“Soccer — ah, love it, man,” Okuayinonu says now, sounding refreshed thinking back to those days. “Love playing soccer.”
That’s all he played, all he watched, with Barcelona his favorite team and Ronaldinho his favorite player. So when Okuayinonu started high school in Massachusetts, he joined the team of the only sport he knew. Once a growth spurt made him the size of a future Big Ten defensive lineman, everyone said he should play American football, not center back. He tried the unfamiliar sport and hated it — until his senior year at Lowell High, when he first truly gave football a chance.
“My mind was just on soccer, so I didn't really open my mind to playing the sport,” Okuayinonu said. “Once I did, I actually started to enjoy it.”
After that senior season, Okuayinonu decided he wanted to play football into college and beyond, a choice that led him to College Park, where he’s a reserve defensive lineman for Maryland. He has played in all but one game this season and still has another two years of eligibility, finally a long-term stop on his winding path that spans four states and includes two junior colleges.
When Lowell Coach John Florence thinks about how Okuayinonu grew into someone playing in Big Ten games, he admits with a laugh, “That’s pretty far off from what we first experienced.” The athletes who go on to play at this level are usually the type who dominated games in high school, Florence said. And Okuayinonu does not fit that mold.
Even once Okuayinonu committed to football, he didn’t have the grades or the skill set to go to a Division I school. He attended a local community college, hoping to improve enough academically to play for a Division III program that had looked at him. But then he watched the Netflix series “Last Chance U,” which chronicles the seasons of junior college football teams. Okuayinonu realized that path might suit him, too, though his mom, Clara D. Attia, vehemently opposed all routes that involved his new sport.
“I'm just a typical African woman [who thinks] that their child should be a doctor, nurse, accountant, any of the regular professions,” Attia said. “That's what we know about. But football? No.”
Okuayinonu was born during the second Liberian civil war, which, combined with the first civil war that began in 1989, resulted in the deaths of roughly 250,000 people. Okuayinonu’s mom remembers the fear of living amid conflict and how the family moved around Monrovia, the capital city, to find temporary safe spots. Sometimes the large extended family, at least 30 people, would squeeze into her parents’ home under a concrete roof. Attia recalls the horrors — bodies on the streets and the prolific use of child soldiers. The war ended in 2003, when Okuayinonu was about 5 years old, but Attia said violent crime persisted in the aftermath.
Okuayinonu and his mother moved to the United States when he was 12, searching for better education and more opportunity, joining Attia’s parents and siblings who had already immigrated. (Okuayinonu’s parents divorced when he was young, and his father lives in London.)
“The way they talk about America in Liberia is like it’s heaven,” said Okuayinonu, who believed the streets would indeed be paved with gold.
Okuayinonu, an only child, settled into Lowell, 30 miles outside Boston, with his mom in January 2011. Once they arrived, Okuayinonu immediately reached down to grab a scoop of snow because he had heard it tasted like ice cream. Attia said the abrupt seasonal transition was like “leaving from the fire into a freezer.”
When her son played high school football, Attia somewhat reluctantly watched games in the cold, uninformed about the game’s rules. She didn’t embrace the sport until she realized how her son’s grades improved at Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss., his first junior college stop. But a toe injury kept Okuayinonu out for the season. Once he returned, Okuayinonu didn’t think the staff there would offer the playing time he needed, so he convinced his mom to let him try another school. Okuayinonu’s mom had worked three jobs to pay for his tuition at Coahoma and didn’t want to watch those credits possibly slip away, but she eventually obliged.
Though Okuayinonu didn’t have much film to offer, Tom Inforzato, the coach at Mesabi Range College, noticed how much further along Okuayinonu seemed physically compared to his junior college counterparts. The staff believed in this developing player, so Okuayinonu moved to a small Minnesota town about 50 miles from the Canadian border, where Okuayinonu said the word “cold” fails to capture the place where winter temperatures dip below zero.
But there he blossomed. Okuayinonu became the Minnesota College Athletic Conference defensive player of the year. At that level, he tied for the national lead in sacks. Offers from Power Five schools started to roll in, particularly once an Alabama staffer showed some interest.
“We had a very, very busy month up here in January,” Inforzato said, listing Oregon, Syracuse, Memphis and South Florida as some of the schools that recruited Okuayinonu.
But once Okuayinonu visited Maryland, he told his coach that’s where he wanted to go. He liked the idea of playing for a new staff that wouldn’t have preconceived ideas about who deserved to play. Okuayinonu and the Maryland coaches would have a fresh start together. Maryland Coach Michael Locksley said the 6-foot-1, 285-pound lineman has “tremendous upside” and has played his best football as the season has progressed.
For the first time since high school, Okuayinonu’s mom has returned to the stands for games. She’s even starting to understand the sport more and ask questions. Each trip to College Park, Attia transports heaping portions of Liberian dishes, including her son’s favorite, torborgee, a spicy stew. She brings about 25 servings of food along for the ride but is quick to note her son’s preferred portion skews far above the average size.
When Okuayinonu remembers his life in Liberia, that’s what he thinks of first — the tasty food and nice people. He lived a three-minute walk from the beach, where his family would go after church on Sundays. Okuayinonu doesn’t mention the war that consumed his earliest years.
He has lived in the United States for less than a decade, but Okuayinonu’s path has twisted in ways he never foresaw. He certainly wouldn’t have guessed football would have been the driving force behind every turn. From Massachusetts to Mississippi to Minnesota, he experienced different people and cultures, but “each step I took,” Okuayinonu said, “just made me better.”