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May 17, 2024

Quick Hits | Training Camp — Day 6

Chidi Okeke -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

Notes and quotes from Friday’s Blue Bombers practice…

From Nigeria with joy: Every single player in training camp has a road travelled story, some featuring more stops and twists and turns than others. They are stories of perseverance, of dedication and of passion for the game.

And then there is the tale of Chidi Okeke, the 6-6, 307-pound offensive tackle whose football resumé features two university and seven pro stops on this long and winding road which has now brought him to the Blue Bombers door.

Born in Anambra, Nigeria, Okeke was first spotted at a sports camp in his home country run by the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation. A few days later a call came from the camp organizers.

“They called me back a couple days later and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a scholarship for you in America. Are you ready to move?’ Honestly, I thought it was a joke at first,” Okeke explained in a chat with bluebombers.com this week. “I was 16. And so I flew from Nigeria to Florida by myself to go to school. It was a big culture shock at first but I love sports. I love playing sports. I missed my family all the time but for the love of sports I talked to them all the time on the phone to keep myself going. But it was pretty tough at the beginning.

“I was a basketball player then. And as soon as I came to America and saw football, I switched. I had always watched the football movies like ‘The Blind Side’. I like that story because I could relate with what that guy (Michael Oher) went through. But I had never put on a football helmet before because I had only seen it on TV or in the movies. The first time I saw a helmet I was like, ‘Wow, this is real.’ Once I switched to football from basketball I thought, ‘I’m not looking back.'”

The game may have been new to him, yet Okeke took to his new sport quickly and was ranked the second-best offensive tackle in the U.S. coming out of high school. He had offers from Auburn and Alabama and settled on LSU, transferring to Tennessee State after two years. Undrafted in the NFL, he first signed with Washington and has since had looks from Kansas City, Miami and Tampa in the NFL, as well as starting games with the Pittsburgh Maulers (USFL) and San Antonio Brahmas and was most recently with the DC Defenders of the UFL before his release in March.

Chidi Okeke

The Blue Bombers were on the phone not too long after and, in a snapshot of his dedication to landing a gig anywhere in football, drove his car from Dallas — where he had been in UFL camp — 21 hours straight back to California to then hop on a plane to Winnipeg.

“Football has given me everything I own today,” he explained. “I take football serious and so once I got the phone call it was like, ‘OK, I’m going to do this job.’ That’s why I drove 21 hours. It’s been pretty great since I got here, man. Football is always football. I was thinking it was going to be different, but I see a lot of guys I know from back in the States so it feels… normal. I’m having fun.

“I’ve always been trying to grind through each opportunity and show people what I can do. I’m so happy to be here. This is my first time in Canada. Winnipeg is a great organization in the CFL. Everybody knows of Winnipeg and so I’m pleased to be here.”

Okeke lost his father in 2004 and his mom two years ago. The youngest of nine, his family remains in Nigeria while he is halfway across the globe still chasing his dream. Polite and respectful, he seems to start every sentence with a smile and end every conversation with a thank-you. Asked about the source of his obvious joy, Okeke grins.

“I came from nothing, man. I’m from a small village in Nigeria. A small, tiny town,” he said. “I’m a country boy who used to go to the farm to feed the animals, feed the goats. I grew up in that environment, so I wasn’t a city boy at all. To find myself in this situation, to be playing ball in America — in Canada now — sometimes I still remember and think, ‘It just seems like yesterday I was running around barefoot playing soccer.’ Now I’ve played games in the NFL, XFL.

“I’m happy. I have to stay happy.”

FYI: SB Nic Demski, who hasn’t practised yet in camp, was spotted running in the end zone during Friday’s session. Head coach Mike O’Shea: “he’s getting closer (to a return) all the time.” He also indicated Demski and RB Brady Oliveira, who also hasn’t participated yet, don’t need a ton of work before the season opener. “They know what they’re doing. They’re both pretty good.”
Making a case: Receiver Kody Case is one of many new pass catchers trying to step up and make an impression in the fight to replace Rasheed Bailey in the Blue Bombers starting lineup. Case spent the preseason last year with the Indianapolis Colts after spending 2017-21 at South Dakota and the 2022 season at Illinois. And in his freshman year at South Dakota his QB was…. Chris Streveler.

Kody Case

“He’s been a great mentor,” said Case of Streveler after practice Friday. “Any time I need help with anything he’ll be right there and then always giving me encouragement. You guys all know Strev — he’s a legend around here, he’s a legend in South Dakota. He’s just the greatest team player. He just elevates everyone’s game around him. It’s great playing with him. He’s just the best teammate you could ever have. He builds relationships with everyone and he’ll always have your back. You’d see him working all the time perfecting his craft; after practice he’d always got throws in and he really just takes all the young guys and elevates their game.”

Next: Saturday’s practice is the last before Monday’s preseason game in Regina. The session runs from 8:30 a.m. -11:15 a.m. at Princess Auto Stadium and is open to the public.