Chidi Valentine-Okeke didn’t grow up with a football in his bed like American children.
He was barely familiar with the game. Some Nigerian televisions pick up a broadcast of ESPN, so Valentine-Okeke caught highlights and a live or replayed game every now and then.
A young Valentine-Okeke never imagined he’d one day play it and his talent would bring him to one of the nation’s top programs. He never thought he’d spend his summer afternoon in pads, blocking other men as big as him. He never pictured Tiger Stadium or the electricity it creates on a Saturday night.
But Valentine-Okeke is very much immersed in football culture now, aware of everything that was once so foreign.
“I came to Baton Rouge on Aug. 5,” Valentine-Okeke said, “and with everything I’ve learned here, it’s felt like five years.”
Valentine-Okeke was a basketball and soccer player growing up in Nigera. A foundation often held camps for football and basketball, and a coach saw his talent on the hardwood and encouraged him to pick up a helmet. That’s when he started learning the game, doing drills with the limited equipment available.
That same foundation selected him to move to the United States, get an education and play football. He arrived here in the summer of 2013, and a year later, he was one of the top offensive line prospects in the country.
That opened up an even newer world while he was still getting used to life across the Atlantic.
Valentine-Okeke soon fielded offers from all the top SEC programs. He wanted to play with the best, and his handlers in America helped him select the ones that fitted him best.
LSU was one of those schools, and they received an official visit from him late in the 2015 recruiting cycle. The Tigers were an outside contender until that trip, and they managed to land his signature come National Signing Day.
“I feel at home over here,” he said. “I’m not missing Nigeria, because I’m home. I know why I chose LSU.”
Valentine-Okeke still had hurdles to jump before he could reach the next level of his new dream. The NCAA flagged his ACT scores during the eligibility process, and he had to retake the test this past summer before he’d get accepted.
“I was just encouraging him to hang on and stay positive to know it would all work out,” said LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. “It was a pleasure because he’s a joy to be around.”
Valentine-Okeke eventually got the good word from the NCAA and arrived in Baton Rouge in time for fall camp. Now Grimes has found even more enjoyment in actually getting to coach him.
He’s very raw, as you’d expect from someone still learning the ins and outs of the sport. But LSU has placed him at the premier position on the offensive line — left tackle — because they see big-time potential.
“I try to learn everything quick, so I can adapt,” Valentine-Okeke said. “It‘s hard, but I put my mind in it. This is what I want to do, and that’s why I keep learning fast, trying to be on the same pace as everybody.”
He expects to redshirt this season, so he’s still at least a year away from his official debut.
His story is an incredible one. There are so many chapters left to be written, but if he accomplishes what’s expected, he’ll be one that inspires many.
“To come from Africa to the United States and leave your family and start fresh, it’s incredible,” Grimes said. “He’s going to have unbelievable success and a really cool story to share with people down the road.”
Chidi Valentine-Okeke's long journey to LSU
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