Leaving behind family and friends for school can be a daunting task.
It’s an obstacle that LSU redshirt freshman offensive lineman Chidi Okeke is hurdling now. Not only did the 6-foot-6, 311-pound offensive tackle leave home, he ventured off to an entirely different country.
Okeke moved from Nigeria to the United States in 2013 and attended high school in Palm Bay, Florida. He later moved to Conyers, Georgia, to be closer to his guardian and play basketball at Faith Baptist High School.
Almost any out-of-state college student can relate to missing his or her family, especially when they’re miles and miles away. Okeke became homesick when he arrived to the United States.
Adjusting to a new lifestyle in America seemed staggering, particularly when he first arrived.
“My first month in America, I wanted to go back,” Okeke said. “Coming here as a kid was so overwhelming for me. As time goes on, I try to adapt. Right now I’m okay. I’m grown now.”
The now-20-year-old offensive tackle talked to his parents nearly “three times” a week via Skype and phone calls.
Okeke originally moved west from Anambra, Nigeria, to develop a prospective basketball career overseas. But, after watching a high school football practice one day, his high school coach Mike Tunsil convinced him to try out for the football team.
Growing up, Okeke played “football” in his hometown, better known in the United States as soccer. According to a 2013 market researcher poll by Repucom, 83 percent of Nigerians report soccer interest and 65 percent play the sport.
Playing soccer helped Okeke, the youngest of nine siblings, better his footwork and develop the quickness needed to be an offensive lineman.
When the Nigeria native experienced North American football for the first time, he wasn’t sure he could play.
“When I was back home, I watched football,” Okeke said. “I kept thinking it was too rough. I didn’t believe I could come over and play football.”
After attending a few camps and practices, Okeke developed a passion for football. His love for the game helped him garner a four-star prospect rating out of high school, according to 247sports.com.
With only two years of American football under his belt, Okeke drew offers from programs including Florida State, Auburn and Alabama. But after much thought, he chose LSU because his “spirit” told him it’s where he should be.
Because of his inexperience with the sport, LSU coach Les Miles decided to redshirt him for his freshman season. Okeke said he is still learning.
By the way Miles talks about Okeke, he doesn’t sound like someone who just started strapping up pads a mere two years ago.
“[Okeke] continues to make plays,” Miles said. “He’s quick footed. He comes off the football in a real rapid rate. I’m really pretty excited about him. I don’t know if he’ll play a lot of football early next year, but he’ll play a lot of football.”
Some would think adjusting to English would be the toughest obstacle for Okeke, but it wasn’t. In his native country of Nigeria, English is his official language.
The most difficult thing for him to get used to was direct eye contact, he said with a smile.
Where Okeke is from, it is a sign of respect to not look an elder in the eye while they’re talking — the opposite being true in America surprised him.
“My teacher would ask me to look her in the eye,” Okeke said, laughing. “Back home it’s disrespectful. I was trying to adjust when I came here. Everybody was like look at me in the eye. I don’t understand.”
Finding the right food to eat hasn’t been an issue for him either.
Even though he grew up more than 6,000 miles away from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Okeke said he enjoys most of the local cuisine. But from time to time, he will take a trip to an African food store to whip up a few home-cooked meals.
His long journey has ended in battling for a position to protect his quarterback’s blind side. With the departure of former LSU offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins, the Tigers have a void to fill and a spot Okeke would like to be in, he said.
Okeke said he wants to work hard this spring, so he can translate that success into a starting gig in the fall when LSU opens its season against Wisconsin on Sept. 3.
“I have a goal to work hard,” Okeke said. “The spot is empty right now, [but] that’s my goal, to play during the season. I’m working towards it everyday, trying to be better.”