Throwback Thursday: When Nigerian Soccer Player Donald Igwebuike Kicked Clemson to a College Football Championship
The last time Clemson played for college football's national championship, Nigerian soccer player Donald Igwebuike kicked three field goals in a 22-15 Tigers victory over Nebraska in the 1981 Orange Bowl. His story didn't stop there.
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Donald Igwebuike barely knew anything about football in 1981 when he joined Clemson's team. The native of Nigeria had never played the sport and didn't understand its rules. By the end of the season, though, he had become one of the most important members of the Tigers' first and only national title squad, and changed everything about his career trajectory along the way.
Igwebuike's three field goals in a 22-15 Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska on Jan. 1, 1982 clinched an undefeated season and made him a legendary figure at the school. Now, 34 years later, with Clemson preparing to face Alabama for the national championship on Jan. 11, Igwebuike is still remembered for his unexpected contributions to the most beloved team in program history.
In the summer of 1980, Igwebuike arrived at Clemson on a soccer scholarship. It was the first time he had ever been in the United States. Back then, the Tigers were a soccer power. Coach I.M. Ibrahim, a native of Israel, scoured the world for talent. He first noticed Igwebuike playing on Nigeria's 18-and-under national team, which traveled throughout Africa to compete against the continent's other top teams.
As a freshman, Igwebuike started in the midfield and had two goals and eight assists. He said he only went to one football game that fall. After the season, his longtime friend, Obed Ariri, asked him to help train for the 1981 NFL draft. Ariri, who had grown up near Igwebuike, had played soccer and football at Clemson. When Ariri saw Igwebuike make a few field goals, he encouraged him to give the sport a shot. Football coach Danny Ford then called Igwebuike and convinced him to try out to replace Ariri as the team's kicker.
"Even when I started playing football, I didn't know the rules," Igwebuike said. "It was funny, but it was just something that I wanted to explore. It was something new."
By that summer, Igwebuike had won the starting job. He also continued playing soccer. Each afternoon, he practiced with the soccer team and then headed over to an adjacent field to work with the football team. He grew close to some teammates, including freshman defensive lineman William Perry, who was in the process of earning his "Refrigerator" nickname that season.
"William was a good guy," Igwebuike said. "He was a funny dude, man, always fun to be around. I remember those days sitting around and cracking jokes. It was a team that really got along and pulled for each other and supported each other."
On Sept. 5, 1981, Igwebuike connected on a 52-yard field goal on the first attempt of his career, the start of a remarkable run for him and the Tigers, who were unranked in the preseason. Two weeks later, Igwebuike kicked two field goals as Clemson upset defending national champion Georgia 13-3, the only regular season loss for the Bulldogs in the three seasons that running back Herschel Walker played for the team. He was still playing soccer, too, helping the Tigers win the ACC championship and finish the regular season 16-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.
By the time the soccer team's season ended with a 2-1, triple-overtime loss to Alabama A&M in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Clemson's football team had completed an undefeated regular season and risen to No. 2 in the polls. The next weekend, after Penn State's upset of top-ranked Pittsburgh, the Tigers moved to No. 1 heading into their Orange Bowl matchup against No. 4 Nebraska. Still, the Cornhuskers were favored.
"For some reason, I don't think Clemson's football team got the respect that they deserved," Igwebuike said. "Nobody thought we were that good, but we kept winning games. We knew what we had. We had confidence in ourselves."
Some had doubts about Igwebuike, as well. As a soccer midfielder, he was accustomed to the importance of being an accurate kicker, but it was different playing a new sport in front of tens of thousands of fans in huge stadiums. He missed half of his 14 field goals heading into the bowl game. And yet, he never lost faith in himself.
After Clemson recovered a fumble on Nebraska's first possession, Igwebuike nailed a 41-yard field goal. He added a 37-yarder in the first quarter and then a 36-yarder in the third quarter that gave the Tigers a 22-7 lead. Nebraska's Roger Craig later ran for a touchdown and two-point conversion to cut the deficit to eight points, but the Cornhuskers wouldn't get any closer. The Tigers had won the national title. And Igwebuike was suddenly among the most popular people in the region.
"Clemson has always been a football town," he said. "The fans have always been behind the players. Believe me, it plays a very vital role towards players' confidence and all that. I don't think I've ever seen better fans than Clemson's."
Even with all of the glory and fame from his football exploits, Igwebuike dreamed of a professional soccer career. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of former Clemson forward Christian Nwokocha, the first Nigerian to play in a top European league. Igwebuike never really thought about the NFL, and in 1982 and 1983, he played sparingly as Bob Paulling beat him out for the starting kicking job. He regained the role during his senior season in 1984 and made 16 of 17 field goals and all 41 extra point attempts.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Igwebuike in the 10th round of the 1985 NFL draft, he decided to pursue football. During training camp, he competed with Ariri, his friend who had introduced him to the sport. Tampa Bay chose to keep Igwebuike and cut Ariri, its starting kicker the previous season. "It was one of the most uncomfortable situations in my life," Igwebuike said. "It was tough for me to see him go, but I had no control over that."
Igwebuike lasted five seasons with the Buccaneers, becoming a fan favorite even though the team never won more than five games in any of his seasons there. He made 74 percent of his field goals and 95 percent of his extra points and was the franchise's all-time leading scorer when the team released him in September 1990.
Later that month, Igwebuike signed with the Minnesota Vikings. In eight games, he converted 14 of 16 field goals and all 19 extra points. But on Nov. 9, 1990, the Vikings granted Igwebuike a leave of absence after he was arrested and charged with allegedly conspiring with two other men to smuggle heroin from Nigeria. Nearly 26 years later, he cannot believe he was ever implicated in the situation.
In April 1990, a federal grand jury acquitted Igwebuike of all charges. News reports at the time said Igwebuike cried and threw his fists in the air when the verdict was announced. "Getting in trouble for no reason, it was unbelievable," Igwebuike said. "I'm glad my name got cleared, but once your name is soiled... trust me, man, it's very difficult. You're cleared, but just for the fact your name is soiled will live with you forever.
"Your character's all you've got," he continued. "When people question it, it's like you've lost everything in your life. Your name is all you've got. I don't care how much money you've got."
Despite being found not guilty, Igwebuike never played in the NFL again. After the Vikings waived him in August, he kicked in the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League before retiring in 1995.
"I don't control decisions that coaches make," Igwebuike said. "It was a very difficult time for me, but I've overcome all those things and I've moved on with my life."
These days, Igwebuike lives in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. He competes in a men's soccer league and enjoys spending time with his family. He also helps coach the kickers and special teams units at a local high school. His son recently completed his freshman season at running back on the junior varsity team, but he doesn't plan on playing his father's old position.
"I don't want to tell you all he's said about kickers," Igwebuike said, laughing.
Igwebuike hasn't had a chance to attend a Clemson game this season. Still, he watches the Tigers on television and reads about them any chance he gets. He can't wait until the Clemson-Alabama game and speaks like a proud, devoted alum.
"That's my team right there," Igwebuike said. "That's my love right there. I will always follow Clemson. I know come January 11, we're gonna bring back the second national championship."