College football: Mesabi Range player's journey to Division I began in Liberia
VIRGINIA — Sam Okuayinonu's circuitous route to major college football prospect lends credence to a longstanding axiom of the sports world.
If you can play, they'll find you.
Coaches have found Okuayinonu all right.
From Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia on Africa's west coast, Okuayinonu was 13 when he and his mother immigrated to the United States, settling in Lowell, Mass. He was a soccer player his first three years of high school before finally succumbing to the reality of his size and going out for football — for a third time — as a senior in 2015.
An unremarkable 20-tackle season hardly thrust Okuayinonu onto the recruiting radar. He attended community college in Massachusetts for a semester, but his heart wasn't in it. In the spring of 2017, when joining the Army was looking like a real possibility, he started watching the popular Netflix series "Last Chance U." Okuayinonu thought he could be one of those players.
So he set out for Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss. But a broken toe sabotaged his season and ultimately cost him a spot on the football team. The potential-packed defensive end wasn't ready to give up. He sent out feelers. Mesabi Range College was one of the schools to show interest.
"When we saw his film, we contacted him right away," Norsemen coach Tom Inforzato said.
The 6-foot-2, 265-pound Okuayinonu arrived in Virginia in early August and proceeded to unleash his explosiveness, strength and surprisingly refined technique at overmatched offensive tackles across the Minnesota College Athletic Conference.
More than his 17.5 sacks, which tied for the national lead, it was the way Okuayinonu dominated. The MCAC defensive player of the year was a man among boys.
Which is how this 20-year-old from Africa, by way of Massachusetts and Mississippi, who played his home games on a Nine-Man field on Minnesota's Iron Range, was discovered by NCAA Division I coaches coast to coast. Okuayinonu has received 13 Division I scholarship offers, with Oregon the early favorite.
"If you put up numbers, you do what you have to do, get good grades, I think they're gonna come," he said. "They'll find you."
David Wilson, who played his college football alongside Daunte Culpepper at Central Florida, coaches the offensive line at Mesabi Range. After watching Okuayinonu for the first time in August, Wilson knew the Norsemen had unearthed a gem.
"At the end of that first session, he came over and said, 'He's special,' " Antavius Thomas, the team's defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, said of Wilson's reaction.
Considering Okuayinonu has played only two seasons of competitive football, it's jarring how polished his technique is. His individual highlight reel shows Okuayinonu swimming and spinning into opposing backfields like he's a 10-year vet. Those moves are enhanced by his best pass-rushing quality — an explosive first step off the edge that leaves offensive linemen blocking air.
"There are some things, just like height and weight, that you can't teach," Inforzato said.
Then there's the matter of brute strength, the kind that allows Okuayinonu to flick quarterbacks to the ground as if they're mannequins. Last week on the school's Virginia campus, Okuayinonu emerged from the weight room and you immediately felt sorry for his Under Armour T-shirt, which was stretched to capacity by cartoonish biceps, triceps and deltoids. Handed a football, he made it disappear with one hand.
On his Twitter page, there's a video of Okuayinonu dunking a basketball, proof he has the requisite athleticism to play defensive end or, potentially, linebacker for a Division I team. He's relentless pursuing ballcarriers.
Add it all up, and it's easy to see why Oregon is flying Okuayinonu out west on a recruiting visit, and why he was a guest of the Gophers earlier this fall at TCF Bank Stadium, where he posed for a photo with Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. The Ducks were put onto Okuayinonu by the University of Alabama, which was interested but ultimately backed off because of a school transfer rule in which Okuayinonu would have had to stay at Mesabi Range for two more semesters, including next fall.
Presently, he has three years of eligibility remaining and expects to sign a national letter of intent in February.
The Norsemen went 7-3 this fall despite a lackluster offense. Inforzato credits the defense, led by Okuayinonu, who totaled 62 tackles (21.5 for loss).
"They double-teamed him, they triple-teamed him, they chipped him with a running back, they ran away from him," Thomas said, acknowledging none of it worked.
Aside from physical tools, Okuayinonu is a student of the game whose motor never slows.
"Every day at practice, he showed up and went 100 miles an hour," Inforzato said. "He works his (butt) off."
The easygoing and playful Okuayinonu will graduate in May with an associate of arts degree. He owns a 3.2 grade-point average.
Liberia often is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Civil war. Squalid living conditions. Ebola.
Okuayinonu paints a different picture.
"Living there as a kid was wonderful," he said. "We had a beach and would go out to the beach every Sunday. We had a big house, big yard. Lots of family members, lived right next to the ocean. It was beautiful."
And it was full of soccer.
"That's all we do is play soccer in Africa," Okuayinonu said. "I was born and raised on a soccer field."
While Okuayinonu has no complaints about his upbringing in Liberia, he admits future prospects were dim. His grandma came first to the United States, then sent for her family, including Okuayinonu and his mother, Clara Attia; his parents separated when he was 3, and his father lives in London.
They left before West Africa's Ebola virus outbreak of 2014. Adapting to life in the U.S. was made easier by Lowell's diversity, which includes a "large African population," Okuayinonu said. Still, it wasn't without obstacles.
"When I came here, I was lost," he said. "Everything's different — food, culture, people, the way people interact. Everything is different. But, you know, I adjusted to it."
Just as he's done in northern Minnesota, which Okuayinonu described thusly: "Oh, man. Oh, man. So cold."
Said Inforzato: "He did a great job of adjusting to this life right away."
The coach would love to have Okuayinonu for one more season, but he realizes that's unlikely. And he's fine with it. That's part of his job, to help players find opportunities at the next level. It is, Inforzato said, a stepping stone.
Future without a ceiling
Inforzato and Thomas both said Okuayinonu is the same person he was when he first joined the Norsemen. Even as Division I offers continue to roll in, he remains grounded. Keeping his head down and going to work, Okuayinonu called it.
"I don't think he's acted any different since this all started happening," Inforzato said. "He's appreciative and he's humbled, but it hasn't changed him."
Said Okuayinonu: "I don't take for granted the position I'm in today. I give all the praise to God."
He may be leaning toward Oregon, but the thought of playing closer to family in Massachusetts also is intriguing. His mom still hasn't seen him compete in college.
Whatever school lands him will get a player ready and willing to be molded. Good as he is now, once Okuayinonu starts to benefit from the resources available at many D-I programs, he could morph into something different altogether. After all, he's played about 20 football games total.
In other words, he has plenty to learn.
Which is why prognosticating what Okuayinonu the football player will look like in, say, two years is all but impossible.
"I like to think of myself as limitless," he said. "I think of it as not having a ceiling. Always exceed and go above and beyond what I'm told I can or can't do. Limitless. I always try to learn new stuff about the game every day."
Could Okuayinonu be the next Khiry Robinson, a running back who played for the Norsemen on his way to the NFL?
Okuayinonu is just getting started.
"My time is coming," he tweeted Nov. 17.
WHO'S WOOING OKUAYINONU?
The following Division I schools have extended scholarship offers to Sam Okuayinonu:
• Arkansas-Pine Bluff
• New Hampshire
• Sacred Heart
• Southern Mississippi