Four Fighting Illini Cherish Their Nigerian Roots
Sept. 11, 2008
by Matt Wille, Illinois Sports Information
Chudi Aguanunu, Wisdom Onyegbule, Supo Sanni and Ugochukwu "Ugo" Uzodinma possess a unique bond beyond simply being teammates at the University of Illinois. These four players not only share the same locker room, but also the same roots. Each player has direct connections to the most populous nation in Africa, Nigeria.
Their parents left Nigeria and came to America in hopes of a better life for themselves and more opportunities for their future families. Even though each player was born in the United States, they still maintain the Nigerian values, discipline and culture instilled in them by their parents.
They each value different aspects of their parents' traditions, but also share many of the same sentiments from their upbringing. Sanni recalled how important academics were to his parents and the Nigerian people.
"If you are Nigerian, your family is focused on academics," Sanni noted. "No matter if you play a sport or not, academics are stressed before everything." Sesis and Olarunji Sanni, Supo's parents, believed in this ideal and passed it on to their son. They wanted the best education for him and were extremely proud when he earned a scholarship to Illinois. The Sannis both graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago and have provided Supo with the same opportunity to succeed.
"I get all my intangibles, like my strength and focus, from what my parents taught me," Sanni said. "I was raised to be obedient and do everything with a purpose, which has really helped me get this far in my football career."
Florence and Joel Uzodinma taught Ugo to stay determined and keep working hard even through the bad days, while Chika and Kate Aguanunu instructed Chudi to work first and play second. Each player's upbringing also placed importance on achieving high expectations, reaching one's goals and continuing the culture by passing traditions to their children.
Family parties are constant reminders of their heritage. Aguanunu remembered dressing up in native clothing for the New Yam festival celebrated by his tribe with native food and dancing, while Sanni recalled the importance of a child's 10th birthday to the Yoruba tribe.
"When you turn 10, you have a big party that is really family-oriented," Sanni said. "You dress up in native clothes and you spray money on whoever's birthday it is."
One tradition the Aguanunus wish they continued was teaching their son the family's native language, Igbo. The parents of Aguanunu, Onyegbule and Uzodinma speak the native language of Igbo, while Sanni's parents speak Yoruba. Each player can understand most of what their parents speak at home, but can only speak a few words of their native tongue.
Nigeria is over 5,000 miles from Illinois, but each player has traveled there at least once. All four players remembered different aspects of their journey, and they cherished the opportunity to view their parents' homeland and connect with their family.
"They didn't have any running water and all the houses had sand floors," Uzodinma said. "I liked the village better than the city because it was a lot calmer. There were a lot of friendly people there and I got to see my big family, so it was a nice experience."
Onyegbule has been to Nigeria twice and he was able to visit the childhood homes of his parents, Onyemua and Grace. He wasn't sure what he would see before his first trip, but he will always remember the celebration his family had during his visit.
"I was expecting to see tigers and giraffes, but it was more of just goats and chickens," Onyegbule said. "The city was really beautiful and had a lot of tropical trees.
"And when I was there, we went to a celebration where they killed a bull and the blood spurted everywhere and got all over me. That's the story I tell most people; it was pretty crazy."
The scariest moment of Aguanunu's life occurred when he got lost in a forest in Nigeria, but his experience in his native land stands out in his mind for other reasons.
"It was an eye-opening experience," Aguanunu said. "I got to see where my parents came from and how people live in a developing country. Most people don't get to actually see one, but it showed me how tough it is over there. A lot of people there have nothing, so I learned to never take anything for granted."
Sanni was too young to remember his experience, but he looks forward to going back and seeing his family again. Maybe next time, these four teammates could all go back together. "If we get close enough, maybe we will all make a trip back to Nigeria together," Aguanunu said.