Alston (#24) and Anfernee (#26) Orji are anchoring the Vanderbilt defense this season. (Emery Little)
Alston (#24) and Anfernee (#26) Orji are anchoring the Vanderbilt defense this season.

Emery Little

‘Instant chemistry’: The Orji brothers bond on the field is rooted in family and perspective

By following the example of their parents and adhering to the values of their Nigerian heritage, Alston and Anfernee Orji are becoming true Vanderbilt men on and off the field.

November 4, 2020

When Vanderbilt linebacker Alston Orji arrived on West End, football was certainly on his mind. After all, as a former four-star recruit, he committed to Vanderbilt in order to play in the premier athletic conference in the country, the Southeastern Conference (SEC).

But at the forefront of his decision to become a Commodore was not the tackles he may make in the black and gold or the wins that he would be a part of in Nashville. Instead, the former Rockwall High School (TX) standout pondered which of his many offers would embrace the values that he had grown up with. 

It was these values that helped him perform as an Honor Roll Student at Rockwall. It was these values that taught him to dedicate himself to everything he took the time to do. It was these values that he fostered during family visits and mission trips to his parents’ native country, Nigeria. And it was Vanderbilt and Coach Derek Mason that he knew would not lose sight of who he was off the field.

“When I first came here, I had conversations with Coach Mason a lot about becoming a better man,” Alston told The Hustler. “There weren’t a lot of head coaches out there interested in Alston the man. They were more interested in the linebacker. And while football is a lot of my identity, I really needed a coach who was going to push me to be more than just a football player.”

More than just a football player. That is a phrase Alston’s parents, Willy and Mariam Orji, sought to ingrain in each of their three sons, Alston, Anfernee and Alex, who is still in high school. Despite their God-given athletic abilities, despite the dozens of world-renowned universities that came knocking on their door, and despite the opportunity football may provide them, the Orji brothers were expected to work hard off the field as well.

“Raising our kids, it was very important [that] it wasn’t about sports,” Mariam Orji told The Hustler. “I told them they are smart because they are, and prior to becoming very good in sports, it was important for them to understand that they should be able to get a scholarship. And for me, it was always an academic scholarship.”

Therefore, when it became time for their second son, Anfernee, to make his college decision just one year later, it was no surprise that he ended up alongside his brother at Vanderbilt, cementing the Orjis as Vanderbilt football’s next great brother duo.

“I have more of a connection with him so I know what he is going to do, I know he is going to do his job,” Anfernee said. “It’s just like second nature, every other year or every year I am playing with my brother.”

But to fully appreciate this brotherly connection, one must understand the roots of the Orji boys’ passion for football and drive for success, roots nourished by their role-model parents and a hint of perspective. 

The ‘Man-Child’ and ‘The Professor’

When Anfernee was seven years old, not one member of the Orji family was familiar with football. Despite his love for athletics, even Anfernee’s father Willy admits that he did not know much about the game when his son was invited to try out for the Rockwall Yellow Jackets Pee Wee Football team.

“He came home with his backpack as usual, and one of the other parents had put a note for us in Anfernee’s bag about wanting Anfernee to play in their Pee Wee league,” Mariam said. “And I remember reading it and talking to his dad about it and I said, ‘What is this?’ because I didn’t know anything about football at that point.”

Willy and Mariam allowed Anfernee to try out and, quickly, Willy recognized not just the entertainment value of the game but the fundamental life lessons that came from it.

“What they were doing to teach the kids things about life, not just football, interested me a lot,” Willy said. “So I went to learn about football myself and eventually joined the coaching staff and tried to help do whatever I had to get the kids going.”

As a big and athletic seven-year-old, Anfernee quickly fell in love. The ‘Man-Child’, as his coaches began referring to him, remembers welcoming the physicality of the game and appreciating its team-oriented nature.

“Being able to help other people is the reason I fell in love with it [football] and just being able to be physical. You can do stuff you can’t really do outside of football,” Anfernee said.

But Alston was not so quick to adopt his younger brother’s love for football. Instead, as Anfernee wreaked havoc on the grass, Alston kept his nose in his books. 

“Alston was more of a bookworm. He would go to Anfernee’s practice and would take his books with him,” Mariam said, laughing. “He would be the only kid sitting on the sideline reading his book while the other kids are running around playing”

But thanks to a slight push from his loving mother, Alston joined his brother on the field and found a similar passion for football. And much to the delight of his parents, he did not abandon his books, embracing his coaches’ much different nickname, ‘The Professor.’

“I remember the day I told him ‘you know what, put the books away for a second, just put them away for a second. We are going out to the field, you go play like all the other kids’,” Mariam said.

When the two eldest Orji boys finally took the field together, football became a true family affair, and everyone bought in. But unlike many parents, Willy and Mariam were learning alongside their sons, quickly picking up on the intricacies of the game, slowly realizing the opportunities that it may create down the road for their sons.

“It became a family affair. My wife, myself, and then the three boys all kind of got immersed in football,” Willy said. “I realized that God blessed them with physical abilities.”

Their growth was rapid. With the intelligence to back up their incredible physical gifts, the legend of the Orji brothers quickly grew. And despite fighting over clothes and food at home like typical brothers do, Anfernee and Alston formed a special bond on the field.

“I remember one time in Pee Wee,” Alston said. “I picked up a fumble, and I started to slip because it was rainy and muddy. And my brother actually caught me and picked me up, and we ran to the endzone together. It was just insane. We have been doing stuff like that since day one.”

But just as any other talented duo of brothers, there was certainly competition between the Orji boys. As the premier players on Rockwall’s defense, Alston explained how they were often pitted against each other in what Mariam explained as “iron sharpening iron.”

“I wasn’t always so aggressive, so they would have to get me angry, and the best way to get me angry was to tell me my brother was better than me,” Alston said. “Of course, he thought he was better than me, so we would go at it in practice, and it eventually made us better.”

As they progressed through high school, the offers quickly came pouring in thanks to their stellar play at Rockwall and their high athletic ceiling. On the field, the Orji brothers were tackling machines, each racking up over 85 tackles their senior seasons en route to four-star status, according to Rivals. 

With offers pouring in, the stresses of recruiting can be overwhelming. Between the phone calls, recruiting visits and constant courting, what kept both the Orjis grounded was perspective and a firm commitment to their family values.

Knowing Where You Come From

Willy and Mariam Orji immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in 1987 and 1996 respectively, both seeking opportunity and higher education. Willy, a computer engineer, and Mariam, a doctor, met at the University of North Texas and began a fruitful life in the United States. That fruitful life was in large part thanks to the values and work ethic instilled in them by their Nigerian heritage.

“As an immigrant, obviously, there were certain things about my growing up that I didn’t like. But there were also certain things that I wanted to teach my kids about my heritage,” Willy explained. “Respect for others, respect for your elders, perseverance and things like that I learned growing up.”

Both Willy and Mariam were tremendous role models for their sons. But in addition to the lessons gleaned simply from their example, the Orji brothers were exposed to their family heritage through regular trips to Nigeria. At just three months old, Alston made his first journey halfway across the world, and all three Orji boys have now become incredibly familiar with the culture that shaped their parents.

But it took time for Anfernee and Alston to fully appreciate this worldly opportunity to explore Nigeria. In their youth, the nearly 24 hours it took to travel to Nigeria was overwhelming. And leaving behind McDonald’s and video games during the summer was, admittedly, difficult. Even deeper was the feeling of insecurity that, at times, came with their African heritage. In a society so dominated by American culture, Alston recalls being shy about his Nigerian ancestry throughout his youth.

“Growing up, African culture wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today. It wasn’t one of those things people were looking to experience for themselves,” Alston said. “I kind of ran from it myself because I felt like that would be labeled as weird, as different.”

However, as they matured, they found deep respect for their Nigerian ancestors and the hard work of their parents. And one particular experience provided them reason to not only be proud of their Nigerian heritage but to also expand their connection with it.

In 2016, the Orji family traveled to Nigeria with a fellow family of talented football players and Nigerian parents, the Achos. The families conducted a mission trip to Nigeria and Alston and Anfernee were able to work side-by-side with Sam and Emmanuel Acho, former NFL players dedicated to serving the home of their ancestors.

“Seeing guys who are well-accomplished doing the sport I want to do, and also Nigerian and embracing it and loving it, it made me want to love it too. And [it] made me want to idolize the way they do that,” Alston said. “After they kind of opened my eyes to it, it became something I wanted to really dive deep into.”

“Going on that mission trip, seeing NFL dudes there, it’s a good feeling. You know you are doing the right thing. And you can grow up, and you don’t have to stop,” Anfernee echoed. “You can keep doing it, even when you get in the NFL.”

The connections they made with their ancestry and the perspective they gained from their trips to Nigeria solidified the Orjis’ commitment to hard work and success and has given them a deep appreciation for what they have here in the United States.

“Part of it [trips to Nigeria] is to see how, now that they are older, opportunity is so critical. They are in college because they are fortunate to have played football,” Willy explained. “Whereas people who are probably more talented than them back home in Nigeria do not have that opportunity, because it does not matter how great they are, nobody cares.”

‘We are going to make a man out of you’

For the Orji boys, the fit at Vanderbilt was obvious. Coming from a household driven by hard work, commitment, education, and respect, West End was truly the perfect place for Alston and Anfernee. But—maybe surprisingly—it was not solely these factors that had Willy and Mariam ready to hand off their boys. It was the people and the culture.

“The culture of ‘we are going to make a man out of you’,” Willy explained. “My feeling is that what football teaches is not so much of wins and losses, it goes beyond that. It’s developing men; it’s getting the education that will help you after football.”

One story in particular stands out for Willy from Alston’s recruitment process. And it involves Coach Mason’s staff and specifically, former Commodore linebacker and linebackers coach, Chris Marve.

“Chris Marve, who was recruiting Alston then, one of the greatest people I can tell you in recruiting circles, really spoke to me,” Willy said. “He looked at Alston and said, ‘If you come here to play for me, I am not promising to be your friend. I am promising to make the best of what you can do.’ I cried. I literally cried in that room because it’s like having another father with my son.”

Little did Willy know, just one year later, Alston’s Vanderbilt family would continue to grow, as he welcomed Anfernee to Nashville. And finally, this year, the Orjis are making an impact on the field. The two have combined for 31 tackles while lining up alongside each other and continue to grow into the Vanderbilt men their parents hoped they would become.

“Amazing. That’s the only word I can use, is amazing. They started playing right away together, and at Rockwall, the two of them became kind of a feature. There are going to be these two Orji boys, both of them on defense, and I didn’t think it would also happen at Vanderbilt,” Willy said proudly. 

“This year, for the first time, when I saw them start together, I just had to give it to God and say thank you.”

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