From Nigeria to Winnipeg: One Bison’s unlikely journey to the gridiron

Chris Otisi during his time playing with the Transcona Nationals, his first year playing football. Chris Otisi/Submitted

When Chris Otisi left Nigeria for Canada five years ago, he knew what football was.

But he called it soccer.

Canadian football? Not a clue.

“Even when I got here, it didn’t register, the whole concept of football,” Otisi said.

“My first experience was seeing one of the games my friend was playing in with the St. Vital Mustangs. It was just for fun, but I took an interest in it.”

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Otisi is a first-year defensive end for the Manitoba Bisons.

He grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, speaking English and Igbo. Soccer was the sport of choice.

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But after his sister left for Canada in pursuit of higher education, Chris was not far behind, arriving in Winnipeg at the perfect time of year.

“The cold hit me as soon as I got here. I was like, ‘Damn.’ It was January, that was at core of the winter. It was approximately -40 C at that time. I was like, ‘What a welcoming!’ But I just took it by the chin.”

His mom is a lawyer back in Nigeria, a place he has not returned to since deciding to cross the pond.

“It’s evident that North America, compared to Africa, is more developed. Everyone is seeking better education, better lifestyle, better everything,” Otisi said.

“That’s why I’m here, mostly education. I might go back, if I decide to. There’s so many decisions to be made.”

Otisi (77) at Bisons’ practice. Mike Still/Submitted

Otisi misses home, but he said the Nigerian community in Winnipeg is one of togetherness, and that starts in his own apartment that he shares with his sister.

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“My sister is one of my closest friends. We talk. I let her know when anything is going on. She lets me know when anything is going on. We just help each other because we know that it’s just two of us here. We just gotta keep each other moving.”

Otisi’s football career has been brief. He played his first season of football with the Transcona Nationals last year before dedicating himself to the sport in the offseason.

“Went to Recruit Ready in the winter, met [Scott] Barbour, defensive line coach on the Bisons. I remember explaining to him that my goal is to get on the team. He told me it’s a lot of work, but not impossible. I kept on showing up, got better.”

After working on his craft, Otisi gathered the courage to send a highlight tape to Bisons head coach Brian Dobie.

“Surprisingly, he responded to me. I was like, ‘Oh, damn.’ I just took it, sent him a text message, set up a meeting, and there we have it.”

Otisi is biding his time, learning the playbook, continually trying to get better in hopes of getting on the field.

Otisi commits to playing for the U of M with Bisons coach Brian Dobie. Chris Otisi/Submitted

Off the field, he’s busy with schoolwork and giving back, heading the International Students Organization, helping people who are making the transition to Canadian life that he went through himself.

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“It’s not an easy transition. I’m looking to share what I’ve experienced, and try to help anyone else who is coming after so they don’t have to have that kind of confusion or less sense of guidance,” Otisi said.

“You get here and you’re homesick, but you have to accept the reality that you’re here for a purpose.”

Otisi hopes to get into law someday, following in the footsteps of his mother. He might return to Nigeria, he might stay in Canada. That decision will be made down the line, but one thing he’s sure of: it’s not getting warmer here.

“To be honest, it seems like it gets colder and colder, or I’m just getting less tolerant of it. But I’ve embraced it, definitely. It’s not really as big a deal anymore as it was the first year when I came here.”

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