ERWIN, N.C. (WNCN) — Michael Okoye knows in a moment everything can change. For him it happened not once, but twice.
“I still remember the day like it was yesterday,” he said.
Four years ago Okoye was a long way from North Carolina.
He was playing basketball for his school in Nigeria, when an opportunity came to play ball at Cape Fear Christian Academy in Erwin.
“I can get a better quality education than I had in my country. It was mainly for education, then basketball is something else added into what I can do,” said Okoye.
The first few months were hard. Okoye eventually found his stride living with host parents Holly Hudson and Donnell Knewkirk, whose children also played basketball at CFCA.
Hudson says Okoye became part of the family.
“It was really we go to school, we go to practice, we come home, we eat, we sleep,” said Hudson.
By the end of Okoye’s freshman year at CFCA, top colleges started taking notice of the power forward.
“That made me feel better. I can get to the highest level, which is my dream. Highest level of basketball I can in the United States,” said Okoye.
But in January 2017, that all changed when Okoye was injured playing for CFCA in a tournament.
“The point guard from the other team, he was chasing me down,” said Okoye. “When I dunked the ball, I tried to avoid him, and I landed wrong.”
As an international student, CFCA provided medical insurance for Okoye.
However, at the hospital, Hudson and Knewkirk learned that insurance did not cover sports-related injuries in a school setting.
“It became a tug of war. I would talk to the school and ask have they heard anything? Is there new insurance we could file? Is there something different you found out? And we got no response. No help,” said Hudson.
Months passed. Finally, Okoye’s coach found a doctor to do an MRI for free. Okoye was diagnosed with a partial tear in his ACL, but with no money for surgery, he tried to recover on his own.
“My goal was not to give up,” he said.
Almost a year after the initial injury, Knewkirk and Hudson say CFCA approached Okoye to play again.
“I was excited, but the other part of me was like ‘I am not sure you are ready.’ I could feel some movement in my knee that I knew shouldn’t have been happening,” said Okoye.
Okoye didn’t play that season, and moved in with a new host mom, Christie Ross.
“Michael is a blessing,” Ross said.
In the fall of 2018, Okoye returned to the court.
Ross said she didn’t realize the extent of Okoye’s injury until December 14, 2018.
“That day the coach was pushing him, as far as if you want to be seen. The team that they were playing would probably have recruiters watching them, which would mean Michael would get seen. He needed to bring it,” said Ross.
Ross cheered on the team against their biggest rival, Northwood.
“I was going up to grab the rebound. When I came down, the dude behind me from the other team, he kind of pushed me a little bit,” said Okoye. “I knew right away it was the same issue.”
“You’re watching him on the ground thinking ‘oh my gosh. This is his senior year,'” Ross said.
Ross took Okoye to the hospital, where an MRI revealed a complete to partial tear.
Since Okoye turned 18, Ross says all the medical bills are in his name.
This January he had surgery to repair his ACL, nearly two years after the initial injury.
“He should have had the surgery a year and a half ago and he could probably be looking at D1 college again, that were approaching him before. It’s disappointing, it’s disappointing. This is a Christian school,” said Ross.
CFCA’s head of school Karen Parker, denied CBS 17’s request for an interview.
In an email, Parker said CFCA does not recruit foreign students to play for its teams. Parker did admit to the lapse in coverage with the insurance.
“The policy purchased does cover a plethora of reasons for a doctor’s visit, and injuries related to sports outside of the school setting. The policy, however, denies coverage of sports-related injuries in the school setting,” Parker wrote in an email.
According to the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association, each member school governs their own student/athlete insurance policy.
Okoye’s options for college are limited, but he’s hopeful.
“I believe God has a bigger plan, if I’ve been through all this for the past two years. I have learned a lot. It made me realize God has a reason why all this happened to me,” he said.