TEMPE, Ariz. – Sam Acho’s life is encapsulated in one of his favorite quotes from the Christian rapper Lecrae.
“I don’t want to be a celebrity; I want to be a servant.”
Acho can’t help the former. He’s an NFL player, and a good one at that. But the Cardinals’ second-year outside linebacker is doing all he can do to stay true to the latter goal.
“A lot of times, people get caught up in things that aren’t as important, whether it be your reputation or your salary or your playing time,” Acho said. “It’s important to remember what your priorities are. Once you realize what your priorities are, you actually live your life that way.”
Acho’s priorities are simple. He wants to do God’s work. In esoteric terms, that means honoring his family while staying true to God’s will and word. In practical terms, it means a lot of local charity work through the team or on his own. But it also means an annual, two-week pilgrimage to his homeland of Nigeria with his parents, Sonny and Christie, and his brother, Emmanuel, a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns who is currently on injured reserve.
Each offseason, the Achos bring aid to Nigeria in the form of an ophthalmologist for cataract surgery, surgeons to repair hernias, optometrists to fit people with glasses, medicine for malaria and treatments for an assortment of other ailments.
Last offseason, Acho took teammate Calais Campbell with him on this annual mission of mercy.
“It’s eye-opening,” said Campbell, who grew up in poverty. “I didn’t have a terrible childhood, but there were times when we lived in the homeless shelter, and there were times when I was hungry.
“Over there, they’re always hungry. You take some of the less fortunate people here in the United States, and they’re living 10 times better than some of the most fortunate people over there.”
Acho’s parents were born in Nigeria, and his grandmother still lives there. His parents founded the Living Hope Bible Fellowship Church and the offshoot Living Hope Ministries to help provide important medical services in Nigeria.
Sonny Acho had the opportunity to further his education and moved to Dallas where Sam grew up, later playing for the University of Texas. But the Achos never forgot their roots or the needs of the people living back home.
“There’s a lot more going on in the world than we see here in the United States, and there’s a lot more poverty than you can imagine,” Sam Acho said. “My parents never really came out and said why it was important for us to give, but it was pretty obvious.
“When you see all the people of the village have to walk over a mile to the stream, get water in a bucket, take it back to the house and then boil it and wait for it to cool down so they could have drinking water, little things like that just tug at your heart.”
Acho admits that serving others provides a high like nothing he’s ever experienced on the football field. But it has nothing to do with his celebrity status, because that’s a non-factor in many parts of the world. While some Americans may still imagine Muhammad Ali walking the streets and towns of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) with fans chanting his name, or Michael Jordan being mobbed in China, the reality is different for most professional athletes.
“There’s no concept of celebrity,” Acho said. “You could be the biggest superstar and you go over there in a village and people don’t know who you are — and they don’t care who you are, quite frankly. They’re just happy that you’re there to help.”
Acho said Campbell did raise some eyebrows when he arrived, but not due to a suspicion that he was a famous athlete.
“They thought he was a giant,” Acho said, laughing. While Acho is a well-chiseled 6-feet-3, 257 pounds, he’s dwarfed by the 6-8, 300-pound Campbell. “They were like, ‘Whoa, is that Goliath?'”
Acho understands that, through his work, he can’t avoid calling attention to himself. But if that spreads the word and raises the funds necessary to help others, he’s OK with that reality so long as others don’t single him out for praise.
“There are bunch of guys on this team that do stuff that no one knows about,” Acho said. “They’re not about the media coverage. They don’t need people to see it in order to serve others.”
The Cardinals clearly view Acho as an asset.
“To (president) Michael (Bidwill) and this organization, what the players do in the community is an important part of it, and Sam obviously does a great job with that,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We’re lucky to have Sam, and I think this community is lucky to have Sam. He’s very unselfish and driven to try to help people be better in life.”
What that means for his post-football days, Acho isn’t sure. Nor is he worried.
“The Book of John says: ‘If you abide in me and my words abide in you, you can ask for anything you want, and you’ll receive it.'” Acho said. “I plan on going back in the offseason to start getting my MBA, but I don’t know what route my life will take me. It doesn’t matter because my plan is to do God’s plan. And my hope is that my plan won’t overtake God’s plan because my plan would just get in his way.”