American college football might as well have existed in another universe for University of Toledo senior linebacker Richard Olekanma. Like many kids growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Olekanma simply was worried about his next opportunity for ice cream, and his athletic aspirations were dominated by the Nigerian national pastime of soccer. The report by BRIAN BUCKEY in The Blade.
Richard’s mother, Vera, immigrated to the United States shortly after he was born when her visa was processed. Richard stayed in Nigeria with his father, Uche, until they were able to join Vera in the U.S. when Richard was 5 years old.
Lagos is the most populous city on the African continent and one of the fastest growing cities in the world.
Spending only his very early years in Nigeria, Olekanma says his memories of his life in Lagos are made up mostly of snapshots in his mind like where his school was, the food spots he and his dad used to frequent, and the street his house was on.
Upon coming to the U.S., Richard and his father flew directly into Chicago and Richard still remembers the long flight and the chilling cold when they arrived in the Windy City.
While Richard and his father were getting used to the United States, Richard was quickly introduced to American football by his uncle Uche Asonye, who was a huge Chicago Bears fan.
It was confusing at first with all of its intricacies.
“Over that first season, we got to know more about how it worked, like with the first down and fourth down and things like that,” Richard said. “At first if you don’t know anything about football and you are just watching it, it is super confusing. You have no idea why anything happens.”
The next year, Richard joined a youth football team with his cousin Daniel, with whom he quickly developed a competitive rivalry. Uche said Richard and Daniel would have battles in the backyard for hours upon hours.
Richard took quickly to football and while his father was still picking up on the nuances of the game, Uche quickly realized that Richard stood out at a young age.
“When he played Pee Wee was when I saw that he may be a little more talented than the rest,” Uche said. “They had what they called a silver and a gold team. His cousin is a year older than him. Richard signed up to be with his cousin. The coaches quickly said they wanted to move him to the gold team. He really excelled when a lot of the kids on the gold team were a lot bigger.”
Richard continued to stand out when he played at the varsity level beginning his sophomore season at Downers Grove North High School.
He had 3½ sacks his senior season and caught 15 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns as a wide receiver while also running sprints with the track and field team.
With his play in high school and combination of size and speed, Richard was on the radar of a lot of college coaches, including Mike Ward, the current linebackers coach at Toledo.
When Olekanma was in high school, Ward was the inside linebackers coach at the University of Illinois. The Illini were interested in Olekanma during the recruiting process.
“We recruited Richard at Illinois,” Ward said. “There were three Division I players his senior year at Downers Grove North, so I was through there quite a bit. So I had a previous relationship with him. I knew all about him and so coming here I was very familiar with him. I knew how smart he was. I knew his family background. There was really no getting to know period.”
Through Olekanma’s recruitment, Ward said he learned a lot about the Olekanma family and what it had to go through for Richard to pursue his dream of playing college football.