From Madden, Okoye learned about first downs, touchdowns and holding penalties. From Campbell, he learned almost everything else. The coach set up trash cans in the school gymnasium as makeshift offensive linemen. He showed Okoye how to take the best angles, shoot the correct gaps, stunt behind the right receptacles.
Eight years later Okoye walked into Reliant Stadium, a 6'2", 302-pound man-child expected to shore up the Texans' defense. To welcome him on his first day, veteran defensive end N.D. Kalu hung a Nigerian flag on the wall in the locker room. "Everywhere I went, I could feel the expectations," says Okoye, who was taken with the 10th pick of the 2007 draft. "I could feel the pressure."
Mario Williams laughs. Last year Houston drafted Williams at No. 1, ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young. Now that was pressure. When Okoye arrived in Houston the night of the '07 draft, Williams picked him up at his hotel and took him to dinner. Williams, himself a 22-year-old defensive end, would show this rookie the ropes. "I know how tough it can be, and I didn't want him to have it the same way," Williams says. "I wanted him to know that I was always going to be here for him."
IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL, the best defensive linemen can usually get by on pure physical force. They bulldoze their way into the opposing backfield. They do not need to worry much about hand position or footwork. They just need to muscle up and charge. But in the NFL, offensive linemen are often as strong as their defensive counterparts, and usually trickier. They grab and nudge and hip-check a pass rusher off course. In training camp, whenever Okoye failed to beat his man, he felt as though everyone was looking at him, judging him—and usually he was right. "He hit the wall very early," says Texans defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina, a 15-year veteran. "He didn't make plays, and then he got frustrated."
Before every play Okoye was listening intently to the linebacker's calls, trying to calculate whether he should rush or drop, swim or rip, go inside or out. Bent over in the Houston heat, he felt as though he had stuck his head under a massive blow-dryer. "It was hell," Okoye says. "I could do nothing right."
He certainly couldn't carry a tune. As part of Okoye's rookie hazing, veterans ordered him to sing Candy Rain (the '90s hit by Soul for Real that featured 14-year-old lead vocalist Jason Dalyrimple), but they determined that he lacked conviction, especially on the lyric about candy-coated raindrops. "He's a great guy and a great player," says defensive tackle Tim Bulman. "But that was a horrible rendition."
Okoye finally felt his age. When he looked for teammates to dine with after practice, many had to go home to wives and children. When he asked Kubiak if he too could go home, even though rookies were confined to a Houston hotel, Kubiak told him to get back to his room.
When Okoye was eventually allowed home, Arinze and Chidume were waiting. All three grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, members of the Igbo tribe. When they were kids, Nigeria was a military state, overrun with riots. Okoye would watch gunmen march into his neighbors' houses at night and wonder when they would march into his.
Okoye's father, Augustine, had attended Prairie View A&M in southeast Texas and believed the U.S. could provide a safe haven. He moved to Huntsville in 1997 to lay down roots. Okoye's mother, Edna, arrived with Arinze and Amobi two years later. Chidume eventually followed. While the parents still live in Huntsville, the boys are in a five-bedroom house 30 minutes west of Houston that Amobi bought after signing a six-year, $17.6 million contract. They speak English, Igbo and their own made-up language, called Evrefresh. "It combines English and Igbo," Chidume says. "Like Spanglish."
Arinze, 22, and Chidume, 24, help manage Okoye's career, but they also steered him out of his training-camp rut. The three of them watched Okoye's college tapes in their home theater, looking for what he was doing right at Louisville. They practiced new pass-rush techniques in the living room. And when they got tired, they plopped into the pool, the perfect place to work on swim moves.