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Peter King
December 11, 1989
Christian Okoye of the Chiefs may be the NFL's gentlest player. He is certainly its most dangerous runner
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December 11, 1989

Onward, Christian

Christian Okoye of the Chiefs may be the NFL's gentlest player. He is certainly its most dangerous runner

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In addition, he has the right coach this year. Marty Schottenheimer, who took over in Kansas City last January, believes in the rushing game as much as any coach in the league. "I feel you have to run to win," says Schottenheimer. "It gives you confidence knowing you can control the ball on someone."

Schottenheimer took one look at Okoye at the Chiefs' minicamp last spring and decided: If he's healthy, he's my workhorse. That would not have been a difficult decision for any coach to make if he had seen what Schottenheimer saw at that camp. After timing Okoye at 4.48 in the 40, he checked the stopwatches of five assistants for confirmation, and then had Okoye run another 40, just to be sure. This time the watches all came up around 4.5. Schottenheimer was euphoric. "I can remember Marty asking me, 'How many times do you think you can carry the ball in a game?' " says Okoye. "I told him I once carried 40 times in college. I told him I often carried 30 times a game at Azusa. Marty was surprised. I told him I could do that. It is no problem for me."

Schottenheimer also inherited an offensive line that was one of the NFL's hidden gems. It averages 6'5" and 287 pounds, and its members love to run-block. But the Chiefs had had a pass-oriented offense the previous six years under coaches John Mackovic and Frank Gansz. That isn't a knock on those regimes. Kansas City hadn't had a great back since Joe Delaney, who died before the 1983 season. Since then the Chiefs have finished 28th, 27th, 28th, 27th, 19th and 22nd in the league in rushing.

But with Okoye healthy and Schottenheimer committed to the ground game, things would be different. "Running the ball sends a message we've needed to send on this team," says Eatman. "Want to hear an offensive lineman bitch? Throw the ball nine times in a row. You can't dominate someone as an offensive lineman by pass blocking. You want to bludgeon people."

Shottenheimer's plans were almost derailed when Okoye injured his neck during preseason drills and missed five weeks of training camp. "But for a guy who hasn't been playing football for long," says Schottenheimer, "it was remarkable how, intellectually, he just picked the offense up when he came back." Okoye didn't have a single carry in K.C.'s exhibition games, and he got just five in a season-opening loss at Denver. Over the next eight games, however, he averaged 26 carries and 114 yards. Impressive figures, especially considering that no K.C. back had exceeded 110 yards in a game since 1981. "I would have to say it is quite amazing," says Okoye.

In the space of a month Okoye tied the Chiefs' record for carries in a game (30, on Oct. 8 against the Seattle Seahawks), broke it (33, Oct. 22, against the Dallas Cowboys) and broke it again (37, Nov. 5, against Seattle). "The key was that Marty has pushed Christian and didn't let the fact that he didn't see Christian in camp affect his plans," says Kansas City president and general manager Carl Peterson. "I don't think he'll continue to run this much. When he ran 30 times against Seattle, I talked to Marty about it, and we figured that maybe 22 to 26 carries a game would be about right. Then he runs 37 times, and I'm saying, 'Wow, we're going the other way.' "

The Chiefs wisely reduced Okoye's load after he missed the game on Nov. 12. In the next two games, he averaged 21 carries. Then he came roaring back against Miami, and in the process he broke the team record for rushing yards in a season.

Okoye is still learning, of course. He runs too upright; defenders get too many open shots at him, and even though they generally bounce off, the hits take a toll. "I am very sore on Monday," he says.

Okoye also needs to protect the ball better in traffic; he has fumbled six times this season. He needs to hit holes more precisely and quickly. And he needs to become a better receiver; he has only two catches for the year. However, those improvements will come with time. "Some things in football you learn as a junior high or high school player," says Peterson. "But you've got to realize he never was one."

In high school, at the Uwani Secondary School in Enugu, Okoye became a discus thrower, and he says that if he had not decided to come to the U.S. to study and be a track and field athlete, he would probably be coaching track at the school today. The first time he picked up a football, he tried to play catch but couldn't figure out how to handle the ball. Okoye made the Azusa Pacific football team in 1984, and in '86 he led all collegians in rushing yards per game, with 186.7. In the '87 draft, K.C. gave up second-and fourth-round choices to move up 11 spots in the second round, where it claimed the unpolished Okoye.

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