Spring 2021 Magazine

For ex-NFL LB Emmanuel Acho, serving Nigeria is an affair of faith and family

“Everybody wants to be the Black Panther until it’s time to actually save lives in Africa.”

These were powerful words to start a June 26 tweet. And they could have been self-directed in an age of hashtag activism and hollow #ThoughtsAndPrayers.

But anyone who knows Emmanuel Acho knows that the man behind those words is not interested in a digital facade of righteousness. And anyone who knows what he and his family have been doing since before he was a teenager know the Achos are not just a family of Texas football stars and NFL linebackers. In fact, cinematic hyperbole aside, they’re about as close to representing Wakanda as anyone.

Planting the seeds

In the 1980s, Dr. Sonny Acho, a mental-health professional and pastor of North Dallas’ Living Hope Bible Fellowship Church, found himself heartbroken on visits home to Nigeria alongside his wife, Christie. Childhood friends and family were dying, the couple said, “due to a lack of simple, over-the-counter medications” — all of which were commonly available in the United States.

So in 1989, a year before their son Emmanuel was born, the Achos teamed up with local church congregants, especially those with ties to medicine, to organize medical missions to their home country. In time, “volunteer doctors, surgeons, nurses, volunteers and pharmacists” joined forces to form Living Hope Christian Ministries and its Operation Hope, an annual service trip to rural Nigerian villages.

By the time Emmanuel was old enough to help, the seeds of service had already taken root. Living Hope now has an eight-person board of directors, including four doctors, his brother Sam and sister Stephanie. In June 2018, at 27 years old, Acho had lost count of how many times he’d been back to Nigeria.

“This may be somewhere between my 15th and 20th trip for the missions,” he told Sports Spectrum.

The NFL started taking note of Acho’s service during the tail end of his football career, which started with the Cleveland Browns and ended with the Philadelphia Eagles. Perhaps it was because he and Sam, who still plays for the Chicago Bears, made something of a dynamic off-field duo. (Both men also either won or were nominated for the Wuerffel Trophy, college football’s top community service honor, at the University of Texas.)

But playing superhero — or, more so, channeling the heroic servitude of faith — came long before his NFL days.

Serving the slums

Acho’s 2017 visit was particularly poignant, as it marked the opening of Living Hope’s own medical center, a facility that hosted something like 100 surgeries over the ministry’s two-week trip. And it’s been recent years where Acho, into his mid- and late-20s, has seen even more clearly why he chooses to flock to a less privileged world every summer.

“Man, there is no better way than to be in the slums, to literally be removed — disconnected — from society, from all the things we love in society: internet, television, fancy restaurants, comfortable beds and homes,” he said. “There’s nothing closer to living like Jesus than when you are in the villages of Nigeria and there is nothing but you, other people and God. It’s the closest way for me to live and serve like Jesus, in its most pure form.”

Now a college analyst for ESPN, Acho’s master’s in sport psychology doesn’t exactly translate to manning the operating room at Living Hope’s medical center. But when you’re called to serve, you’re called to serve.

Doctors, ophthalmologists and surgeons, Acho said, were like instruments of God’s hands as they removed hernias, cataracts and other ailments from more than 1,800 patients this June. And yet most of his own work — stemming from the seeds his family planted and the desire to make like his personal lord, Jesus Christ — centered on being. Being available to his team. Being vulnerable in an un-American society. Being ready to serve.

The result, he added, was akin to “full-time ministry,” to which he thinks every true Christian is called.

“In years past, we have seen a blind lady receive her sight, and that was incredibly miraculous,” he said. “But this year, really, more than anything, there was a spiritual healing. I saw my brother lead a group of boys to Christ, maybe around 10 years old, by handing them soccer balls, getting their attention and truly walking them down the Romans road (to salvation).”

Passing the baton

Acho still remembers the day he first accepted Christ as Savior and Lord of his life. He was 7 years old. He’d just heard a sermon using Romans 10:9:

“If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Once he got home, he ran around the neighborhood, yelling “Jesus is Lord!” at the top of his lungs.

But if his belief would’ve stopped at age 7, he wouldn’t have gone back to Nigeria, let alone approached his everyday life in the States, with the kind of compassion that’s introduced that faith to others.

Chief example: De’Vante Bausby.

Undrafted in 2015, Bausby is on his third NFL team in almost as many years, fighting to crack a full-time spot on a 53-man roster for the first time in his career. One offseason slip-up and those dreams could be shot. Yet, with precious few weeks in between spring practice and July’s training camp, when he’ll try to convince the Super Bowl-champion Eagles he’s worth a job, Bausby was in Nigeria this June for the third straight summer — the result of invitations from Acho and his brother Sam.

“It’s his make-or-break year, and the fact that he still sacrifices two weeks to fly across the country for people that aren’t even his own, his faith is impeccable,” Acho said. “He’s a servant’s heart, a lover of people … and still sacrifices his time, his training and his money to go all the way to Nigeria.”

For people like Acho and Bausby, going overseas to lend a hand isn’t a ploy to boost the name recognition of overlooked or forgotten careers in rather big-name fields. It also isn’t just a good-natured extension of Dr. Sonny Acho’s decades-old desire for better African healthcare. It’s a demonstration of faith values. A passing of a baton that’s made of hope, love and good news.

“Do you judge an apple tree by the way it produces apples?” Acho said. “It’s very easy to proclaim your faith, but it’s not until you truly see people living it out — not just publicly on Instagram, Twitter, but day to day — are (we) actually living like Christ as opposed to speaking about Christ?”

RELATED: NEW PODCAST: NFL Linebackers Sam and Emmanuel Acho

Building the Kingdom

Jesus does not promise sunshine and rainbows in Matthew 16:24: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” And there’s a connection to be made here: Much like denying yourself and taking up a cross guarantees some selfless paths, traveling to Nigeria to help those in need guarantees a bit more exertion than, say, the Disney World trip that costs the same in time and money.

Jesus does promise ultimate reward, though: The gift of love, sacrifice and salvation that had Acho shouting as a 7-year-old and had him losing count of his mission trips as a 27-year-old.

Today, he longs to keep shouting in a nation “where we are so easily swayed by public opinion.” That means “those who have strong beliefs in Christ have to stand for Him” and “cannot buckle for anyone — not your friends, not your family, not society, not your followers.”

But just as, if not more, important to Acho is putting those beliefs into practice, like in the villages of Nigeria. Even when his good deeds are misconstrued as the recipe for his own fulfillment.

“Temporary satisfaction can come as a label — ‘Oh, he’s such a good Christian guy.’ But true satisfaction comes when Christ is within you,” Acho said. “If you’re still trying to please man, as Galatians said, how can you please the most high, Jesus Christ?”

Acho, then, was never the Black Panther. He was never the king of Wakanda.

He is, however, following his King.

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