Updated: Nov 9
Somtochukwu Achebo remembers well the event from six years ago.
He was sixteen years old, alone, with little money, a stranger, no cell phone, no food, most of his worldly possessions stashed in a backpack, standing in a busy terminal at JFK airport in New York City, an ocean away from his home in Nigeria.
And because of an unexpected delay in customs, he had missed his connecting flight to Salt Lake City.
Talk about feeling alone.
“I was confused,” he acknowledges.
But Somtochukwu, or “Sommy,” is nothing if not resourceful. He found an airline representative and pled his case.
“She was awesome,” he recalls. “Put me up in a hotel. It must have been a five-star.”
In the hotel, Sommy discovered a new world. There was air conditioning, a Jacuzzi, a big television, a coffee machine he couldn’t quite figure out, and room service. And, as he soon discovered, there were elevators.
He ventured on to the elevator after deciding the room-service chicken salad he ordered wasn’t enough to fill him up and he needed more nourishment. “Mostly lettuce and tomatoes, with about four tiny pieces of chicken. I threw most of it out. I was hungry,” he says.
“The elevator went really fast … All the way up, all the way down. It was so fun for me. Occasionally, I got off and walked a hallway, so that nobody would notice how much I was riding on the elevator,” Sommy says. “I kept going up and down, up and down, for about an hour, maybe longer. I’d never been in an elevator by myself.”
The next day, the current Southern Utah University star linebacker was on his way to Salt Lake City.
That he ended up in Utah at all was nothing short of a miracle.
Education was important in the Achebo family. That happens when your father, Jarumi, is a high-school principal and your mother, Ngozi Nnenna Rosita teaches English. Sommy knew, though, that to fulfill his life’s goals, he needed more than what could be found in the Delta State of southern Nigeria.
Along with his best friend, Alex, he hatched a plan. They would team up and continue their education in London or the United States. It quickly became clear that London would not work out, so Alex and Sommy turned their focus toward America.
“I went to a cyber-café at home and looked up schools in America. I sent hundreds of emails every day. I wrote, ‘I’m a good kid, I’m really smart, I am a leader, and I play sports. I hope you’ll give me a shot,’” Sommy says. “I thought mentioning sports would give me an extra bump.”
Overall, Sommy estimates he sent about 10,000 emails. “My mom was a little upset because I would come home so late. But it was a dream of mine.”
It was a straightforward, somewhat naïve approach, but a little magic struck. Mt. Vernon Academy, a small private school in Salt Lake City, offered to sponsor him.
“I knew about Florida, California, Las Vegas and other large places. Utah? Well, it looked like it was on the map. I didn’t know anything about it.”
But Sommy and Alex decided to give it a shot. It was a dream, after all. Why not? He hesitated, though, when Alex was unable to obtain a visa. Despite the disappointment, in the end he decided, “I’ll go to Utah,” which explains how he became temporarily marooned at JFK in 2015. His father took out a loan to pay for the airfare and he was on his way to the Wasatch Front.
Sommy thrived at Mt. Vernon. He excelled academically. His sponsors, Kelly Hill and her extended family, the Lambsons, took him in and virtually adopted him. “Their family is great. Kelly was my mom here. She took care of me. I stayed with her family all through high school and I still spend most of my holidays with them.”
Sommy also credits Kelly Hill’s brother, Scott Lambson, for helping him along, both in sports and in life. “He advised me, critiqued my play both in basketball and football, was at almost all my games, and always had late night discussions, about sports and life.”
The one opportunity Mt. Vernon could not offer, however, was playing football. In Utah, a student at a private school that does not offer sports is eligible to play for the public high school in which he or she resides. That led Sommy to Granger High School, where the coaching staff was a bit perplexed about what to do with a player who just showed up one summer day and had never even put on a football uniform.
“You look like you can play football,” one coach told him, “but that doesn’t mean you can.”
“It was a funny situation. I came to America hoping to play basketball, but I’m not 6’11” or even 6’8”, and after I arrived here, I found out I don’t have a jumpshot. My friends said, Sommy, you’re really fast, really strong. You should try football.
“At first, I thought football was weird. You put on a helmet and you put on pads and you run into people,” Sommy says, smiling. “But I told the coaches, ‘I just want to play.’”
He was a quick study on the gridiron. Mike Morgan, Granger’s football coach, saw the potential in Sommy’s unpolished tools, spotting someone who could play beyond high school. “He helped me develop into a college prospect in such a short time,” Sommy says. He played linebacker and corner for Granger, and despite a shoulder injury that got his senior year off to a slow start, caught the attention of Demario Warren, SUU’s head football coach.
“I had a few offers, but I really wanted to play D-1 football. Because of surgery, I didn’t start until my fourth game of the season my senior year, but I hung pretty good, got lucky. I was recruited by SUU to play safety.
“I’d never heard of Cedar City until I was recruited by SUU. But from the first day, I felt these guys cared about me. I trusted them. I am so grateful to Coach Warren and Coach Taps (Solomona Tapasa, SUU’s linebacker coach and academic coordinator), the community and SUU. They gave me the opportunity to play and get my education paid for,” says Sommy, a redshirt junior.
Sommy’s still on the raw side as a football player, but his speed and strength are eye-popping. Head coach Warren says there’s a chance he may continue his career after his days at SUU are over.
“He has two years left to develop, he has a good frame and speed; he’ll need to put together some productive seasons to give himself a chance,” Warren says.
The tale of a young man from Nigeria with a dream to come to America and end up a star football player at a D-1 school is the stuff of a Disney movie, but for Sommy Achebo, it’s only part of the story. And it may not be the most remarkable portion.
Here’s the way Coach Warren describes the rest of it: “He pushes himself to be great every day. He adds as much on his plate as he can – serving in the community, a job with the county, student government committees. He wants to prepare himself to be great after college.”
Sommy graduated from SUU with high honors, earning degrees in a double major, criminal justice and political science. He has twice made the Big Sky’s all-academic team, and last year, was honored by his selection to the conference’s community service team, for his efforts in Nigeria and Cedar City. Currently, he’s pushing toward a master’s degree in business administration. He works for the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District. “Got to give props to my boss, Paul Monroe, and the staff because of all the opportunities they have provided me, and how nice they have been since I started interning in January, especially with how wonderful they were during the start of the virus when I struggled financially.”
After his master’s is completed and days at SUU wind down, he plans to attend law school. The NFL, while an enticing, albeit longshot possibility, is actually Plan B for Sommy.
What he really wants to do is change the world.
“I want to be a leader. It’s important to me. I want to be a voice for people, to help create opportunities and hope for others,” he says. “I hope to influence many. My goal is safe homes and education for those who want it, whether it’s in Nigeria or elsewhere.”
And for him, it’s just not talk. He already has established the “Jarumi Children’s Foundation,” named after his father who passed away soon after Sommy arrived in the United States.
The goal of the foundation is to provide educational and recreational opportunities for Nigerian students. Through the foundation, Sommy says, “I have been blessed to have helped a couple of kids come to America to get an education.”
And then there’s the yearly summer camp, attended by about 400 youngsters, back in Nigeria. Sports are a big part of the camp – soccer and basketball, mainly – but Sommy also brings in speakers to address topics that include education, esteem, family, and hygiene. The annual camp is wildly successful.
“We talk about how important family is. I try to preach to the kids how much family matters. And for kids who don’t have families, I tell them how to create a family. I stress to them they need to have a role model, someone to look up to, people to care about. Go out there and make people love you. Be an influencer,” he says.
“I love doing it for the kids,” Sommy adds, his face breaking into a megawatt grin. “I love seeing their faces. I love their smiles. I come home every day with nothing because I’ve given away my shirt and shoes and other gear.”
He is quick to credit those around him – teammates, SUU coaches and faculty, the Cedar City community, and friends – for their assistance in pulling off the camp.
“The kids come to me and ask lots of questions,” Sommy says. “What’s America like? What’s it like to play football? And some say, ‘I want to be like you.’ That’s a little embarrassing. Man, I haven’t done anything yet.”
That point is debatable. Plenty of people vouch that Sommy has already accomplished much in life. Coach Warren says, “Sommy is just a great person. I am glad he represents SUU. I told him when I recruited him that he could make an impact on our team and community and he is proving me right every day.”
It may seem odd, even misplaced to learn a hard-hitting linebacker who, according to Coach Warren, puts his body on the line every play and willingly sacrifices all to win, has a philosophy of life that is refreshingly gentle.
“At the end of the day, I know who I am and that I want to lead people and be a voice for them,” he says. “Love will always overcome hate. Love people, take care of them. I truly believe there are more good people in the world than bad.”
Somtochukwu Achebo’s life, in one sense, is still an elevator ride. Only this time, there is one big difference from his experience in New York City years ago.
The elevator he’s currently on goes only in one direction: Up, up and up.
The Thunderbird Athletic Foundation is the fundraising arm of Southern Utah Athletics. This story represents one of the many STUDENT > athletes that are supported by our loyal donors. Find out how to get involved or support our T-Bird Scholarship Fund at $4.17/ a month by visiting HelpSUU.com or FlyWithSUU.com.