ACCRA, GHANA — Despite winning the Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams last season, defensive end Ogbonnia ‘Obo’ Okoronkwo told ESPN that his only logical step was to sign with the Houston Texans so he could give back to his community.
Okoronkwo, who is currently helping out at the NFL’s first training camp in Africa, started playing football in his junior year at Alief Taylor High School in Texas, playing the game secretly, against his father’s wishes.
He says Houston made him fall in love with football, and as the son of two Nigerian parents, it is little surprise that he feels at home in a city that has the second-largest Nigerian population in the US.
“After winning the Super Bowl, I felt like it was very important to me to go home and start working in my community, so I decided to sign a deal with the Texans and start giving back as soon as I could,” Okoronkwo told ESPN in Ghana.
“At this point, now, I’m ready to go win another [Super Bowl]. I’ve celebrated and I’m just ready to get back to work. With my new team, there’s a lot of work to do. I’m very thankful and grateful for the experiences that I’ve had, but it’s time to get to work again.”
Okoronkwo has an impressive work ethic now, but this was not always the case, he says. Although the sport earned him a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma — something that not even his father could turn down — he still treated it as a hobby, unaware of his potential until he was made to believe in it by the trust placed in him by his team.
“When I got to college, that was only my second year playing organised football, so I didn’t know how far it would take me — no clue. When I got there, I was still trying to figure out the nuances of the game and trying to figure out if I could really do it and if I was good enough,” he admitted.
“I was playing behind a couple of talented players… Once they left and it was my time to play and I was seeing that a big programme like Oklahoma was relying on me to step in and fill some big shoes, the pressure sort of made me realise I had to sort of lock in.”
Okoronkwo was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2017 and was drafted by the Rams in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Once again, he found himself in a competitive squad, but managed to make an impact. Now, he is ready to take on a more senior role and the 27-year-old is in the ideal environment to do so at Houston.
The move back to Texas is, however, not the only way in which football has brought him full circle. After being approached by NFL Africa, he has been assisting with the organisation’s camp at the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana.
Led by two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora, the NFL is attempting to find the most promising talent on the continent to introduce to its academy and International Player Pathway programme (IPP). Forty standout players from Umenyiora’s Uprise camps in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa took part this week.
Okoronkwo, like many of the camp participants, started playing the game in his late teens, and was impressed by the skills the prospects had picked up in a short period of time.
“I definitely did [expect the high standard of play]. But I didn’t think that it was going to be as polished as it was — I thought it was going to be a little bit more raw. I was really impressed with how far along they are with the game,” Okoronkwo said.
This was only his second visit to Africa, but he does not intend for it to be his last.
“This is my first time ever doing anything like this and I’ve only been to Africa one time before this. It’s been a surreal experience being here, being where I’m from, and being able to just give back and contribute to something so big like this,” he said.
“[I hope that the NFL can] continue to bring exposure to these raw athletes out here that are in Africa that wouldn’t get the opportunity otherwise. I met a guy on my team now who went through [the IPP]. His name is Dayo [Adedayo Odeleye].
“The guy is a freak athlete – there’s so much untapped potential. We’re watching him get better every day under the Texans coaching staff.
“Just to see that showed me how many guys are out here that are just hidden gems that could really come to the NFL and be successful.”