Kay Okafor’s path to the CFL is about as unlikely as they come. Born and raised in Nigeria, the 6’4″, 275 lb lineman only came to learn about football after moving halfway across the world to attend university in Prince Edward Island, Canada.
At the time, Okafor’s plans for his life lay far away from the gridiron. He arrived as an 18-year-old on the path to medical school, with little idea of what life in Canada would be like. His hometown of Enugu — and all he had ever known — lay 8,000 kilometres away.
“I got to Canada in August, and I had a winter jacket on when I got to the airport,” Okafor laughs. “My cousin picked me up, and he made me change in the airport — he made me take it off and put on some warmer [weather] clothes.”
“I’ve definitely learned that situations can make anyone mature just like that. I left home at 18, so I had to mature very quick[ly].” – Kay Okafor
Back in Nigeria, Okafor had grown up a fan of basketball — idolizing Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. An unsuccessful tryout for UPEI’s basketball team ended those hoop dreams, but one of the players on the team introduced him to football.
“When I watched the game at first, I didn’t get it,” he says. “Just a bunch of helmets going at each other — that’s what it looked like from the stands — and for someone who just came from Nigeria, it didn’t make any sense.”
Nevertheless, he ended up on a football field and discovered he had a knack for it. A year after suiting up at Holland College, he was off to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, a prized recruit of the X-Men. He found his footing in his first two seasons, averaging a tackle a game as his team finished 3-5 and 4-4, capped by a crushing 29-7 loss in the 2014 Loney Bowl to Mount Allison University.
In that moment, a determined Okafor vowed to his teammates that he’d finish the job next year — a promise he’d make good on twice in the ensuing years. As his X-Men returned to two more consecutive Atlantic University Sport championship games, winning them both over Mount Allison, Okafor doubled his defensive output. By the time his career at St. FX had ended, Okafor had completed or assisted on 41 tackles. He would also be named a Top 20 CFL Prospect and invited to the Minnesota Vikings’ NFL Regional Combine.
Nothing felt as good as that first Loney Bowl win, though.
“I never cried so much until I started playing football,” says Okafor. “There’s this thing about the emotions — which is why I fell in love with the game — this family, brotherhood that I felt.”
For Okafor, the brotherhood aspect was important — after leaving his home country for university, he spent the next six years away from family.
“I’ve definitely learned that situations can make anyone mature just like that. I left home at 18, so I had to mature very quick[ly],” he says.
He finally reunited with family when he walked across the stage at his graduation — his father flew in from Nigeria for the ceremony. That same weekend, he was drafted 21st overall by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“It’s been a blessing. I’ve just been blessed with the opportunities and the people I’ve met along the way. It’s been a journey, for sure,” says Okafor.
“My plan was to study sciences and get to med school, and now, six years later, I’ve been drafted by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats […] It’s been amazing.”
Photo from Kay Okafor via Facebook.