Hard-luck Bomber

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:02 AM ET

Some people seem to have all the luck. Then there are people like Chijioke Onyenegecha, one of the newest Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Onyenegecha -- pronounce it like you spell it and you'll be close -- had one of those childhoods that spells trouble.

Born to Nigerian parents in the San Francisco area, he grew up in a rough neighbourhood, without a father, lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 13 and saw one of his best friends go to prison before reaching high school.

Sounds like a train wreck, waiting to happen.

But somehow, Onyenegecha kept his nose clean, wound up at a big-time U.S. college football program and, although he wasn't drafted, got a couple of tryouts in the NFL.

FIRST GAME AS A PRO

Last week he played his first game as a pro, in the defensive backfield with the Bombers, turning in one of those first-game performances that make you go, "Who is that guy?"

Well, Onyenegecha is a 24-year-old who grew up idolizing the San Francisco 49ers, and decided he wanted to have fun like they seemed to be having.

Problem is, there were plenty of distractions around, some of them not particularly good for you.

"I lost one of my friends in the 8th grade -- he went to jail for about five years," Onyenegecha was saying yesterday.

"By the time he got out, I was already graduated from high school. It was, like, 'Whoa -- you missed high school. You missed a lot of stuff.' Sad part is he was a better athlete than me."

Even sadder: his friend is back behind bars, this time for even longer.

LOST HIS MOTHER

It was around the same time Onyenegecha lost his mother to cancer. His dad, he's never known.

When Onyenegecha was just a year old, his father went to visit his native Nigeria and never came back. Onyenegecha says he wasn't allowed back into the U.S. because he didn't have the right immigration papers, and he's never seen his dad since.

"I'm not sure of the rules or what happened," Onyenegecha said. "I've been working on it for years, but I don't really know. There's pretty much nothing I can do. I don't feel no remorse or vengeance against him. I love him to death. I've just never met him."

Three older siblings, plus extended family and friends, helped take care of him. But Onyenegecha says it was his mother's influence that kept him out of trouble.

"She left me with a lot," he said. "(People) were saying, 'He's going to turn into a maniac and just fall off.' I got better. I had people rallying around me. I was never a follower. If somebody wanted to go do something bad, I was like, 'I'm going somewhere else.' Sports was a huge part of it."

After two years of junior college, Onyenegecha played two seasons at Oklahoma, where he began to attract pro attention. A scouting report on SI.com in advance of last year's NFL draft called him a "raw and unpolished" talent, with "terrific potential."

FAILED TRYOUTS

After failed tryouts with Minnesota and Washington last year, Onyenegecha's new agent shopped him around the CFL, and the Bombers were the first to bite.

Last Friday against the Eskimos, he didn't look out of place.

And there he was, handing out his John Henry to kids after yesterday's practice, which in itself takes some practice.

He starts with the 'C,', then loops an 'O' around it.

"Then I drop the 'Onyenegecha' in, real fast. Then inside the 'C' I do the 'Chijioke,' " he explained. "It's all in there. But it's real small. I had to figure something out, 'cause when I was at Oklahoma it was worse than this."

He meant the demand for autographs.

So you could say Onyenegecha has his signature down pat.

Based on his first game, he's well on the way to making a name for himself in the CFL, too.


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