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Africa's Contribution To US 'Football' - 2004-01-09

Ebenezer Ekuban, Amos Zereoue, Bhawoh Jue and Chike Okeafor. What do these African-born individuals have in common, apart from being sons of the African continent, that is?

Da Ole Emperor's pretty sure that right now I've stumped ninety nine percent of you, even though most of you are as sports crazy as I am. I admit that this is a real tough one for those of you not residing in the United States.

Give up? Alright I'll put an end to your frustration at either not knowing the answer or your waiting for the ole Emperor to confirm that you got it right!

Well, all of them, plus more than twenty five others born somewhere in Africa, all make a very very good living playing football in America's National Football League.

Now before you think I've gone a little touched in the brain, I'm not talking about football football, as most of you know it. I'm taking about what we Americans called football, otherwise known as gridiron in most other parts of the world.

That's right, for more than half the year these African-born warriors strap on all that padding in various sundry parts of their body, don that big helmet and go out and participate in a game, most foreign nationals charitably describe as "organized confusion!"

I want you to know what Da Ole Emperor does for you. Last night I looked up the rosters of all thirty two NFL teams from the Arizona Cardinals to the Washington Redskins.

What I was looking to find out was just how many African-born players there were in the league. I was also analyzing if there was any trends in the team position they played, where they played in college and the route taken to this league of only the world's finest of the finest players.

This is what I found. Of the twenty six players found, no less than eleven, or more than forty two percent play the defensive end position.

For you not all that familiar with gridiron, good defensive ends are worth their weight in gold. Why? Well these players, more than any others, are the ones assigned to disrupt what the opposing quarterback is trying to do.

Why is it so important to try and thwart the plans of the quarterback? Well he's the one central to his team's ability to score touchdowns (seven points with the successful kicking of the extra point) and field goals (three points). And, like most games, the team scoring the highest number of points during the game's allotted amount of time is declared the winner.

The highest paid defensive ends are not only worth their weight in gold but get paid almost that much in salaries, most often in the millions of dollars a year!

But, believe you me, they earn that money. Theirs is a most frustrating position where quality of play is measured in number of sacks and hurries they achieve during the sixteen-game season. And if they average just one of each per game they are considered among the league's very top.

Defensive ends must be highly aggressive in nature, highly athletic and fast while being most tenacious in nature. On each and every defensive play they must retain that dogged determination to get to the quarterback despite their past success rate.

Checking the background of these players also revealed that although being born in Africa most grew up and learned the sport in the United States. And, almost without exception, they refined their football-playing skills performing in US high schools and colleges.

All these and the NFL's previous African-born players owe one player a debt of gratitude for paving the way. His name is Christian Okoye who was a running back seven seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs. Nicknamed "The Nigerian Nightmare," Okoye still holds a host of the Chiefs' rushing records. As a result, Okoye was voted the thirtieth member of the Chiefs' Hall of Fame.

Unlike the current crop of African-born players, Okoye also starred in track and field at his alma mater, Azusa Pacific University in California.

In fact, during his outstanding collegiate career, Okoye won no less than seven national titles in shot put, discus and hammer as well as amassing seventeen All American honors in track and field.

Okoye is now a highly sought after motivational speaker as well as being one of the radio broadcasters for the Oakland Raiders football team.

Okoye is also very involved in charity work in and around Kansas City, providing inner city children with increased educational and social opportunities. All this is done through the Christian Okoye Foundation for Inner City Kids.

As he inspired others, Okoye is himself following in the philanthropic footsteps of two other African-born professional basketball players here in the U.S., Manute Bol of Sudan and Congo's Dekembe Mutombo. For many years, both these men have continued to funnel money back to their respective home countries to assist the less fortunate there.

Even though he now longer plays professionally, Bol remains quite active in aid projects for southern Sudan where his fellow Dinkas remain locked in a simmering civil war with the central government in Khartoum.

For his part, Mutombo remains a highly salaried NBA player. And a significant portion of that money has gone and continues to go to build hospitals and other medical facilities in and around the Congolese capital of Kinshasa.

Already several of the current African-born NFL players have begun to emulate this philanthropic spirit, either here in the U.S. or back in their African homelands.

One such player is star defensive end, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila of the Green Bay Packers. For every time he sacks or tackles the opposing quarterback he gives a certain amount of money to the charity he has established to help the disadvantaged in his community. And I know that many others have either announced that they have begun to follow suit or are seriously thinking of it.

Let's hope so. It would be nice to think that although most have become multi-millionaires though their athletic abilities, they have not forgotten their roots -- even when those roots are thousands of kilometers away on a different continent.

By not forgetting, countless thousands of deserving people will benefit indirectly from this "crazy" American sport of gridiron -- a game most Africans know nothing about and, what's more, never care to.

But unless I miss my bet, the number of African-born NFL players will only grow, bringing with it the prospect of increased prosperity not only for the players themselves but for the continent of their birth.