The Eli Manning to David Tyree helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII was a life-changing event . . . for 14-year-old Victor Ochi.
Ochi, who wasn't far removed from a 3 1/2-year sojourn to Nigeria, where soccer was his first love, immediately switched affections. A love affair with American football was born Feb. 3, 2008, and it turned out to be a perfect marriage.
"I saw that catch, the way Eli avoided that sack and made the pass. That play was so amazing," said Ochi, now a senior and star defensive end and offensive tackle for Valley Stream Central. "It showed me a game can change right before your eyes. You can never let your guard down. It was a motivation for me to play football."
Until that moment, Ochi, whose real first name is Udochukwu - "No one could pronounce it when I was a kid, so I just laughed and told everyone, 'Call me Victor,' which is my middle name" - never had played organized football. "I played soccer and ran track when I was in Nigeria," he said.
He was born in the United States to Nigerian immigrant parents, American teachers who thought it was important for Ochi to learn about the country of his ancestors and sent him to live with an uncle and aunt.
That was a life-changing experience, too. "Crucial" is how Ochi described his childhood experiences living in the Benue (pronounced Ben-Way) State region of Nigeria, not far from that African country's largest city, Lagos. "Young kids can absorb a lot," said Ochi, who said he spoke "broken English" plus two Nigerian dialects during his visit.
He enjoyed those years but was happy to return to America. At first, he didn't dive right into organized sports and had to endure a series of culture shocks.
"It was an adjustment," he said with a laugh. "In Nigeria, when they ask you a question in school, you've got to stand up and answer it. When I was in class , at first I would stand up when I answered a question, and everybody looked at me like I was strange."
Now they look up at him with admiration. Ochi's transformation from raw talent to elite athlete resulted in his accepting a full scholarship in July to play football for Stony Brook University. The Seawolves' interest in Ochi was heightened after he had an impressive week at the Rutgers camp.
According to Valley Stream Central second-year coach Frank Chimienti, Ochi is the first Division I (FCS) scholarship football player in the three-high school district since 1989.
"He's an amazing physical specimen - 6-2, 225; runs a legit 4.8 [40-yard dash] and bench-presses 225 pounds 14 times," Chimienti said. "He's a perfect defensive lineman as far as his get-off, his motor. He's relentless and one of the most competitive people I've ever met. His best years of football are ahead of him."
But what Ochi will leave behind at VSC is almost as important. Chimienti inherited a losing program struggling to attract players. Ochi - who has 7 1/2 sacks and 14 tackles for loss after yesterday's career-high four sacks in a 24-12 win over Roslyn - has helped change that. The Eagles (2-2) now boast about 80 players on the varsity and junior varsity and expect that to eventually translate into wins.
"We needed someone like Victor to show these guys and take the program in a new direction," Chimienti said. "The way he carries himself in school and gets good grades, he's a tremendous leader. We want our younger kids to emulate Victor. He's a perfect role model and a great ambassador for the program."
First, though, Ochi had to convince his parents to allow him to play football.
"They were afraid I'd get hurt," Ochi said, laughing at the notion, because he's the one who usually delivers pain. "It was hard for them to get into the game at first, but now there are no bigger fans than my parents. They're at every game. My mother is pretty vocal. That's where I get it from."
In addition to making bruising tackles, Ochi, whose football idol is Lawrence Taylor, is known for his fiery demeanor.
"I have this tendency to let my emotions out through my mouth," he said. "I always back it up on the field, though. Football is not a dead sport, you know? Football has a lot of spirit."
Ochi chose Stony Brook fairly early because he wanted his family to be able to watch him play in college and because "they had what I needed academically. I want to be a mechanical engineer."
The blueprint looks pretty good so far.