UB rugby player Ike Onwukanjo to compete with the Nigerian national team for 2016 Olympics

Back to his roots


Ike Onwukanjo never knew how important it would be to miss his high school football team tryouts.

Onwukanjo’s parents wanted their high school sophomore son to be active, so they made him choose a sport. Once he missed the tryouts for his high school football team in New Rochelle, New York, he decided to try out for rugby. By the end of his senior year, he knew rugby was something he was passionate about and decided to pursue the game at a higher level.

Four years later, he will compete at the sport's highest level possible.

Onwukanjo, a right wing and center for the UB rugby team and a junior social sciences interdisciplinary major, will play with the Nigerian Rugby Football Federation next spring and summer as it tries to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. The New York native, who has dual citizenship between the two countries, is looking forward to traveling and playing with his parent’s native country.

“It’s a huge honor for me to be able to represent my country,” Onwukanjo said. “It’s something very few people are able to do and I’m thankful for that.”

Onwukanjo will fly between Buffalo, Africa, Europe and South America beginning in the spring of 2016 and continue through the summer. One week, he will be playing rugby on an international level in Nigeria as the national squad looks to make the 2016 Olympics. The next week, he could be sitting in a classroom. He said he’ll only miss a few weeks of school at a time, but said he’s prepared to handle the extra stress.

Onwukanjo was “shocked” when he got an email nearly a month and a half ago inviting him to compete with the Nigerian team.

“I didn’t know how to react. I just sat there and stared at the email. It was completely unexpected,” Onwukanjo said.

The style of rugby Onwukanjo prefers to play is called “Sevens” – a 7-on-7 game played in two seven-minute halves. There are no forward passes, no timeouts and no blockers. This style of play is popular overseas and will be used in the Olympics. Although the game is physical and Onwukanjo is often bruised, he said the game isn’t as brutal as it may seem. His worst injury to date was a broken nose.

Onwukanjo began as a reluctant athlete to the game, but changed his stance on rugby once he realized his full potential. Onwukanjo now plays the sport for three different competitive teams: White Plains Men’s Rugby Club, the Northeast Olympic Development Academy in New York City and for the club team at UB.

Many of his teammates on both of his other teams have already competed internationally. While at school, he enjoys playing with athletes his own age and being in a position of leadership under Buffalo head coach Mike Hodgins.

But it was the Northeast Olympic Development Academy where his passion for the game began. He was first noticed by Nigerian scouts while playing at UB, but began conversations with the national team while he was at the Olympic Academy during the summer entering his junior season.

Onwukanjo was preparing for this moment years ago when he attended boarding school in Nigeria from fifth to seventh grade and was immersed in the national language, Igbo. His knowledge of Nigerian culture is also a comfort as he prepares to return.

Onwukanjo said his aggressive play and stamina remain steady throughout each game, and said he believes that’s what caught the eye of the Nigerian team.

“He’s not full of himself,” said Joshua Drewno, a sophomore business administration major. “He’s definitely strong-willed and hates losing, but keeps his composure no matter what’s going on. He’s modest.”

Although Onwukanjo talks a lot about playing in Nigeria, Drewno said it seems he is more excited than Onwukanjo.

Onwukanjo’s siblings Ogye (19) who plays rugby at Davenport University, Ojo (13) and Nze (8) have told their school friends about Onwukanjo’s success.

But Onwukanjo isn’t ready to be excited yet.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it, but I don’t put a lot of thought into things, I’m not there [in Nigeria] yet,” Onwukanjo said. “The excitement wore off the next day.”

Onwukanjo plans on attending law school at University of California-Berkeley after his stint with the Olympic team and after graduating from UB in 2016. He understands rugby may not be a factor in his life after college.

When he was a freshman, Onwukanjo struggled to find student-athlete balance. He credits Phil Tucciarone, a close friend of Onwukanjo and former UB rugby player, for helping him realize what’s more important. Tucciarone would quiz Onwukanjo during rugby practice, putting in time and effort to ensure Onwukanjo was staying on the right course.

“[Tucciarone] told me, ‘Rugby isn’t forever, and you need to be sure you’re established academically,’” Onwukanjo said.

Onwukanjo said he would keep playing rugby only if it doesn’t conflict with his law school dreams.

But for now, Onwukanjo is focused on finishing the school year and on training for the national team. He said he’s working through intense training in order to get into the shape that will allow him to keep up with the other players on the Nigerian team.

His training began three weeks ago, but his more intensive training began this past Monday and will continue until the Olympic competition begins in summer 2016.

Andrea Weidel is a contributing writer and can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com