A snake is loose in Amobi Okoye's garage. It just slithered in, about five minutes ago, and curled up between two duffel bags by the back window. It looks to be a Texas copperhead, dark brown, three feet long if completely uncoiled. It raises its flat head and wags its little tongue whenever anyone gets close. � Okoye, the rookie defensive tackle for the Texans, is at practice. Snake--handling duties fall to his older brother, Arinze, and his cousin Okey Chidume, who moved to Houston in the summer for just this sort of occasion. Arinze dials the police. Chidume dials animal control. No one answers.
"Can I call 911 for a snake?" Arinze asks.
The copperhead, not uncommon in East Texas but an obvious injury risk, has to be gone by the time Okoye gets home. Arinze deftly removes the two duffel bags by the back window. He positions an empty cardboard box on the ground. He picks up a white shower rod. And in one motion, like a hockey player taking a wrist shot, he sweeps the snake into the open box.
Chidume grabs another cardboard box off the ground and slams it over the one holding the snake. The cousins stand in silent shock. Then they leap into each other's arms. "Protect this house!" they yell in unison. "Protect this house!"
When Okoye returns hours later, he has no idea of the excitement he missed. He only learns that his roommates have a new pet, named Malik, ensconced in the garage.
WHILE ARINZE and Chidume handle reptiles in the Houston suburbs, Okoye takes on a different sort of beast: 300-pound offensive linemen, also spewing venom. In his first NFL game, a preseason test against the Bears, Okoye dropped into his stance and heard a lineman bellow, "We got a young one over here. We got a real young one."
The youngest, mind you. At 20 years old Okoye is the youngest player in NFL history. Or as Texans coach Gary Kubiak puts it, "He's not even legal yet." Regardless, Okoye may never have to show I.D. in Houston. One month into his pro career he already has four sacks, including one of Peyton Manning in Week 3. Against the Dolphins on Sunday he had three tackles and an assist in a 22--19 win that lifted the Texans to 3-2, their best-ever start.
Okoye has been a quick study since he left the crib. He started reading before he was three and entered high school at 12. By 15 he was getting letters of interest from Harvard. He graduated from Louisville at 19. The one subject he came late to was football.
Okoye was a freshman at Lee High in Huntsville, Ala., when a substitute teacher looked him over and asked, "You want to play football?" Okoye, a chunky 12-year-old who had just moved from Nigeria, was confused. "What's that?" he replied.
The teacher, Greg Campbell, also happened to be the school's defensive line coach, and he had never heard of a boy in Alabama who did not know football. So he gave Okoye a Madden NFL video game, thinking it was the easiest way to teach the sport. Okoye was raised to read books, not play video games. But he made this one exception.