Nigeria's CJ Okoye surprised by Los Angeles Chargers' interest after poor start to NFL life

Nigerian DL Basil Chijioke 'CJ' Okoye was one of Africa's most talented prospects in the 2023 International Player Pathway (IPP) class, but admitted that he had to play catch-up in order to earn his allocation to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Okoye was one of six Nigerian players selected to NFL teams from this year's class, joined by Roy Mbaeteka (Chicago Bears), Chukwuebuka Jason Godrick (Kansas City Chiefs), Kenneth Odumegwu (Green Bay Packers), David Ebuka Agoha (Las Vegas Raiders), and Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi (Denver Broncos).

The 21-year-old, who only started playing football three years ago, said that after he made it through October's NFL Combine in London, he started working out extra ahead of relocating to Florida in January.

But he still found that when he arrived at camp, he was not yet fully ready to play top-level football, telling ESPN: "I know that I was a prospect, but coming to the camp in Florida, America, was hard.

"I thought I was the best but seeing the best people in each country come together, I was like, the last. I had to work my way to the top, so I was the underdog."

He added: "When were done with the combine in London. I started working - I started going to the gym because I knew that what I saw there [in myself] wasn't enough [to be in the NFL]. So, I started going to the gym, I started lifting weights. I started doing some stuff because I want to work and I want to be the best, but it wasn't enough.

"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."

Nigeria has become a hotbed of homegrown prospects since New York Giants legend Osi Umenyiora introduced his Uprise camps, which later led to the NFL officially hosting camps in Africa.

Okoye credits the IPP staff and fellow players for holding him accountable and ensuring that he never took his foot off the gas in living up to his full potential, despite being new to the game compared to most NFL players.

"The IPP guys - everybody I worked with at the IPP, starting from the coaches, the organisation, my teammates... The guy holding the bag gives me a game scenario for my coaches - they helped explain it better and helped me see the mistakes from watching the film, because we record every single practice," said Okoye.

"The organisation called me up when I did some bulls***, [such as when] I maybe wasn't focused. They called me out and said that it's not acceptable."

Okoye learned that he had been selected for allocation to an NFL team before the knew which one, but was finally informed on a Zoom call that it was the Chargers.

Okoye explained: "They didn't want to tell me... I received an email for a Zoom call. I didn't know who was on the other side. While talking, they told me who they are and told me that I had been allocated to the Chargers. It was one of my happiest moments, you know - a dream come true.

"Los Angeles and here [West Palm Beach, Florida] are a bit similar. The weather is the same. It's mostly sun. My best part is the weather."

Okoye hopes that his story will inspire his fans - particularly those in Nigeria - to dream big.

"For people that want to play; for people that have been dreaming... If you have big dreams, you have to dream even bigger. No dream is too big. If you dream it, you can achieve it. My dream is to get into the NFL, but I haven't stopped yet. I have an even bigger dream of getting that championship ring," he said.

"I want to tell them to keep dreaming, keep working hard, and one day, they're going to make it here."

Apart from players who came through the NFL Africa structures, other international prospects who made the cut from the 2023 class were Australia's Patrick Murtagh (Detroit Lions) and France's Junior Aho (Minnesota Vikings).