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Nigeria to the Black & Gold: The Story of Kay Okafor

Kay Okafor is sitting in an Antigonish, Nova Scotia restaurant. He is there with a group of close friends and relatives. Next to him sits his dad. The two are side-by-side for the first time in six years. The mood at the table is jovial, celebratory, and expectant. Earlier in the day Okafor graduated from St. Francis Xavier University with a Business degree specializing in Marketing. For most 24-year-olds this accomplishment alone would be reason for celebration. For Okafor, the day has only just begun. A phone buzzes and he stands up from the table. It’s the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and he has just been selected 21st overall in the 2017 CFL draft. There is an eruption of excitement.

What does this moment mean to Okafor? “It means the world to me. It means everything.”

Six years before, Okafor was an 18-year-old high-school graduate living in Enugu, Nigeria, a sprawling, populous city and capital of Enugu state. Okafor made the life-changing decision to immigrate to Canada after a cousin attending Queen’s University in Kingston convinced him of the quality of Canadian post-secondary education. Okafor would be leaving his home and his family an ocean behind.

The national sport in Nigeria is soccer – the only kind of football Okafor had ever been exposed to. Before leaving Enugu, Okafor was barely aware of the existence of gridiron football, let alone a participant. Despite his love for sport, it was not a factor in his decision to move to Canada.

“I was a science student initially,” remarks Okafor. “[The plan] was to study sciences, graduate, and try and head to med school.” Pursuing the med school dream, Okafor said goodbye to his parents and four elder siblings. He wouldn’t see them again for six years.

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“It was very difficult, leaving home,” reflects Okafor. “It was difficult because I knew that I had to mature very quickly. Being away from home definitely takes a toll on you, and I had my first year struggles just being away from family.”

Okafor’s first Canadian challenge was undergraduate course work at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown. At UPEI he tried out for the basketball team but his bid was unsuccessful. “[Basketball] was a game I was interested in. It’s different and I just always liked that.”

Undaunted, Okafor faced other new experiences with his trademark trail-blazing attitude. Dragged by friends to a Holland College football game, Okafor had another eye-opening experience with North American sport, this time as a spectator.

“I had just come to Canada, and I literally couldn’t understand what was going on,” laughs Okafor. “I didn’t understand why they had pads or helmets, or why they just went at each other, hitting. I didn’t understand what the game was about.”

Okafor’s initial perception of the game would change. Demetrius Ferguson of the Holland College football team played a large role in introducing Okafor to the game of football and shaping him as a developing player. He began watching clips of game action and building on his understanding of the sport.

“Demetrius was really who took me out and broke things down for me,” said Okafor. “We started working together, and from there everything just really changed.”

For Okafor, life would never be the same after that. “With football, everything changed.”

Okafor

Okafor eventually found a home at St. Francis Xavier University as a business student and member of the football team, the X-Men. There he flourished as a player and grew into his position on the defensive line. Okafor suited up for 27 games in his tenure there, averaging more than a tackle per game and notching 6.5 sacks.  As a member of the X-Men he also attended a defensive line clinic hosted by Tiger-Cats defensive line coach, Dennis McPhee, building a relationship that would later prove beneficial.

As Okafor continued to grow, on and off of the football field in Canada, his inability to share those experiences with the ones he loved most constantly weighed on him. Regardless, he would remain motivated by them every step of the way, despite 8,000 kilometers of separation.

“That has really kept me going so far, just the fact that I have to keep making my family proud,” said Okafor. “Everyone has been an onlooker for a while. They hear about things, and see things from their end”.

As the saying goes, good things come in threes.

Sunday, May 7, 2017: St. Francis Xavier Convocation Day, the 2017 CFL Draft, and most importantly, a chance to see his dad for the first time in 6 years.

“It was just amazing to have him around and it really made my day. It was the best feeling in the world to have him there for such a special day.”

Okafor spent the day with his dad and a group of close friends, enjoying the fruits of six years of commitment – to his education and the sport he has grown to love (and excel at). Okafor’s dad plans to stay in Canada for the week, sharing in his son’s accomplishments. As for the rest of his family, Okafor is considering a trip back home, or even flying them to Canada, offering them a chance to share in the life he has made here.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in the past five years. I’ve put in so much work, just learning the game, working on my craft, working on being better every single day, every single play.”

What’s the next step for Okafor, now that he’s been drafted? For starters he’s looking forward to rekindling his relationship with defensive line coach Dennis McPhee and getting to work with his teammates.

“I want to be the best defensive lineman in the Canadian Football League,” grins a confident Okafor.

This dream may not be typical for a young man from the soccer-loving country of Nigeria, but Kay Okafor was never averse to trailblazing.

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