Growing up in Nigeria, OU defensive end Chuka Ndulue dreamed of being the next Lionel Messi, not the next Jeremy Beal or Frank Alexander.
Ndulue (pronounced N-dual-E) weighed only 135 pounds in the seventh grade when his mother moved the family from Africa to Texas.
He played soccer and followed Messi, one of professional soccer's superstars. Ndulue didn't play American football until his freshman year, on Dallas Jesuit's freshman junior varsity team. He didn't play football his sophomore year.
“His grades were low,” said Bob Wunderlick, Dallas Jesuit's head coach for 14 years. “His parents were focused on academics. They pulled him out of football.”
A soccer play the following spring revealed American football was a much better fit for the youngster.
Ndulue, who by then was a 205-pound sophomore, raced down field during a soccer practice.
“Some kid ran into me,” Ndulue said. “He weighed like 120. He bounced right off me. They gave me a red (disqualifying) card. That was the day I realized that was the end of my soccer dream.”
Football coaches persuaded his parents, Bob and Vivian, to allow their son to play football.
“It was a battle,” Chuka Ndulue said. “My parents thought, ‘He's not going anywhere with this. Let's concentrate on academics.'”
Ndulue missed much of his junior year with a high ankle sprain. He wasn't on any college's radar.
Wunderlick made a few calls, including to Texas and to OU assistant Chris Wilson.
“Chuka didn't really have any highlights, but he weighed 230, was the strongest kid on our team,” Wunderlick said. “I told (college coaches): ‘I've never wasted you guys' time before, but I have somebody you need to look at.' Before you know it, he had offers from everywhere.”
The unexpected spike in recruiting stunned Ndulue.
“I thought I might go to some place like Kansas, that might be the best it was going to be,” Ndulue said. “Then OU jumped into the picture, then Texas. I was like, ‘Whoa.'”
The former soccer player had turned into a football standout who was rated as a four-star recruit by ESPN after a 50-tackle, eight-sack senior year.
Wunderlick is amazed how much the Ndulue has improved.
Because Ndulue lacked experience, Wunderlick felt it might be best for him to play for a low-profile program. He views it differently three years later.
They chatted last week when Ndulue was in Dallas.
“He's up to 260 to 265,” Wunderlick said. “Physically, he's pretty thick, pretty strong. He didn't grow up with the game like so many of us. His growth here was incredible. And he's grown even more. In some ways he's still figuring it all out.”
Ndulue carries around a small notebook filled with coaching tips like staying low, stance, proper use of his hips, getting underneath an offensive lineman's pads.
OU defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright said the redshirt junior has made significant progress during his three years in Norman.
“Part of a guy playing, especially for me, is trust,” Wright said. “I have to be able to trust that you can run our defense, not make mistakes, carry out calls, be in the right spot, not hurt our defense. The mental part is what he struggled with early on but he finally got to a point I trusted him.”
Ndulue understandably was a little overwhelmed the first time he played in front of 85,000 crimson-clad fans.
“Everyone was yelling,” Ndulue said. “I was like, ‘Please, Lord, Don't let me do anything stupid.' Eventually I became more comfortable. I just enjoyed being out there playing football, which is what I love to do.”
Ndulue, who appeared in seven games last fall, played more late in the season after Ronnell Lewis sustained a sprained knee and struggled with academic issues.
In OU's Insight Bowl win over Iowa, Ndulue was in the rotation.
“That gave me a little confidence that I'm getting better,” Ndulue said. “I still have a lot to improve on, but I've definitely gotten a lot better since my freshman year.”
Ndulue speaks three languages — English, French and Ibo, his native Nigerian dialect.
“We about have him affluent in English, and we're working on Spanish,” Wright said. “He's working on my Ibo. I'm struggling a little bit.”
Five years after the 120-pound kid bounced off Ndulue at a soccer practice, the Nigerian product is OU's third defensive end behind R.J. Washington and David King.
Ndulue has come so far, so fast, it's not far-fetched he could play in the NFL.
“He loves to play the game,” Wright said. “He's a guy you're really pulling for all the time. He's so prideful and wants to be successful. You really want it for him because he works so hart at it, it's so important to him.
“To come the distance he's come in this short period of time it's a pretty neat deal.”