NASHVILLE --- Attending the same college as someone you knew growing up is not uncommon. When the college is nearly 6,000 miles away from home on a different continent, now that’s a story. For Tennessee State football player Chidi Okeke and TSU men’s basketball player Christian Mekowulu, their connection goes all the way back to basketball camps in their native country of Nigeria.
Two of Tennessee State’s largest student-athletes, Okeke - a 6’6”, 315 pound offensive lineman from Anambra, Nigeria and Mekowulu – a 6’9”, 245 pound forward from Lagos, Nigeria – first met as teenagers at basketball camp.
Both were recognized for their talent on the basketball court and both made the difficult decision to leave their family and friends in Nigeria and move to the United States for high school.
“I always dreamed of coming here,” Okeke said. “Even when I was little. I always talked about wanting to be a star player. I didn’t know what sport, I was playing different sports. When I got the opportunity to come over here, (my parents) didn’t tell me, ‘no, you can’t go over there.’ They just said, ‘are you going to be cool being over there by yourself?’ But I can do it.”
Okeke arrived at Champagnat Catholic High School in Florida in 2013 with every intention to play for the basketball team, but quickly transitioned to football.
“I switched my sport immediately when I got there,” Okeke said. “My coach thought I was aggressive in basketball, so it was like, if you transmit that aggression to football, it’s going to be a perfect fit for you.”
The advice worked and Okeke quickly became one of the top high school players in the country. After transferring to Faith Baptist Christian Academy in Georgia for his senior season, Okeke signed a National Letter of Intent with the LSU football team. Seeking more playing time, Okeke decided to transfer to TSU after two seasons at LSU. Upon his arrival in Nashville, he discovered Mekowulu was already enrolled and on the men’s basketball team at Tennessee State.
“I knew who he was,” Mekowulu said. “Basketball is real small back home so everybody who plays basketball knows everybody.”
Mekowulu, a forward for TSU’s men’s basketball team, enrolled at Covenant Christian Ministries Academy in Georgia after coming to America from Nigeria. He is now a team captain in his redshirt junior season at TSU in 2017-18.
Okeke and Mekowulu have bonded through their Nigerian connection and have built a friendship – 6,000 miles away from home. When the two see each other on campus, it’s a chance for them to speak their native language of Igbo.
“It’s pretty nice. Being able to speak my language with him whenever I see him, I think it’s a good thing,” Mekowulu said. “I usually speak English all the time because I don’t have anyone to speak my language with. So it’s pretty nice. Whenever I see him, I feel like I’m home a little bit.”
Both Okeke and Mekowulu came to America looking for an opportunity to receive an education and a chance to excel in athletics.
“It means a lot to me to get a full scholarship through sports,” Okeke said. “It’s a great honor, and my family is proud of it. My family doesn’t have to worry about getting money to pay for school. I’m so proud of myself and my family is proud of me to come here to go to school.”
The lessons learned at TSU will hopefully translate into a chance to play their sport at the professional level.
“It’s a blessing just coming to America in general and just playing basketball,” said Mekowulu. “When I came here, I saw how big it was and I was like ‘I have to do this.’ I want to play professional basketball.”
The 2017-18 basketball season has given Okeke a chance to see how much Mekowulu has improved since their time together at basketball camps as teenagers. The friendly debate about who is the better player on the hardwood dates back to when they met in 2013.
“I would say he was better than me back then,” Mekowulu said with a laugh, “But not now.”