Last month, at a gathering to celebrate their improbable run to the Vanier Cup national football title, members of the UBC Thunderbirds were presented with tiny boxes they all assumed to be after-dinner desserts.
Instead, each contained a championship ring.
“I’ve seen professional athletes get them before,” says ‘Birds defensive end Charles Nwoye, “but ours were on par. Lots of diamonds.”
OK, maybe not the real thing, but when you are plucked from the depths of obscurity like Nwoye was and branded the ultimate diamond in the rough, you don’t quibble with details, like the fact that when he arrived on the UBC campus for training camp last August, he had never played the sport.
“If I looked at myself on this very day last year, I would never have expected to be here,” Nwoye recalled last week during the team’s spring camp. “I would not have expected to be playing football. I would not have expected to be a national champion.”
Yet against ridiculous odds, he has accomplished all of the above.
“Things can happen very quickly,” he continued. “I can only give thanks. But honestly, this whole thing could have been a movie script.”
In a small way, it kind of was.
A LEAP OF FAITH
Last June, as he scrambled to find bodies to fill out the depth chart along his defensive line, newly installed UBC head coach Blake Nill decided to follow his gut instincts and act on a tip from one of his former players.
“He said, ‘Coach, you got to see this kid,’ ” remembers Nill, who got Nwoye’s phone number and later flew out to visit with him and his family in the small Alberta town of Strathmore, 50 kilometres east of Calgary. “I took one look at him and even though he had never played, I said ‘Wow, this kid looks like he can move.’ ”
Defensive lineman Charles Nwoye (left) had never played football before arriving at the UBC campus for training camp last August. Arlen Redekop / PNG
There was so much that could have gone wrong, but based on that eye-test alone, Nill invited the native of Lagos, Nigeria who had come to Canada in 2006 with his family and promptly skipped a grade, to join his squad later that summer at the team’s training camp.
“The first time he put on his helmet was Aug. 14,” Nill continues.
Yet in the six weeks between their initial meeting and the start of camp, Nwoye had the fortune of watching an NFL Films documentary on Christian Okoye, the former Kansas City Chiefs’ all-pro running back who has started playing football while in college at the age of 23 and was later nicknamed The Nigerian Nightmare.
“Not that I am saying I’m going to the NFL, but when I saw that, I thought ‘If he can do this, why can’t I?’ ” says Nwoye, who suddenly had a script to follow that was worthy of his own ambitions. “We’re both from the same tribe. The Igbo tribe. We grew up in neighbouring states.”
From that point, with a template to guide him, Nwoye learned to leave his caution and fear on the sidelines.
“He came into camp being timid because he didn’t want to get his face smashed,” remembers Boyd Richardson, the ‘Birds senior lineman who was paired with Nwoye for drills and wound up taking the young apprentice under his wing. “But the next thing you know, he’s getting his feet set right, then his stance is right, and that gave him the confidence he needed.
“But I could appreciate the learning curve he was on,” continues Richardson, a prospect in the upcoming Canadian Football League draft. “Try to think about how particular a thing it is that you want a person to do: To push back an offensive tackle. It looks simple. But you have to break it down more. It’s ‘How many steps do you take? Where do I place my hands?’ But Charlie? He had no bad habits yet. He was a blank slate.”
And once he got through the initial pain that accompanied his quest, a heck of a quick learner.
“That whole camp, my body was so beat up and honestly, I wondered if football was even for me,” Nwoye admits. “The contact part was something I struggled with. My aggression wasn’t where it needed to be. But now I am not afraid to hit anyone. I think my inner savage came out.”
Nwoye became proficient enough over just two weeks of camp that Nill put him on the travelling roster, and Nwoye actually got on the field for a number of snaps in UBC’s 41-16 season-opening upset win in Quebec City over the powerhouse Laval Rouge et Or.
The film session that followed provided perhaps the rarest glimpse of all into the rapid rise of Nwoye.
Defensive lineman Charles Nwoye takes a breather during UBC spring football practice at Thunderbird Stadium. ARLEN REKEKOP / PNG
“The first football game I ever watched in its entirety, our game against Laval, was the first game that I ever played in,” laughs Nwoye, who went on to play in six games this past season, including the Uteck Bowl national semifinal. “At first, I didn’t really like watching (football) on TV as much. I was more of a basketball guy and I’d only watch if there wasn’t a basketball game on. I think the most I had ever watched before that was maybe one quarter.”
BODY AND MIND
If there was one other thing that Nill noticed in that first meeting with Nwoye, it was the muscular package he carried with such grace and ease.
“He looked like a weight-room kid,” Nill confirms.
Because he skipped a grade in elementary school not soon after the family arrived in Canada, Nwoye graduated high school at age 16. And when Nill met with him last June, Nwoye had already finished his second year of studies toward a degree in economics at the University of Lethbridge.
“I didn’t really want to go to the university level with basketball,” says Nwoye, who won’t turn 20 until August, “but around that time I started to hit the gym, and I started to get bigger. In the back of my mind I had thought that maybe I should give football a try.”
So there he was after his second year at Lethbridge, back home and watching his younger brother Alex competing in a track meet when he was spotted by Nill’s former player and asked where he played football. The 6-3 Nwoye had finished high school at about 190 pounds, but after two years in the gym he was up to 225.
“I am going up against some pretty big guys on the line of scrimmage at defensive end,” says Nwoye, “so I have really been working out. I weigh 245 pounds now.”
But it’s not just muscle that has been added. There is a much deeper understanding of the mental side of the game.
And for that, Nwoye credits the inspiration of teammate Shaquille Davis, a defensive back from Toronto.
The pair became fast friends this past season despite the fact Davis was forced to watch after tearing his right ACL during workouts just prior to the start of the Vanier Cup-winning campaign.
“I am from the projects and I have been through a lot,” says Davis, who had also torn his left ACL before his first season at UBC. “And when you come from situations like Charles and myself, we’re both underdogs. We have to outwork everyone to succeed.”
Adds Nwoye: “I was just talking with Shaq yesterday, and he has been the one who has told me ‘Charlie, you just have to be savage.’ That is what it comes down to.”
A SPARKLING FUTURE
Last weekend, Nwoye watched with interest as the New Orleans Saints selected 6-4, 300-pound defensive lineman David Onyemata, also from Lagos, in the fourth round of the National Football League draft.
Nwoye has also heard of the story of Jonathan Kongbo, a native of the Congo, who after playing one season of football at Surrey’s Holy Cross Regional Secondary ventured south and was recently a top signee of the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
Charles Nwoye (above) was inspired by fellow Nigerian football player Christian Okoye. RICH LAM / UBC ATHLETICS
From Okoye to Onyemata to Kongbo, Nwoye admits comfort in knowing that others have travelled along his road.
And now, with the UBC program at an all-time high in terms of its visibility and his personal ceiling seemingly unlimited in his next four university seasons, Nwoye admits he would love to be in a position to play at the next level.
“Now that I have discovered this game, I want to be the best I can be,” he says, “and if that means I am going to play professionally, then so be it. But first and foremost, I want to graduate and get my (economics) degree because football doesn’t last forever.”
Maybe not, but as spring camp wrapped up last week, it seems evident that Nwoye has become more than just Nill’s pet project.
“Right now, I’ve got him starting in one of the (defensive line) positions,” says Nill, who personally works with the defensive line in practice. “I don’t know if he’s ready yet, but he’s definitely competing and that is a big thing.
“Here’s a guy who was only 18 when he finished his second year of university,” continues Nill. “His attitude has been phenomenal. You can’t help but have some patience for him because you’re looking at a kid who is a diamond in the making.”
If last season was just a rough, early cut of what is to come, then there is a great chance that Nwoye, who has only been playing the game for about nine months now, will achieve a lasting brilliance.
These days, the sparkle in his eyes seems to equal the sparkle in his championship ring.