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‘It means everything’: Nigerian Patriots get a chance to honor their heritage and their immigrant parents

Three Patriots players — Nelson Agholor, Josh Uche, and Michael Onwenu (left to right) — have parents who immigrated from Nigeria to the US.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — Nelson Agholor immigrated to the United States when he was 5 years old.

Agholor, born in Lagos, Nigeria, and his family secured permanent resident cards through the US State Department’s Diversity Visa program, more commonly known as the “green card lottery.” His mother, Caroline, entered their names in the late 1990s in hope of being six of the 50,000 or so individuals randomly selected in a year.

Michael Onwenu can’t remember whether his father, Stephen, was 19 or 20 when he moved from Nigeria to the US, but he knows his father immigrated first, followed soon after by his mother, Roseline. Stephen attended school before becoming a corrections officer, while Roseline opened up her own business, selling traditional Nigerian clothes and accessories in Detroit.

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Josh Uche’s father was the first of his family to emigrate from Nigeria, coming over by himself and then enrolling in Southern University in Louisiana. He worked as a busboy at a diner before becoming an architect and bringing the rest of his family over.

Agholor, Onwenu, and Uche each has an appreciation for those journeys, as well as the sacrifices and hardships their parents experienced.

They know the path, riddled with language and cultural barriers, was far from easy.

Agholor’s parents took on multiple jobs to make ends meet, from his father driving taxis to his mother working at a nursing home. Onwenu, the youngest of his siblings, says watching his parents work while growing up kept him “as humble as possible.” Uche has had conversations with his father about the racism he encountered while living in the South.

On Sunday, the three Patriots and their teammates will have an opportunity at Gillette Stadium to pay homage to their roots thanks to a new player-led league initiative.

During Weeks 4 and 5, the backs of players’ helmets can feature the flag of an international country or territory if they lived there for at least two years, or if they have a parent or grandparent who were born there. According to the NFL, more than 50 nations and territories will be represented among the 200 participating players, coaches, and executives.

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“It means a lot to me,” Onwenu said.

“It means everything,” echoed Uche.

Nelson Agholor (left), Josh Uche, and Mike Onwenu were representing their Nigerian heritage during the Patriots game against the Packers in Week 4.Matt Lee/Globe Staff

For the trio, the green-and-white Nigerian flag symbolizes their shared heritage. They have spoken with their parents, to varying degrees, about the decisions to leave their homeland and everything that followed.

“It all stems from wanting to give their children a better opportunity at life, to do more,” said Agholor. “It gives me the confidence and strength to be proud of all that I accomplished.”

Added Onwenu, “Our parents instilled in us hard work, being truthful, and being appreciative for what you have. Usually people that are coming across, they’re coming for a better opportunity. They won’t let up a chance to tell you that, that they came here to give you a better opportunity.”

There are values from their upbringings that still permeate their lives today.

For Agholor, it’s the importance of community. He prays with his mother before every game and talks to his family daily. “It takes a village,” he says.

For Uche, it’s the importance of education. This offseason, he made the extra effort to earn his college degree from Michigan because he knew how much a diploma would mean to his father, who at one point pulled him out of football to focus on his studies.

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Despite the differing paths of their families, Onwenu, Agholor, and Uche have bonded over some of their shared experiences. They’ll playfully imitate their Nigerian fathers, who are known for being exceptionally strict.

“We joke about it all the time, walking out to practice,” said Uche. “We kind of do the African dad accent because we both know what that’s like. We crack each other up.”

Added Agholor, “It’s just something you have to grow up with. If you know, you know.”

They’ve also tried to explore Boston-area restaurants in search of authentic Nigerian food. But a home-cooked meal almost always wins out.

When Onwenu’s parents are in town, they’ll often prepare a dinner and invite the others. Agholor and Uche both love jollof rice, while Onwenu enjoys fufu, a dough dish made from pounded yams, and egusi soup, a rich, thick stew.

“If it’s not homemade, I don’t want it,” Agholor said with a smile.

According to the NFL, 25 of the 32 teams have at least one player sporting the Nigerian flag on the back of his helmet this weekend. The Patriots are one of eight teams with at least three.

Onwenu, Agholor, and Uche are certainly thankful for one another.

“Those are my boys,” said Agholor. “Those are my brothers.”

Added Onwenu, “We’re here to do our job, but we’re all family.”


Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @nicolecyang.