TWELVE-YEAR-OLD GABRIEL MOKWUAH didn’t know poverty. He didn’t know bigotry. He certainly didn’t know what American football was.
But the future Curtis High School star defensive tackle and eventual draft pick of the Green Bay Packers came to face each of those things head-on during his journey from Nigeria to the streets of New York City and, eventually, the NFL.
Sure, Mokwuah’s family was financially destitute. After all, his father had passed away at a young age, rendering his mother to fend for seven children, but economic shortcomings were rarely acknowledged, though often the case in the city of Enugwu Ukwu, Nigeria, where the Mokwuahs pleasantly resided in a small tribal village of mud houses.
A typical day constituted a two-mile trek to fetch a bucket of water, which young Gabriel and his siblings would undertake before heading to school. Afterward, they’d kick around a soccer ball and help their mother close up her stand at the village market, where she sold yams for a modest return each day.
The village, which mostly operated on a barter system, was practical, generally benign, and though it didn’t offer the bright lights and amenities of New York City, it did offer one thing that was always particularly of value to Gabriel Mokwuah: peace.
Though he grew to become “The Nigerian Nightmare,” a moniker originated by former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye, Mokwuah’s journey around the streets of Harlem and Park Hill often left him bracing for bullets and evading bullies long before he was opening the eyes of NFL scouts.
AT TWELVE YEARS OLD, Gabriel followed his older sister, Vicky, who had emigrated to Harlem, where she married her husband, and where he was expected to help watch his toddler nephew in their studio apartment.
“We were able to eat three times a day and watch TV,” says Mokwuah. “To us, that might as well have been a four-bedroom in the nicest neighborhood. We felt like we hit the lottery … we can dream now and make something for ourselves.”
The family soon picked up and headed to Staten Island, where they settled down in the borough’s Park Hill neighborhood, and where Gabriel hoped to receive a formal American education.
In addition to what his textbooks taught him—or the little bit he was able to read—the young teenager received a quick and treacherous lesson on surviving bullies—he was subject to being jumped, beaten, and chased by teenagers and young adults who didn’t appreciate his Nigerian background and accent.
In fact, the bullying grew so dreadful that it made it difficult for him to buy food at the local deli, which led him to plan his routes carefully in the hopes that he wouldn’t run into the neighborhood bullies at the corner.
“The Park Hill projects were horrible. As an immigrant, you were a target of crime and hate,” says Mokwuah. “They tortured me, spit at me, jumped and chased me.”On multiple occasions, he woke up to find bullet holes in the family’s front door, often leaving him to wonder about life back at home in the peaceful village, free of judgment.
“My family didn’t have much, we were very poor,” says Mokwuah. “My mom would cry herself to sleep and we didn’t know why. We didn’t always know what we’d eat the next day, but we had love.”
In America, however, he was reminded of the poverty and bigotry on an almost daily basis.
“It was difficult. People were not nice,” says Mokwuah, who speaks in a tone of genuine benevolence and kindness. “Most immigrants are poor, and they didn’t receive us well. I grew up in a village where everybody knew everybody. People would come together, smile at each other, and were peaceful, helpful, and polite.”
For a boy who once carried a water bucket for two miles on his head back to the compound in his village, the skyscrapers, city slickers, and newfound adversaries were a rude awakening.
And the classroom offered him little solace.
“I was reading at a second grade level at twelve years old,” acknowledges Mokwuah, who is now fifty, and recently retired after a lengthy career as a court officer. “I never read out loud in class. I did extra work on the side, picking up the language from the radio and watching cartoons like He-Man on TV.
“I knew maybe four words, but I never failed classes. I just needed to understand the concepts and I’d piece it together. It was like survival. The dream was to get out and hope someday to have a normal life.”
ONE SUNDAY MORNING in the mid-1980s, Mokwuah, then a freshman at Staten Island’s Curtis High School, was laying around the apartment with the TV blaring in the background when he heard a familiar name announced. Christian Okoye, the “Nigerian Nightmare,” darted across the screen.
“I was confused. [Okoye is] a name from my tribe,” remembers Mokwuah. “I tried watching, but I didn’t understand what they were doing. I had no concept of the game. It looked like they were running around like chickens.”
“The first day [Curtis Coach] Fred Olivieri saw me, he asked if I played football,” recalls Mokwuah. “Soccer is called football everywhere except here, so I said yes.”
“American football?” Olivieri replied.
“That weird sport with the metal helmet?” retorted Mokwuah.
From that day forth, Olivieri made it his mission to recruit the six-foot, two-hundred-pound athlete—repeatedly attempting to get Mokwuah down to the gridiron for just one practice.
“I was looking forward to trying out for the soccer team, but he asked me to play football every time he saw me,” says Mokwuah. “One day, I decided to go out for football, with no intention of playing, just to get rid of this guy.”
AT HIS VERY FIRST PRACTICE, Mokwuah clotheslined the ball carrier, knocking the wind out of his unsuspecting future teammate.
“I didn’t know how to tackle or the rules of the game,” said Mokwuah. “I almost killed him. I must have apologized a hundred times. As the crowd gathered around, Coach O said, ‘Don’t ever apologize,’ and that is how my high school football career began.”
“What the hell did I get myself into?” Mokwuah asked himself. “Make it, get a chance to leave this awful drug- and crime-ridden project. Fail, spend the rest of your life driving a cab.”
It became his number one goal to earn a college scholarship.
He put on twenty pounds of muscle going into his junior year. “I was starting to understand the concept of football,” he says. “I spent every minute at that gym.”
And his newfound confidence on the gridiron came with a matching sense of bravado. “All these years, these kids tortured me. I now felt like the hunter,” says Mokwuah. “I was daring any of them to say something to me.”
He began drawing legitimate college scouts from schools all over the country—including major universities such as Syracuse and Maryland. However, one thing was still holding him back: the SAT exam.
“I lost count how many times I took that damn test,” says Mokwuah, who required a 700 score for college admission. “For a true immigrant in every sense of the word, it felt like an impossible task.”
After opening dozens of rejection letters with unsatisfactory scores, he finally cracked the seal on his umpteenth exam results: 740.
“The first person I called was Coach O. He was so happy!” says Mokwuah. “See, I didn’t know that Coach O had been using his own money, sending hundreds of recruiting materials to colleges on my behalf. He was going to make sure that I got out.”
However, Mokwuah had an axe to grind with those big-name universities. “I wanted to punish those schools for not standing by me when I was struggling,” he says. “I already knew where I was going, but I wanted to torture them.” American International College was the call.
With that, Mokwuah would join future NFLer Chris Williams on a potent Yellow Jackets defensive line, which he routinely led in tackles for loss and sacks over the course of his four years in Springfield.
DURING HIS FRESHMAN SEASON, Mokwuah scouted his team’s own offensive lineman, a six-foot-five, 290-pound preseason senior All-American, known to teammates as “Big Daddy.” “I called him out in front of the whole team, one on one,” he recalls. “I had no doubt of the outcome. I beat the beast.” From that point on, he was the team’s starting defensive tackle. His first college play was a sack. By the end of the season, he had earned Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Conference honors.
By his sophomore year, Mokwuah’s on-field aura began to grow, and NFL scouts were taking notice. His 4.6-second forty-yard dash time, which was faster than some of his wide receiver teammates, was the talk of the campus. More and more scouts turned up at AIC games. Now it was Mokwuah, not “Big Daddy,” who was the preseason All-American.
But when the team’s kicker was out due to injury, the coaching staff turned to the former soccer player for help—a decision that proved to be drastic.
Mokwuah pushed forth and finished the season strong, but his torn quadriceps cast doubt on his NFL future.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he thought. Once project- ed to be a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick, the still-recovering Mokwuah sat around on draft day, watching as the rounds went by.
He had hired an agent, and all expectations were that he’d be drafted fairly early. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper even called him a “sleeper.” But the rounds continued to fly by without his name being called—until the eleventh, when Green Bay finally came through. “My body went numb. I couldn’t stop thanking them,” remembers Mokwuah. “My goal was to get a scholarship; everything else was extra. But I was pissed off as hell.”
Next came awards banquets, in which Mokwuah was to be honored by his school and conference at the conclusion of a wildly successful college career, but he chose not to attend.
“I didn’t go for the same reason I didn’t go to the prom,” says Mokwuah. “Trying to explain to someone that you don’t have clothes to wear to these things is not easy. I had one pair of dress shoes that had a huge tear on the side. I was not ashamed that I didn’t have these things, but there’s a deep pain when people laugh at you because of it.”
All he needed were his cleats.
He was training at Wisconsin’s historic Lambeau Field, where he found himself chopping it up with a little known backup quarterback named Brett Favre during training camp with the Packers in 1992. “I was ready to work and play against the best; I had no fear,” says Mokwuah. “I wanted to show people what I can do, and being from a small school, a late draft pick, gave me a chip on my shoulder.”
In his very first preseason game, he tallied a sack, a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery. “I was having a great camp and worked my way up the depth chart,” recalls Mokwuah. However, an illness, coupled with reduced play, derailed the rest of his camp, and he was let go.
He returned the following year for a short stint in camp with the Philadelphia Eagles, but walked away before giving the Canadian Football League one last crack.
GABRIEL MOKWUAH HAD A “THREE-YEAR PLAN” for his professional football career: if he hadn’t made significant progress in that time, he would be done with it. Though he had offers on the table, he chose to walk away. “My health was more important,” says Mokwuah. “I saw guys so beaten and broken because they didn’t know when to give it up.”
In 1990, he met his wife of thirty years, Amy, and together the couple has four daughters. He parlayed a job with the sheriff’s department into a seventeen-year career as a court officer, from which he retired in 2016. Today, he’s a “very happy dad” living in Massachusetts. His eldest daughter, Abbie, is a star thrower on Holy Cross’s track and field team. Her sister, Kayla, attends Texas Christian University on a basketball scholarship. His youngest daughters, Lea and Gabby, play basketball and soccer at the high school and middle school levels, respectively. “I enjoy being a dad and watching them get better,” he says. “I sit in the corner at games and stay out of sight.”
Mokwuah has returned to Nigeria on a few occasions but is content with how his life in the United States has turned out.
“We’re not special because we play sports,” he says. “For me, the best thing wasn’t football. It was the relationships and the people I met along the way. I didn’t want awards; those people were my awards.”