CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers hosted the Detroit Lions Sunday, and beyond the gridiron is a story of the sacrifice made by parents so their family could live the American Dream.
Brothers Julian and Romeo Okwara both attended Ardrey Kell High School and now play for the Lions, but it was not an easy road to make it from Nigeria to the NFL.
Their parents made difficult decisions so their children could have opportunities to shine, which landed them in Charlotte.
It started with their father, Julius Okwara, who also wanted to make plays on the field.
“I talked to the football coach,” Julius Okwara said. “He saw me, said, ‘You have the height, the size and the look, but you don’t know anything about football.’”
Instead of football stardom, Julius Okwara returned to Nigeria after college to take over the family business.
He married Melda Okwara, and they started a family. The couple was living a good life, but the educational opportunities in their home country weren’t good enough for their four children.
The mother and her four children, including third-grader Julian Okwara, moved to Charlotte in 2010 to pursue a better education. Their father stayed behind to run the family business.
“It’s not easy but, you know, when you’re a parent, you know there’s a debt you have to pay because you have to pay it back to your own kids,” Julius Okwara said.
The sacrifice they made for their children seems impossible to understand, but it was the only thing they could do. From 6,000 miles away, Julius Okwara had to watch his children grow up and his sons Julian and Romeo Okwara flourish on the football field.
“It wasn’t tough. Imagine me where I have to watch the game back here on Game Tracker,” Julius said. “That’s how I watch the game here.”
Melda Okwara had to manage the household and raise her four children alone.
“I wanted the best for my kids,” she said. “I wasn’t even concentrating on myself. I just wanted my kids to flourish in whatever sports, education-wise, anything.”
They have been apart from their father for 10 years other than occasional visits, but Melda Okwara knows it was all worth it.
“I think all parents just want the best for their kids no matter what your own passion is,” she said. “I don’t mind my husband being in Nigeria, because the focus has always been our children.”
“So, thankful to God for all this,” Julius Okwara said. “Me and my wife, we are the happiest parents in the world.”