It’s not just his 89-year-old grandmother and the 70 percent of his family who still live there that draws Browns rookie linebacker Emmanuel Acho back to Nigeria.
It’s the blind woman with the green form in her hand he saw in 2011, the one who ended up in the wrong clinic line during his father’s annual medical mission to Isuikwuato.
In America, it would have been easy for her to switch, to seek attention from the proper person. But when Sonny Acho’s Living Hope Ministries team of about 40 doctors, nurses, surgeons, dentists and ophthalmologists arrives every June, 4,000 to 7,000 villagers flock there. When the 10-day clinic ends, sometimes 3,000 have to be turned away.
The woman feared she would be among those disappointed. So the doctor responded to the woman’s plea for help by laying a hand on her and saying a prayer.
“The lady opened her eyes and she could see,” Emmanuel Acho said in an interview posted on YouTube by the Longhorn Video Network. “[The doctor] asked the lady, ‘What color is the card you’re holding?’ and the lady said it was green.”
It’s the man who was on the operating table, the incision already made for his hernia surgery, when the lights went out in 2010. Emmanuel’s brother Sam, now a linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals, was waiting to carry the patient to the post-op ward.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Sam Acho told MackBrown-Texas Football.com. “The patient actually pulled a flashlight from his pants, so we finished the surgery under flashlight. That is just one of the many stories and blessings God did while we were over there.”
The Browns drafted Texas outside linebacker Emmanuel Acho in the sixth round last weekend because of his versatility, intelligence, work ethic and team-leading 131 tackles in 2011. But that might have been only part of the attraction.
Texas defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Manny Diaz said Acho played multiple positions and learned two schemes in college, so he’s used to adapting.
“He’s a got a great head on his shoulders, so those things are right in his wheelhouse,” Diaz said by telephone Thursday.
Diaz said the perfect example came last season against Missouri, when the Longhorns’ middle linebacker dislocated a finger on the first series and Acho moved from his spot on the weak side.
“The guy didn’t practice a snap at mike linebacker the entire week, but was able to adjust and play one of the better games he had in college,” Diaz said.
But as the draft concluded, Browns coach Pat Shurmur seemed struck as much by Acho’s character as he was by his football acumen.
“This guy is a terrific kid, terrific player,” Shurmur said. “He’s very eager. When I had him on the phone you could feel like he was going to jump on a flight today and get here.”
When he boards a flight this week for Browns rookie minicamp Friday through Sunday, Acho won’t be coming alone. Sonny Acho said in a telephone interview last week that he and his wife, Christie, a nurse-practitioner, will accompany Emmanuel so they can see the city and meet some of his coaches.
“This is a close-knit family,” Sonny Acho said.
When Acho’s parents return home to north Dallas, they will get back to preparations for the June 22 trip to Isuikwuato, a mission Sonny has taken for 20 years. Sonny isn’t sure Emmanuel will be able to go, but said Sam will be joined by some of his Cardinals teammates. In the past, Sam and Emmanuel have helped in pediatrics, optometry, in carrying patients and in crowd control.
“When you have 7,000 needy people trying to get in one door it gets pretty hectic,” Emmanuel told the Texas website in 2010. “If the line is not organized, the people inside can’t function.”
Through an initiative he calls Operation Hope, Sonny Acho plans to build a hospital there and already has acquired the land. But the psychologist and pastor needs to raise $2.5 to $3 million and conceded, “We are not close.” He wants to break ground in the next year or two but is waiting to reach the $1 million mark.
Sonny began taking Emmanuel, 21, and Sam, 23, to Nigeria when they were 2 or 3 years old to visit relatives. Besides his mother, Sonny Acho said he has two sisters, a brother, uncles and cousins still there. Sonny left Nigeria to attend college in America and after enrolling in a master’s program, he went back to ask his friend Christie to marry him.
“People would come to us begging for food, for handouts,” Sonny Acho recalled of the trips with his young boys. “We would give them used clothes and used shoes … a bag of rice, money. When they go there, they look at how they live in America, they have their rooms, their bicycles and eat three meals a day and see guys who don’t have shoes, have nothing to wear, don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, have to live day by day.
“I know it was moving them when they were little kids. They were comparing their lives and the lives of the people in Africa and saying, ‘Wow, but for the grace of God we were born in America, it could have been us.’ ”
Sonny Acho said some of the patients they treat during his missions can be cured in one doctor visit, whether they need antibiotics or hernia or cataract surgery. But the boys have seen horror, too.
“You have to see poverty, to see someone dying and not be able to do something about it,” Sonny said. “You see an accident on the highway and you’re standing there watching someone bleed to death because there’s no ambulance. You go to a hospital, there’s no equipment, the doctors are in and out, there’s nothing going on. It’s amazing.
“Even though I’ve been doing it for years, when I’m putting videos together sometimes it’s difficult for me to watch. My heart bleeds for those suffering people.”
Emmanuel Acho spoke of what he’s gained from his visits in a conference call when he was drafted.
“It is just eye-opening and a blessing when you see the people there suffering and then you see the life I have over here,” he said. “It humbles me and allows me not to take anything for granted.”
Sam Acho has spoken of carrying on his father’s African ministry when Sonny, 60, no longer can. Presumably Emmanuel shares that feeling.
“My dad, with all his dreams and goals, he might not be able to get all that accomplished in his lifetime,” Sam told the Longhorn Video Network last year. “My goal is to carry that torch and to continue to provide that living hope my dad envisioned.”
Sonny Acho is thrilled with the platform the NFL gives his sons to spread their religious beliefs and their mission.
“We believe that may be one of the reasons the Lord has opened the door and given them that platform so they will be able to promote and advance the Kingdom,” Sonny said.
“It would have been a sad situation if all they had done had been to play ball, buy the big house, buy the big car,” Sonny said on the Longhorn video. “Sometimes when my wife and I look at each other and talk privately, it brings tears to our eyes that the Lord has helped us transfer this vision to them.”
So when the phone rang and Shurmur was on the line, the Achos figured Emmanuel’s destination was all part of God’s plan.
“When Manny gets there, he can play ball and he’s passionate about ball. But he loves the Lord and wants to do whatever he can to help humanity,” Sonny Acho said. “So when the Browns called, we were like, ‘OK, God, we don’t know why you sent him to Cleveland and the Browns, but we’re going to trust you.’ That’s how we try to live our lives.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.