On the surface, Nigerian soccer and American gridiron football may seem worlds apart in style of sport and geography.
But investigate a little deeper, and you’ll find both sports involve kicking the ball through a goal to score points. Of course, this is obvious in soccer, where ball movement is accomplished with the feet and occasionally the head.
Gridiron football kicking is a specialty skill position, and many of the best kickers to play the game are former soccer players.
In the NFL, the top professional league of gridiron football in the US, deep passes and hard-fought touchdowns are often seen by fans as the exciting plays. However, kickers are often the ones called upon in clutch situations. A timely field goal can secure the game and tilt a bet for one side to win against a point spread. This brings us to the unique story of Obed Ariri and Donald Igwebuike, two soccer players from Nigeria, who would make history as NFL kickers in the years before Christian Okoye put Nigeria on the map for gridiron fans around the world.
Ariri’s unlikely path to kicking in the NFL began the way many Africans transition to gridiron football – soccer. He thrived as a non-gridiron talent during his formative years in Owerri, Nigeria.
In fact, Ariri was so good that he drew the attention of US university soccer coaches. One of those was I.M. Ibrahim, the longtime head of the men’s soccer team at Clemson University in South Carolina. Ibrahim offered Ariri an on-the-spot scholarship to play soccer at Clemson during a special recruiting trip to Nigeria.
When Ariri arrived at Clemson in 1977, the university’s gridiron football team was in dire need of a kicker. His name got around to gridiron coach Charlie Pell and Ariri was offered a kicker tryout, on the condition that he continued to play soccer as well.
Ariri, who had never kicked a gridiron football before coming to the US, converted every field goal attempt of his tryout en route to making the Clemson Tigers’ gridiron team.
Ariri spent four seasons as Clemson’s gridiron field goal and extra point kicker. His scholarship eventually shifted from the soccer program to the gridiron program.
In 1981, the Baltimore Colts selected Ariri in the seventh round of the NFL draft. He was cut from the team several days prior to the start of the season.
Ariri’s dream of kicking in the NFL was not over. He was named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting kicker for the entire 1984 NFL season. During this time, Ariri earned the nickname “Automatic African” for his machine-like ability to convert field goals and extra points.
Ariri was cut from the Buccaneers in 1985. He appeared in a partial season for the Washington Redskins in 1987 before retiring from the NFL.
Ariri was inducted into the Clemson sports Hall of Fame in 1998.
Coming up in Enugu, Nigeria, Igwebuike – like Ariri – was a bit of a soccer prodigy. Igwebuike, who was several years younger than his eventual mentor, was inspired by Ariri’s transition to gridiron football and newfound success in the US.
At the time, neither Nigerian could’ve known how closely their careers would parallel.
When Igwebuike decided to follow his mentor’s footsteps and pursue college in the US, Ariri arranged for him to attend Clemson. Ariri also convinced gridiron coach Danny Ford, Pell’s successor, to give Igwebuike a shot at kicking.
Igwebuike impressed in his gridiron tryout and joined the Clemson squad in time for the 1981 college season. Amazingly, the Tigers went on to win the national championship that year. Igwebuike enjoyed significant playing time as the team’s field goal specialist.
Igwebuike spent the next three years kicking for Clemson, as the Tigers consistently ranked among the top 10 US college gridiron teams.
Following his fine college career, Igwebuike found his way to the pro level with the Buccaneers, just as Ariri had done a year prior.
And in a twist of fate, Igwebuike beat out Ariri for the top kicking job in Tampa Bay prior to the start of the 1985 NFL season.
Igwebuike went on to play a longer stint in the NFL, staying with the Buccaneers through the 1989 season, before spending 1990 with the Minnesota Vikings.
Igwebuike briefly came out of retirement to play with the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League in 1994. He remains the fourth leading scorer in Buccaneers’ history.