In fact, Peprah, who is Ghanaian by birth, has become something of a hero to the 23 million people there.
“If I go back, they wouldn’t be able to pick me out,” the Green Bay Packers starting strong safety said. “But my dad said it’s getting crazy over there. They’re following the Super Bowl. You know how the Super Bowl goes. It’s watched worldwide. I think I’m the first Ghanaian to be in the Super Bowl, and they’re trying to make a big deal out of it.
“The name is definitely out there a little bit.”
Peprah’s maternal grandfather, General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, was head of state in Ghana from 1972 — when he took over in a bloodless coup — to 1978 when he was deposed in a palace coup. Acheampong was executed by a firing squad in 1979.
Peprah knows his grandfather through his parents’ stories, family photos, his grandfather’s books and the Internet.
“I feel a little disconnected,” Peprah said, “because I never got to meet him. It’s just something I grew up with, knowing it’s in my family history.”
Peprah’s parents, Josh and Elizabeth, left the country two weeks after Acheampong’s ouster with things in chaos and fearful of the future.
“The rebels were after everybody,” said Elizabeth, who lives in McKinney. “We felt it wasn’t safe, so we decided to leave and start a new life somewhere else.”
That somewhere else was Germany and then England. They finally settled in Fort Worth, where Josh earned an engineering degree from TCU. Charlie was born in Fort Worth, though his parents moved the family to Plano when Charlie still was knee-high.
The couple divorced when Charlie was in junior high, and Josh moved back to Ghana three years later and works for the government.
The couple’s three sons might have been world-class soccer players had they grown up in Ghana. Instead, they became American football players.
Oldest son Richard played at Wyoming, and youngest son Josh just finished his redshirt freshman season at Wisconsin. (The eldest Josh rooted for Wisconsin — and his son — in the Rose Bowl.)
Charlie was a fifth-round pick of the New York Giants in 2006 after a standout career at Alabama, but he didn’t make the roster. He was something of a journeyman, playing mostly special teams and hampered by injuries, until this season when he re-signed with the Packers after a year in Atlanta.
Charlie, who had spent 2006-08 in Green Bay, made 11 starts in place of Morgan Burnett this season with 63 tackles and two interceptions.
“In the preseason, Charlie was about as consistent a player as we had on defense, but he knew it was going to be tough numbers-wise to keep all those guys,” Packers defensive backs coach Darren Perry said. “He didn’t let that affect how he approached each game. He went out there and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to let the chips fall where they may.’ Sometimes you get your breaks through the misfortune of someone else, and he’s taken advantage of his opportunity.”
Peprah has come a long way to get here, back in his hometown for Super Bowl XLV with a whole country rooting him on.
“When God closes one door, he opens another,” Elizabeth said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
NFL Players born in Africa or whose parents were born in Africa are making a big impact in the NFL. Several star players have close ties to African countries such as Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, and Liberia.
The New York Giants roster inlcudes former 1st round pick DE/OLB Mathias Kiwanuka,whose parents are from Uganda. His grandfather, Benedito Kiwanuka, was elected the first prime minister of Uganda in 1961, before being assassinated in 1972. Kiwanuka is the only Ugandan to play in the NFL.
Giants DE Osi Umenyiora was a second-round pick in 2003 from Troy University in Alabama. Umeniyera was born in London, England to parents from Nigeria. He is of the Ebo ethnic group, and his first name means “from today all things will be good.”
Also with roots in Africa are Bears DE Isreal Idonijeand former Bears and Dolphins DEAdewale Ogunleye. Idonije was born in Lagos, Nigeria and emigrated with his family to Manitoba, Canada. He played only one year of high school football and then played in a semi-pro Canadian league before he was drafted by the Canadian Football League. Instead of the CFL, he signed as free agent in 2003 with the Cleveland Browns. He was released and signed by the Chicago Bears.
Safety Oshiomogho “O.J” Atogwe was born in Ontario, Canada to parents who had emigrated from Nigeria. He played college football at Stanford and now is with the St. Louis Rams. Atogwe and Idonije are among the few Nigeria-Canadian plays to play in the NFL.
Defensive End Adewale Ogunleye was born in Brooklyn, NY and played football at Indiana University. He was signed as a free agent by the Miami Dolphins in 2000 and traded to the Chicago Bears in 2004. His parents are also from Nigeria.
Also with roots in Nigeria is St. Louis Rams LB Victor Adeyanju. He was born in Nigeria and played college football at Indiana before being drafted in the 4th round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Rams.
Legedu A. Naanee (pronounced LEG-a-doo Nah-NAY) (born September 16, 1983) is a Wide Receiver for the San Diego Chargers. He played college football and Boise State and grew up in Portland, Oregon. In high school he played QB and DB. He was drafted in the 5th round of the 2007 NFL Draft by San Diego. “Legedu” means “good is coming” in a Nigerian tribal language.
Another San Diego Charger with Nigerian roots is DT Ogemdi Sharron Nwagbuo (born December 24, 1985 in San Diego, California). He was signed by the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2008 after he played college football at Michigan State.
In the 2009 draft, the Redskins selected Brian Orakpo from the University of Texas. Orakpo’s parents were born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States as college students, and settled in Houston, Texas. Brian Orakpo has a brother, Mike, who plays Linebacker for Colorado State and his uncle Chike played football for the University of Iowa. While attending the University of Texas, there were 5 other players on the football team with Nigerian roots. Orakpo became the first Redskins rookie to be selected to a Pro Bowl since 1978.
Two current players have roots in Liberia - Kansas City Chiefs DE/OLB Tamba Hali and Buffalo Bills DB Ashton Youboty. The country of Liberia, in western Africa was founded by freed former slaves from the United States and other American countries. Youboty was born in Liberia and moved to Philadelphia when he was only 4 years old. He went to college at Ohio State and was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Bills.
Tamba Boimah Hali, Chiefs 1st round selection in 2006 from Penn State, was born in Monrovia, Liberia. His family escaped from war-torn Liberia when he was 10 years old. He was reunited with his father, a chemisry teacher, in New Jersey. His mother remained in Liberia until recently. Hali has an older half-brother, also named Tamba. Traditionally in the Kissi culture, the second son born to a woman is always named “Tamba.” The first son is traditionally named “Saah.” There is a third brother, Saah Hali, who is a middle school Social Studies teacher in Teaneck, New Jersey. There have been only about 6 players of Liberian descent to play in the NFL.
Amobi Okoye (born June 10, 1987 in Anambra, Nigeria) plays defensive tackle for the Houston Texans. He was drafted by the Texans 10th overall in the 2007 NFL Draft, after he played college football at Louisville. Okoye was born in Anambra State, Nigeria, and is a member of the Igbo ethnic group. Okoye moved to Huntsville, Alabama, at 12 years of age. Due to his academic testing levels, he started high school at age 13 and colleg at age 16. He was the youngest player drafted in the NFL in the last 4 years and played in his first college game at age 16.
Because he shares the same surname as former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, some sources have claimed that the two are related. Amobi says they are not related, but the two families live on adjoining land in Nigeria.
Born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1961, Christian Okoye did not play American football until 1984, when he joined the squad at California’s Azusa Pacific University. He excelled in track & field, winning seven college titles in the shotput, discus, and hammer throw. The first time he attended an American football game he thought the game was boring.
After the Nigerian government failed to select Okoye for the Olympics, he sought something else to do besides track & field and went out for American football. Initially, Okoye did not enjoy the roughness of football and thought about quitting but friends convinced him to continue playing. His track speed was unusual for someone his size — 6′1″, 260 lbs. — and this rare combination of talents led to his selection in the second round of the 1987 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Former Cowboys, Browns, and Broncos defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban was born in Accra, Ghana. He was drafted #20 overall by the Cowboys in the 1999 NFL Draft. He played college football at North Carolina and played high school football in Maryland. He is one of only 2 Ghanaians to play in the NFL.
Oakland Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha has Nigerian roots. He was drafted in the 1st round from California-Berkeley by the Raiders and is considered the top CB in the NFL by many. He is the cousin of former Raiders and Texans RB Adimchinobi Echemandu (born November 21, 1980 in Lagos, Nigeria), who is an ethnic Ebo and also went to Cal-Berkeley.
Jeffrey C. Otah (born June 17, 1986 in Nigeria) is an offensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers. He was drafted by the Panthers 19th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. He played college football at the University of Pittsburgh. He moved from Nigeria to The Bronx, New York at the age of seven, then moved to New Castle, Delaware at the age of thirteen. He played high school football at William Penn High School in New Castle, Delaware.
Isaiah Afamefuna Ekejiuba [Eck-ah-ju-buh] (born October 5, 1981 in Nigeria) is a linebacker for the Detroit Lions. He was originally signed by the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2005 and played for the Oakland Raiders before signing with Detroit. He played college football at the University of Virginia. Ekejiuba was born in Nigeria and lived throughout parts of Africa, China and London while his mother worked for the United Nations, before moving to upstate New York where his mother taught at Colgate University. Ekejiuba attended high school at Suffield Academy, a boarding school in Connecticut. At Suffield, Ekejiuba played football his senior year and excelled in soccer, basketball and track. The son of the late Felicia Ekejiuba, Ekejiuba has two brothers, Ben Umezurike and Sam Ekejiuba, and two sisters, Ada Umezurike and Felicia Ekejiuba. At the University of Virginia, he majored in electrical engineering.
Samkon Kaltho Gado (born November 13, 1982 in Kufai, Nigeria) is currently a running back for the Tennessee Titans. He was originally signed by the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2005. He played college football at Liberty. Gado has also played for the Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams. In 2006 He was the “feel good player” of the year when he became Green Bay’s starting running back after injuries to other running backs, after just being signed from the practice squad. Gado plans to follow up his football career by becoming a medical missionary in his native country. A fall 2006 TV spot highlighted Gado’s internship at a hospital in Green Bay. His father, Jeremiah Gado, initially left Nigeria in 1990 to study at Columbia International University, and now regularly visits Nigeria for mission work.
Dallas Cowboy’s CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, played football at Indiana, PA College and was drafted in the 4th round in 2009. His first name, Akwasi, means “Born on Sunday.” His family is from Ghana, Africa.
Green Bay Packers first round pick in 2009, NT Busari “B.J”. Raji, Jr. is the son of a pastor, who is an immigrant from Nigeria.
There have been nearly 50 football players with direct Nigerian roots who have been on NFL rosters in the past 10 years