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Football Team Scores Nigerian Connection

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
Posted September 29, 1999

Football players

Clockwise, starting with No. 29: Joe Igber, Joseph Echemandu, Daniel Nwangwu, and Nnamdi Asomugha, all freshman. In center: Chidi Iwuoma, junior. Not pictured: David Nwangwu, sophomore.

Freshman defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha had a chance to play for the University of Michigan, UCLA or Notre Dame. He chose Cal instead -- in part, he says, because "I knew I'd be taken care of if I came here. We're a family, and you don't always get family where you go."

The "family" he found on the Cal gridiron is a family of six, including himself -- all of them Nigerian. The six include four freshmen, one sophomore transfer and one fourth-year student, some of them born in Nigeria and some second-generation Americans.

"We're social," Asomugha said of his countrymen. "If you find a Nigerian, you talk to them. Everyone is raised like that."

His cousin, Joseph Echemandu -- the first of four Nigerian freshman football players to commit to Cal -- chose Berkeley for its academics.

"Our parents want us to be more into education than into sports," he said. "Football is what brought me to this school. Still, the focus is education, because sports are not going to be here my whole life."

Echemandu, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Hawthorne, Calif., is pleased to have other Nigerians on his team.

"You can't forget your people, your ethnicity, your tribe, wherever you came from," he said. "My dad always told me, 'if you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you are going to go.'"

Freshman running back Joe Igber, who grew up Honolulu, was excited when he first learned of the Bears' Nigerian contingent.

"In Hawaii, there's really no other Nigerians," said Igber. "I just thought it would be pretty cool to be around my people."

One of the nation's top football recruits, Igber chose Berkeley for academics, not athletics.

"There's no way I chose Berkeley because I thought I was going to play football here, or thought I was going to be starting or be all-American," he said. "It's foolish to come to a school because you think you're going to play football there as a super star."

His family full of professionals includes a professor, teacher and mechanical engineer. "Academics have always come first," said Igber. "I actually thought it was pretty funny when I heard of people who came to school because of football."

According to Igber, his parents' focus on academics is no anomaly in Nigeria.

"The Nigerian environment is all about academics over athletics. Everywhere I went, it's been study, study, study," he recalled.

David Ortega was the recruiting coordinator for Intercollegiate Athletics when the four freshmen Nigerians signed on. They were appealing recruits, said Ortega, because they knew how to be team players.

"In football, what you want are players who are selfless and who understand their role and work harder than anyone else," Ortega said.

"[The Nigerian players] come from a background that has a very strong community. They understand what it means to rely on someone else and to have someone rely on them."

Team member Chidi Iwuoma, a senior, was also involved in recruiting the four freshman players.

"I understood where they were coming from as far as their families and educational goals and just what it's like to be a Nigerian teenager," he said.

"I was there to provide any help or information I could."

Iwuoma thinks it's important for Nigerians to stick together.

"You're away from home. You're not in Nigeria," he said. "My parents -- and I'm sure their parents -- always talk about going home to Nigeria. We are not at home, so we have to stay close with those who are from our home."

In his freshman year of high school, Iwuoma decided to join high school football team.

"My dad really didn't want me to, so I had to sneak around," he said.

"When he found out, he wasn't really happy. He wanted me to not play and to concentrate on my schoolwork. The coaches called, and other people called and told him I was really, really good."

Iwuoma's father didn't warm up to the idea until someone convinced him that football could be his son's ticket to a college scholarship.



September 29 - October 5, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 8)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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