The most memorable moment of the Rams-Chargers preseason yawner at SoFi Stadium came after most fans had tuned out. On the Rams’ last offensive play on Saturday, Stetson Bennett was sacked by a man playing in his first organized football game.
CJ Okoye found his way into a Chargers uniform by way of the NFL International Player Pathway Program, and on third-and-19 from the Chargers’ 36-yard line, he found his way to Bennett, tackling the backup quarterback for a 16-yard loss.
The Chargers’ sideline responded as if the sack had sealed a Super Bowl victory. Players whooped and jumped and hollered and hugged.
“You just saw that sideline,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said after a 34-17 win over the Rams. “That’s what the NFL is about, stories like that. It’s going to be a memorable moment for our whole team.”
Moments earlier, Staley handed out a game ball in the locker room, telling the team: “The way that sideline erupted, that’s what we were hoping for tonight.” He held up the football and yelled, “CJ Okoye!”
Okoye, 21, is one of a handful of African players discovered during former New York Giants Pro Bowl defensive lineman Osi Umenyiora’s initiative called “The Uprise” in 2020. Three African players who had never played organized football — Kehinde Oginni Hassan, Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi and Chigbo Roy Mbaeteka — were signed to NFL contracts.
The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Okoye emerged from the next wave of talent, attending the first NFL Africa talent camp in Ghana in 2022 and the International Combine in London, where he was one of eight players chosen for the IPP program. He was assigned to the Chargers and can remain on the practice squad all season without taking up a roster spot.
“To see these fantastic young Nigerian men achieve their dream to be on an NFL roster is incredibly exciting, and I am proud of how each one of them have worked incredibly hard to earn this moment,” said Umenyiora, who helped the Giants to two Super Bowl titles and once registered six sacks in one game. “I cannot wait to see how they develop next season and in the years to come, and know that everyone in Nigeria will be following their progress with pride.”
Besides Umenyiora, the most famous Nigerian NFL player is Christian Okoye, the running back from Azusa Pacific University who played six years with the Kansas City Chiefs, led the league in rushing in 1989 and was known as the “Nigerian Nightmare.” Okoye is a common Nigerian surname.
For one glorious moment, the spotlight shifted to Basil Chijioke “CJ” Okoye.
When he was assigned to the Chargers in May, Okoye pinpointed when he got serious about football.
“When [we] were done with the combine in London, I started going to the gym because I knew that what I saw [in myself] wasn’t enough,” he told ESPN. “So, I started going to the gym, I started lifting weights.
“I don’t know the game, I don’t understand the game, I don’t know what it means, I don’t know what it takes. I knew part of what it took to get here, but I didn’t know all of what it took to get here. You need people who know the game, but after the London combine, I knew what I wanted. I knew that I had to get it.”