The name Awuzie means “I have arrived” in Nigerian culture.
“Awuzie is like someone who has gone through a lot and now here they are,” said Victoria Awuzie, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and now calls San Jose, California home. “You know, I have arrived.”
That description is apt for her son, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (whose first name means “God will guide me.”)
In just two starts at cornerback, Awuzie (whose name is pronounced Chih-doe-beh Ah-wooz-yeh) has already showcased a nose for the ball and early signs have him becoming another standout NFL player of Nigerian descent. That’s something he takes great pride in as he returns to his hometown for Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders.
“That’s my edge,” Awuzie said. “My whole life – not just football, but academics-wise and socially – being Nigerian has been my foundation.”
It hasn’t taken long for the Cowboys to see Awuzie’s edge on the field even though he’s battled a lingering hamstring injury since training camp.
The second-round pick missed six games with the injury but doesn’t seem bothered by it now. He started two weeks ago against the Washington Redskins and broke up three passes, tying fellow rookie Jourdan Lewis for the most in a game this season.
Awuzie continued finding his way to the ball against the New York Giants last Sunday. He broke up two passes, including a tipped ball that linebacker Sean Lee intercepted.
“It doesn’t take you long to realize that (he has a nose for the ball),” said safety Jeff Heath, who leads the team with three interceptions. “Even in OTAs (organized team activities) when it’s not in full pads, you can see that kind of stuff on tape. We’re going to need that from him and he’s going to improve like all the young guys.
“We’ll need him down the stretch.”
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli raved about Awuzie’s instincts and feel for the game, particularly fitting into the zone coverage that Marinelli likes to run in his Tampa 2 scheme.
At 6-foot, 190 pounds, Awuzie has the build and length and speed to cover top receivers man-to-man. But he also prides himself on being a student of the game. That knowledge helps him anticipate plays well when the Cowboys use zone coverage.
“I’ve always been a guy who just loves learning,” Awuzie said. “Learning about football, learning about the origins of the 3-4 defense, the 4-3 defense, the fronts, all that kind of stuff. I feel like if I know more, I’ll be able to process more when I’m on the field.
“Part of the game is to be really cerebral and learning new keys, new techniques. That’s what I feed off of and I love that kind of stuff. When an offense gets in a certain formation and you can guess what play they’re going to do before they’re going to do it, all you have to do is catch the ball? That’s a beautiful thing. That’s a beautiful part of the game that you don’t really get to experience until you start going to higher levels of football.”
Awuzie’s thirst for knowledge is rooted in his upbringing. His mother, Victoria, explained it like this.
“The way we were raised, we don’t quit,” Victoria said. “If you make a ‘B’ in school and some people made an ‘A,’ you’re asked, ‘Why didn’t you make an ‘A?’ It’s crazy like that in the Nigerian community.
“It’s all about dedication and Nigerians are very proud of anything they do. They want to see it through. They have a lot of pride in anything they’re doing.”
Awuzie’s coach at Oak Grove High School in San Jose, Jay Braun, realized that right away. Braun coached Awuzie’s older brother, Dubem, and knew how well both were raised.
Sure, Braun marveled at the natural athleticism. Chidobe Awuzie could broad jump 10-feet without even warming up. But arguably his best memory of Awuzie came before a game in which they played a local private school, Saint Francis.
Awuzie and a student at Saint Francis each read a passage before the game.
As Braun put it, “Chidobe was just so much more articulate than the private school kid.”
Then Awuzie impressed on the field playing offense, defense and special teams. Late in the game, Awuzie made a diving deflection on a fourth-and-7 and is also believed to have gotten a piece of the ball on a missed point-after attempt (there is no video replay to verify) in a game Oak Grove won 21-20.
“He always worked hard and had good character,” Braun said. “It’s a trip to see him doing so well and playing for the Dallas Cowboys.”
Awuzie’s dedication and love for the nuances of the game is what has made him a favorite of the Cowboys’ coaches. More important, it’s paid off with his on-field production. He has demonstrated early on a vision for the game, something that most rookies don’t have right away.
“He’s really smart, really sharp,” secondary coach Joe Baker said. “But there’s still a lot that he’s going to see. I think we’re just scratching of the surface on where he’s going to be as a player.”
Even though Awuzie is all-in on football, he isn’t afraid to cut loose with his teammates. He’s affectionately known as “Chido.”
Jordan Carrell, Awuzie’s former college teammate and a seventh-round pick by the Cowboys who was cut before the season, joked about Awuzie’s dancing skills.
“I’m a better dancer than Chido,” the 300-pound Carrell said, smiling. “When it comes to that Bay Area hip-hop music, he can’t see me.”
Said Lewis, “He’s energetic. He just loves life and loves football. He’s a ball of energy. He’ll try to act like he’s just a guy, but he likes to dance around and stuff like that.”
All joking aside, Awuzie hopes to become the latest in a fraternity of Nigerians who have excelled in the NFL. He idolized former Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, a two-time first-team All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler during a standout 11-year career.
Along with Awuzie, the Cowboys boast another player of Nigerian descent in defensive end Benson Mayowa. All players take pride in their roots, but it might be a little more significant for Nigerians.
“It’s kind of dope to be Nigerian and in the NFL,” Mayowa said. “There’s not too many of us. It’s always a good thing.”
Much like Awuzie, Mayowa explained the Nigerian upbringing by saying, “It’s strict. We weren’t taught to play sports really. It’s more teachers, doctors, lawyers and jobs like that. Football players? It’s not looked down upon, but it’s foreign to foreign players.”
Awuzie agrees. His parents preached the importance of academics, which explains why he graduated in 3 1/2 years with a business degree last December at Colorado.
“When my parents came over here, they didn’t come over here to have fun. They came over here to go to school, to learn, to try and have their place in this world,” Awuzie said. “It was very serious. They had to work hard to get into this country and it’s a very serious thing. And their kids come out, if they do right, there is a lot of opportunity here.”
Awuzie’s parents took advantage of their opportunity by getting their college degrees. His mom, Victoria, graduated from Philander Smith College in Arkansas and his dad, George, from Southeastern Oklahoma State in Durant.
They then chased the American Dream in the Bay Area, each working at the department of motor vehicles in San Jose, California. They settled in to the area and raised their children with the same Nigerian principles instilled in them.
Now their son, Chidobe, is making the most of his opportunity.
“We’re very, very proud of him,” Victoria said. “Chido has always done good in school and in sports. And we’re really glad that Dallas drafted him. It’s America’s Team.”
Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was born in the United States, but has deep Nigerian family roots. Here’s a look at some other NFL players with Nigerian roots:
Wide receiver Nelson Agholor, Philadelphia
Linebacker Jerry Attaochu, Los Angeles Chargers
Guard Caleb Benenoch, Tampa Bay
Linebacker Obum Gwachum, New York Jets
Linebacker Ufomba Kamalu, Houston
Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, Cleveland
Defensive tackle David Onyemata, New Orleans
Defensive end Benson Mayowa, Dallas