It pushes me harder to work out and get better every day, so I can go down there and make an impact when I start playing for them —Chinonso Opara on BYU's recent struggles in football
DRAPER — Juan Diego Catholic High School football coach John Colosimo was sitting in his office on a spring day in 2015 when he received a visitor.
Chinonso Opara, who’s since committed to play for BYU, wanted to talk.
“He just walked into my office,” Colosimo recalled, “and I went, ‘Oh my gosh!’”
The Nigerian teenager had moved to the United States to play basketball the previous year, attending schools in Maryland and California, but he was intrigued by a sport that he’d only learned about after moving to America as a 15-year-old.
“I want to play football,” Opara told Colosimo, who’s both the head football coach and the principal at the private school just off of I-15 in the southeastern corner of the Salt Lake Valley.
Colosimo has been coaching for decades, but he’d never encountered somebody who hoped to pick up football as a junior in high school.
Another thing that had never happened to the coach?
Having a 6-foot-9, 260-pound kid walk into his office and ask to play on his team.
“OK, we’ll try you,” Colosimo told Opara, understating his excitement. “We’ll see.”
Opara grins at the memory of telling Colosimo and Juan Diego assistant football coach Joe Colosimo about his plans.
“I told him, ‘Hey, Coach, I’m going to play football. I want to learn the game of football,’” Opara said. “And he was really excited to have me.”
Just over a year later, Opara became the first athlete in the Catholic school’s 18-year history to verbally commit to play football for LDS-owned BYU. Though he’s not Mormon — happens to be Catholic — the big lineman chose the Cougars over the University of Utah after attending camps at the two schools and receiving offers from both schools last summer.
“Obviously, both schools that offered me are wonderful schools,” Opara said. “I spoke to my mom (still in Nigeria) and everybody else, and I felt the love at BYU. It is a nice tradition down there.”
Opara’s commitment to BYU is solid despite the team's rough 2-8 season. He wears a rubber BYU wristband and attends games at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Admirably, he uses his future school’s current struggles to fuel his fire.
“It pushes me harder to work out and get better every day, so I can go down there and make an impact when I start playing for them,” Opara said. “It’s been tough, but I always look at the big picture.”
Opara — or "Big C," as his friends call him — grew up playing sports in Nigeria, including track, cricket, hoops and soccer. If star goaltender Nick Rimando doesn’t re-sign with Real Salt Lake, the MLS club might consider using the massive player who's currently entrenched in the other football as a Wall of the Wasatch replacement. Opara doesn’t play soccer much anymore — aside from goofing off with his host family, the Ahlstroms in Riverton — but he does have experience between the pipes from when he was younger.
“I was the tallest guy and I have long arms, so they put me as a goalie,” he said. “That was fun.”
Basketball was his best sport, though. In fact, he got his opportunity to move to the U.S. after being discovered by a basketball coach during a camp for big men prospects in Africa. The coach saw big potential for him in hoops and told him he could play overseas.
"And," Opara said, "that was how everything kicked in."
The soft-spoken Opara made the decision to leave his family, including his mom and three siblings, in Nigeria to attend a Maryland high school as a freshman. He admitted the adjustment — both to a new country and to an academically challenging private school — was difficult.
From there, Opara was guided to a Los Angeles-area high school in Gardena, California. After his sophomore season, he was directed to Utah to continue his prep basketball career. The center was going to play for Lone Peak High — his mentor was friends with the coach there — but ended up at Juan Diego after that transfer did not work.
Turns out, the Soaring Eagle wasn’t just getting a humongous addition who craves rebounds and carves out a lot of space in the lane to its basketball team. Opara had fallen in love with football after attending a Washington Redskins game and through playing video games.
“It just felt interesting how people hit each other and scored touchdowns,” he said.
Barely into this new sport, Opara now has high hopes of following former BYU star defensive end Ziggy Ansah’s football path from Africa to Provo to the NFL. He’d love to become the next iteration of ex-Kansas City Chiefs great Christian Okoye — a.k.a. The Nigerian Nightmare.
"I want to get my degree (in business)," he said, "and I want to go pro."
Big dreams for a kid who not only recently learned the difference between an A-Gap and a B-Gap but who just recently discovered that things called A-Gap and B-Gap even existed.
Opara acknowledges that he has a long way to go, but he credits his Juan Diego coaches and teammates for their help.
“At first, it was all new to me,” Opara said. “Thankfully, the coaches broke it down for me so I could understand it better. That was helpful. It was hard because it was a new sport. I didn’t know some of the words they used.”
The teen, who rides his mountain bike and likes watching movies in his spare time, is also grateful to his Riverton-based host family, whom he's grown to love. He calls the Ahlstrom parents "Mom" and "Dad" and refers to their three kids as his brothers and sister. He still talks to his mom in Nigeria once a week, but he's grateful for his new extended family, too.
A lot of progress has been made since Opara walked into Colosimo’s office. That much is evident simply considering the fact that the senior has transformed into a key weapon for Juan Diego’s defense. He doesn’t lead the team in tackles — Max Butkovich and Austin Gillespie do. He isn’t the leading sack producer, either. Hunter Easterly and Samuel Knudson are. But he’s a huge disruptive force on the line and has helped Juan Diego get to the championship game.
Opara said he doesn’t track his stats. They’re not important to him. His priorities?
“Just winning each game and getting better each game.”
Opara's biggest game yet is on Saturday when Juan Diego (10-2) plays for the 3A title against Morgan (9-2) at Weber State (livestream).
“He’s really raw. He’s certainly gotten better,” Colosimo said. “Last year he couldn’t play in a varsity game. This year, he’s much better. He’s got a lot to learn, but he’s absorbing it all in, picking it all up. He just gets better day by day, week by week. I think he’ll be fine.”
Colosimo anticipates that BYU will have Opara switch sides and play on the offensive line, probably as a tackle. It made sense for Juan Diego to have him begin on the defensive side, the coach pointed out, because they could teach him a few basics and have him attack the guys on the other side of the trench using his size and aggression. Opara says a simple bullrush is his favorite move to make.
“I think he’s more suited to be an offensive tackle, especially in the passing game,” Colosimo said. “He has long arms, big hands a good center of gravity. He could step back and pass block most of the time. I think that’s how BYU is looking at him.”
Opara’s current coach is cautiously optimistic about his football future.
Opara has the size, hunger and potential to blossom into a monster at the next level.
But he’s just so new to this sport that it’s impossible to know if he’ll continue to progress at the rate needed to make an impact against bigger and better opponents in college.
“He’s just so big, strong and physical,” Colosimo said. “He can really overpower some kids at times. But he just needs to learn. He’s definitely a work in progress.”
Colosimo is confident that BYU coach Kalani Sitake and his staff will treat Opara well and help him succeed. The Catholic coach is hopeful this will be the beginning of a Juan Diego-to-BYU pipeline. (For the record, he’s quite complimentary of Utah’s program, too.)
“I think he’s in a good spot. He’ll get his college paid for. What a dream coming from Africa to come over and be able to do that,” Colosimo said. “I’m just rooting like heck for him.”
Opara feels the love from Colosimos, coaches John and Joe, and the rest of his Juan Diego family.
“I didn’t know anything about the game of football,” he said. “That’s awesome for them to let me come into their program and keep on developing me each game. I’m thankful for my teammates. They helped me each day and explained what’s going on and what I have to do. They’ve been great.”
They’ve been supportive but not soft on him, Colosimo admitted.
“They’ve all just really embraced him and welcomed him to school. I think he feels real comfortable now,” the coach said. “Having said that, they want to kick his behind because they want to test themselves against a guy BYU thinks is a Division One player. They show him no mercy when we go out and scrimmage, that’s for sure.”
Opara, whom his coach calls “a pretty imposing figure,” also appreciates the academic and athletic opportunities he’s getting in his home away from home.
“You have a lot of kids that have played the game for a long time and I’ve only played the game for a year and a half,” Opara said. “I’m just grateful that I can get a chance to play one more time after high school.”
It’s quite possible Opara will have more individual success with Juan Diego’s basketball team than its football team.
Colosimo smiled when asked if his student-athlete is better at football or basketball. He describes him as being in a “puppy stage of learning” when it comes to the gridiron.
“He’s a better basketball player because he’s played that. He has more experience as a basketball player,” Colosimo said. “But I’m impressed that he wanted to come over here and try a little bit of football and see how he can do and earn himself a college scholarship. That’s great. Get a college degree paid for, that’s the ideal thing.”
Colosimo’s smile got even bigger when told about the NFL dreams of a kid who didn’t know what he was doing as a junior varsity player just a year ago.
“We’re starting small,” Colosimo said, chuckling. “Go play pro. I’d love that if he went and played pro. .... I’ll have to tell him I’ll be his agent.”14 comments on this story
Big-dreaming "Big C," as he's called, has set some limitations on himself, though. He's not going to walk into Dave Rose's office and ask to play basketball for BYU in the football offseason.
And BYU soccer won't be able to use him as their Scott Sterling, either.
Opara will focus on his new favorite sport at the next level.
"I'll just stick to football," he said.
Considering everything that's so quickly happened in that sport, that's probably the best idea he's had since stepping into his coach's office a year and a half ago.