Francis Okupa, KweséESPN 22d

George Iloka on the Bengals, romance and Nigerian comfort food

Cincinnati Bengals

Born and raised in Houston to Nigerian parents, George Iloka had to talk his way into playing American football as a kid, but once he convinced his mom, he made the most of a college career at Boise State, and onwards to Cincinnati.

Now one of the premier safeties in the league, Iloka talks to KweséESPN about the Bengals' mixed season (3-4), his favourite players to watch, his time at school in Nigeria, and his melodic proposal to his fiancee.

Q: How did you get started playing football?

Iloka: I just liked it growing up. I saw it on TV and I asked my parents, 'Can I play?' They said no at first. My mom... because she was scared. I eventually convinced her and the rest is history.

Q: What was your favourite team as a kid?

Iloka: [Houston] Oilers. Until they switched [Moved to Tennessee]. Once they left I became a 'players' kind of guy.

Q: Who were your favourite players to watch?

Iloka: Barry Sanders, Sean Taylor, Ed Reed... I liked Troy Polamalu. Vince Young, Reggie Bush, Mario Williams. They were the greats, so [as a safety] you got to watch the film and see what things you can pick up, learn from them and see if you can put into your game.

Q: Who were your mentors during your first few years in the NFL [after being drafted to the Bengals in 2012]?

Iloka: Closest thing to a mentor was probably Chris Crocker and Terence Newman [former Bengals defensive backs]. They just talked to me about experiences, certain things that you learn from playing the game for a long time like they had. I learned something from everybody that was here, but those were the two main guys.

Q: What's the best advice you received about playing your position?

Iloka: Just play your leverage, and communicate.

Q: What has been your most memorable moment in the NFL so far?

Iloka: I had two picks against the Atlanta Falcons [in 2014] and I could have had four, actually. I dropped two. It's still memorable just because it's a good team, it was my second year, going up against Julio [Jones], me and him one-on-one and I made a decent play on the ball.

Q: What's your pre-game music as you head to the stadium on gameday?

Iloka: Z-Ro, Mo-City Don. That's it right there.

Q: Speaking of music, tell us about the song proposal you did this year. How did that come about?

Iloka: I knew that song for a while and I just wanted to do something special and I thought maybe a music video. I never thought about marriage -- as a guy you don't think about marriage until there's someone who makes you think about it -- so it wasn't like I was single the whole time and thinking of it [using the song for a proposal video].

Q: What are your thoughts on how the season has gone so far for for the Bengals?

Iloka: We're not where we want to be so we're not satisfied. Everybody could play better. Obviously if we all played better we'd have a better result right now, including myself. We all just got to look ourselves in the mirror and figure out what each of us can do better as individuals. If we collectively get better as individuals we will collectively get better as a team and have better results.

Q: Do you believe the eight games left this season will be enough to get on a roll and compete for the division or a wild card spot?

Iloka: We've got four losses. We just got to worry about us right now. Nothing's out of reach. We got to turn this ship around now because we don't want to widen that gap [between the Bengals and top-placed Steelers].

Q: Tell us about your background. Where in Nigeria are your parents from?

Iloka: My dad is from Olo [outside of Enugu] and my mom is from Enugu. I lived there for six months. I went to school there, with my sister, for six months. It was in Enugu, a boarding school.

Q: When was the last time you went back?

Iloka: When I left [school]. I got sick, that's why I left early. I was supposed to be there for a year or two but I got sick three times.

Q: Do you speak Igbo?

Iloka: I understand and speak a little bit. I know the basics but I can't understand it all.

Q: Do you have a go-to Nigerian food that you have whenever your mom is around?

Iloka: Pepper soup.

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