April 13, 2024

In a Chargers season that’s going nowhere, he is — as a professional athlete — traveling there in a rather unlikely way.

On a bicycle.

CJ Okoye doesn’t have a car. Or a driver’s license. He never even has operated a motor vehicle.

He does have an electric bike, however, that he has ridden all season to get to his job as a Chargers defensive lineman.

“I’ve seen him zooming through the building on it a couple times,” linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. said. “It’s like, ‘Damn, CJ!’ ”

Okoye, 22, joined the Chargers in May through the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program.

He has spent the year on the practice squad, which might not sound like much of an accomplishment until realizing he crouched into the first defensive stance of his life just 11 months ago.

A native of Nigeria, Okoye said his parents never have owned a car. He grew up using public transportation or a ride-share program.

After becoming a Charger, he was discussing his transportation options with teammate Morgan Fox, who first suggested Okoye get a bike and then gave Okoye one.

“I told him, ‘Dude, don’t spend your money,’ ” Fox said. “ ‘It’s already expensive enough to live here. Let me help you out.’ ”

Fox had a bike sitting in his garage from his time with Carolina. The Panthers’ practice area is located a distance from the locker room with players and staff often using golf carts or bikes.

So Okoye, all 6-foot-6, 315 pounds of him, began traveling the short stretch — two or three blocks, through one traffic light — from his Costa Mesa apartment to the Chargers’ facility on Fox’s hand-me-down set of wheels.

“I saw him on the bike — with the helmet and everything — cruising in,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “I was like, ‘What?’ He rides his bike to work?’ I respect that, especially in California.”

The NFL is a place where players have arrived for the start of training camp in fire trucks, armored cars and, in at least one instance, a helicopter. The Chargers have a player who arrives daily on the equivalent of a beefed-up Schwinn.

Okoye said he’d like to get his driver’s license soon but admitted he’s nervous about the driving part. America still feels foreign to him, his exposure to the country coming mostly through movies.

“I started reading all these books about California driving,” Okoye said. “Now, I think I get it education-wise. But it’s different, learning the playbook and then doing it on the field in practice. Driving is the same way.”

He said he has heard stories about how difficult it can be to maneuver a car as opposed to a bike. He also has heard stories about the horrors of American bureaucracy.

“I told him, ‘Don’t try to get your driver’s license in California,’ ” Fox said. “That’s the last thing he should try to do.“

Why’s that?

“The lines just in the grocery store are crazy,” Fox said. “You’re going to try to go to the DMV?”

Rams quarterback Stetson Bennett is sacked by Chargers defensive lineman CJ Okoye for a 16-yard loss in the preseason.

Rams quarterback Stetson Bennett is sacked by Chargers defensive lineman CJ Okoye for a 16-yard loss in the preseason.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Since coming to the U.S., Okoye has experienced his first Fourth of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving, which he spent with teammates at the home of defensive tackle Austin Johnson.

He said the season has been difficult for him because he has struggled to improve. He said he wishes he could help the Chargers more, especially given how poorly the season has unfolded.

But Okoye said a highlight has been the Friday night team dinners organized by edge rusher Khalil Mack. He typically uses Uber to get to those, although teammates always are offering to pick him up.

“Seeing everybody laughing with each other away from the business of everything is great,” Okoye said. “They make us all feel like equals no matter your standing on the team.

“They make you feel like we’re all brothers, let me put it like that. We talk as brothers. That’s helpful. It’s really nice. I have no family here. So they’re my family.”

A few of the family members are big-time car enthusiasts. Kendricks said he owns five cars, including a 1993 Mustang LX, 1995 Dodge Viper and a Porsche GT3 RS.

Murray received his driver’s permit when he was 15 but — because he was too busy with football — didn’t get his license until his sophomore year at Oklahoma. That gap provided motivation.

“I got my driver’s license so late and it was such a pain in my butt that it become something that pushed me,” he said. “It was a reason for me to work hard because, when it came time to get a car, I wanted to be able to afford whatever I wanted.”

And what does he own today?

“I have some toys,” Murray said, smiling. “I like Italian cars. I have one that’s really, really nice. I have a few — I would described them as — race cars, too.”

Okoye said he’d like to own a car one day. Having spent most of his time here in Florida and California, he said he’d also like to visit Dallas, Houston and “the beach in Hawaii.” Another landmark he wants to see: “In New York, you know, the lady,” he said, meaning the Statue of Liberty.

But first perhaps, a driver’s license, if he can pass the test.

“I think I can do it,” Okoye said. “If I can come all the way from Nigeria to the Chargers and play a new sport, I think I can drive a car.”

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