Frank Okam was 10 when his father, Franklin Okam, told him by phone that it was time for him to become the man of the house. The elder Okam had called from his native Nigeria, where he would pass away two years later, leaving behind his son, wife and two daughters in the Dallas area.
In the years that followed, Okam emerged as a star both on the football field and in the classroom. He earned a scholarship to the University of Texas, helped the Longhorns win a national championship and became a regular on the honor roll. Now 25, Okam is one of a large group of emerging players on the NFL's youngest team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Fifteen years after that final phone call from Franklin Okam, the son is headed to his father's homeland. His experiences over those 15 years have made him a perfect ambassador for an initiative championed by the Amobi Okoye Foundation, the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) and USA Football.
Okoye and Okam are former teammates with the Houston Texans, who drafted the former in the first round in 2007 and the latter a year later in the fifth round. Okoye's foundation is leading the efforts in the establishment of Nigeria's national football federation on March 13. It will be the first such national federation dedicated solely to American football in all of Africa, and it reflects the sport's rapidly growing popularity in the continent.
Okam has actually accompanied Okoye to Nigeria on one other occasion. That experience made him eager to return, especially as part of an effort to bring the game he loves to the youth of the nation.
"Part of me felt like it was home," said Okam. "Being able to see where he (my father) grew up and where he was raised and the lifestyle of his, it touched me in a way that was unimaginable. Now to be able to give back… I feel it's a pretty important trip for me to make, at least once in my lifetime. Once I went, I said I was eventually going to go back."
The traveling party will visit Nigeria from March 12-22 and will be led by IFAF President Tommy Wiking, USA Football Executive Director Scott Hallenbeck, IFAF Development Director for Africa Marc-Angelo Soumah and representatives of the Amobi Okoye Foundation. Okoye and Okam will be joined by Connor Barwin, also of the Houston Texans, and the New York Jets' James Ihedigbo.
Okoye, who was born in Nigeria, will help IFAF and the new Nigerian federation start two high school tackle football leagues of six schools each as well as a youth flag football program.
"Seeing American football played in Nigeria and in other countries in Africa is a dream come true for me," said Okoye, who moved to the United States at age 12. "In wider terms, it will benefit communities and young people by teaching the values of teamwork and dedication and create opportunities to succeed."
Added Okam: "Being able to see the country in need and start to have an impact on others…it gives the people another opportunity to find hope in their life."
The players will also help lead the fourth-annual C.A.T.E. (Changing Africa Through Education) program run by the Amobi Okoye Foundation, which includes the C.A.T.E. scholarship program, a Books Abroad donation and free medical clinics. The foundation also plans to build a college prep school for students who excel at both academics and athletics.
Former Augustana College head coach Jim Barnes and West Virginia Wesleyan College special teams coordinator/linebackers coach Willie Robinson will conduct two football coaching clinics and two player camps during the visit. Nigerian coaches attending the clinics will receive a USA Football Coaching Handbook – a 150-page book to help teach football fundamentals and drills as well as run organized practices. USA Football's coaching handbook is employed by youth football coaches across the United States.
Okam knows that the children in Nigeria have a lot to learn about the sport.
"It's definitely new," he said. "The last time we tried to hold a football camp, kids were picking up the football like it was a soccer ball. That's the number-one sport over there, so it's going to be harder, but we just want to give kids options. It's going to be difficult to make it stick if they don't understand the concept of the game. That's why we have to go back every single year, to make sure everything sticks. I think it will once people get the hang of it.
"It's important to educate parents and give their coaches instruction about how to coach American football so kids can get exposed to football. We want to really show them how to enjoy the game and teach the kids to play the game the right way."
There are currently 59 countries with national federations governing American football, and IFAF is particularly excited about the 60th nation soon to join.
"American football continues to push new boundaries, and this is arguably IFAF's greatest and most exciting challenge in spreading the game's popularity," said Wiking.
Okam and his NFL peers will be helping America's most popular sport gain a foothold in Africa. Buccaneer fans can follow their efforts on an IFAF blog.