Tennessee commit Chidi Okonya’s high school coach envisions a time when one of the best defensive ends in the country is a CEO or political leader.
Okonya, a 4-star prospect from Riverdale (Ga.) High School, has professional football dreams, but his coach talks of bigger goals for his star player.
“If the NFL happens, it’s like gravy,” Riverdale coach Terry Herrod told SEC Country. “For him, he is using football to get as much education as possible. He wants to be a major player in the world of business or in the world of politics. That’s where I see Chidi Okonya (Chee-dee O-cone-yay). I see this kid getting these degrees, maybe playing a couple of years in the NFL and going back to law school. I think he has a chance to be Senator or Governor Okonya.”
The 6-foot-7, 230-pounder has never received anything less than an “A” on any report card.
His mother, Patricia Okonya, never takes those moments when he brings home his report card for granted.
“Oh my God. I am on top of the world to tell you the truth,” she said. “All five of my children are doing very well. With Chidi, I think he has a special gift from God for all he has.”
Chidi is the parliamentarian of his school’s Beta Club, an honor society; has been named “Gifted Student of the Year,” and is a captain of his football team.
So what makes Okonya strive for greatness?
“I definitely just don’t want to be another statistic,” Okonya said. “I don’t want to be another stereotype.”
His parents have made sure that he doesn’t become the stereotype he fears – being labeled the dumb jock.
Romanus Okonya, Chidi’s father, has made it clear that if his children do not succeed in the classroom, extracurricular activities would cease.
“If you get a ‘C’ twice in any class, I will pull you out of sports,” Chidi’s father said. “They will not play. If you do not do well academically, you will not do well in sports, either. Academics always come first. I do not care how good of a player you are.”
Romanus came to the United States from Nigeria when he was 17. The main reason why he came to America was to give his future children educational opportunities that they would not have had if he remained in Africa.
He came to America with $5,000, his Bible and dictionary. He worked at a gas station as an attendant and as an agent for Hertz to support his academic aspirations at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management. He got his master’s degree in public administration at Atlanta University, which is now Clark University. He currently works for Delta Airlines as a customer service representative.
It’s that kind of work ethic and determination that has been instilled in each of his five children, and it all starts in the classroom. Chika and Ikechi are getting degrees in biology from Georgia State with the hopes of getting into medical school. Chinedu is a redshirt freshman defensive end at Furman University. Chigozie, 13, is also excelling in middle school.
“Education is a tremendous priority for his family,” Coach Herrod said. “The kid has a tremendous intellectual curiosity. He is a critical thinker. Being an educator myself, it starts at home. His parents have done an incredible job raising him. Chidi takes full advantage of what he is being offered here at school. He is in AP classes. He takes care of business in the classroom.”
Chidi has already received college credit in one class. He passed the AP U.S. History test his junior year, which means when he enrolls in Tennessee, he will enter college with at least three credits. His favorite class right now is AP microeconomics, and he’s interested in learning about investing, buying stocks and understanding how the market operates.
That’s one of the reasons why Chidi is leaning toward majoring in business analytics or business economics when he gets to Knoxville.
“I just want to be in a situation where I can network and meet people,” Chidi said. “Connections are so important in this world.”
His coach expanded on what Chidi’s educational goals are.
“I think the most important thing for him is he wants to get a degree,” Herrod said. “He wants to go to Tennessee and earn two degrees. He wants to get an undergraduate degree in three-and-a-half years. He also wants to walk out of there with an MBA. Athletically, if he gets an opportunity to play in the NFL, it would be great. But, every kid wants that.”
Chidi was actually close to not playing football altogether. When he attended Riverdale Middle School, Chidi was the bass player in the orchestra.
When he got to high school, he had a decision to make because of his schedule. He could choose to continue to play bass like he had done from sixth to eighth grade or play football like his older brother, Chinedu.
“It was a close decision. I loved playing the bass,” Chidi said. “I thought I was good at it and could get better at it. I just wanted to be active and be around the guys I went to middle school with. I noticed a lot of them joined the football team. I decided to join the football team because of them.”
He has since lost most of his skills on the bass but did say that he could still play a couple of notes from “El Toro,” which was his favorite song to play on the bass.
His ability to think quickly and carefully not only helped with music, it has assisted his development as a future SEC star.
The advantage he has over most players on the field is his intellectual abilities to not only know where he should be on a given play but also where his teammates should be. He has turned into a player-coach on the field.
“The game moves extremely fast,” Chidi said. “There may be a guy next to you who doesn’t get something right away. I can tell him where he needs to line up or what he needs to do. In everything you do, you need to be able to think.”
In college, there will be pressure to perform in the classroom and on the football field. Is his mother concerned that football will take him away from his academics?
“He will not do that,” Patricia said. “There’s nothing that would take him away from his education. He is still going to do what he has been doing all of his life. Nothing will deter him away from his education.”