Texas Alumnus Sam Acho Builds Hospital with Family in Nigeria
- Jul 28, 2023
- Alex Briseño
For as long as he can remember, former Longhorn football star and McCombs School of Business graduate Sam Acho visited Nigeria during every Christmas break to see his extended family.
Years before Acho dedicated his life to philanthropy, professional football or his later career as an author, public speaker and sports analyst, these annual family trips to his parents’ home country broadened his perspective from an early age.
“When you think of a village, it was exactly that,” said Acho, who was born and raised in Dallas. “There were no lights, no running water. People would walk with kerosene lamps in order to get around at night. Initially, when I first went, people would go to a stream to bathe, to wash clothes, and people would fetch water for us to drink. We would figure it out.”
Here is what Acho didn’t know: His parents also returned to Nigeria every summer to do medical work in the village without Sam and his brother Emmanuel, who played at Texas during the 2008-2011 seasons before also reaching the NFL.
During these two-week mission trips, his parents helped treat thousands of people, working alongside other doctors, nurses, surgeons, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, ophthalmologists and pediatricians.
“They’d go to these ‘hospitals’ — I use quotes because they were really just abandoned buildings in the village — and they’d give out free medical care,” Acho said. “I didn't know this was happening until my parents said, ‘I think you're old enough to join us on these trips.’ ”
Through these experiences, Acho learned lessons on life that he would later apply during his time at The University of Texas at Austin, in the NFL and beyond. More than a decade after his first mission trip, this understanding also led to a full-circle moment when the opportunity presented itself to build a hospital in Nigeria with his family’s foundation, Living Hope Christian Ministries.
Acho was 15 years old when he joined his parents on a medical mission for the first time. From his annual visits, he thought he’d had a clear idea of what life was like in the village compared to his life in the United States. What he hadn’t seen, though, was the level of despair within the community, made evident by the thousands of people lined up outside of their makeshift hospital every year.
“Some people got so desperate that they’d walk up, pull down their pants and say, ‘Look at how huge this hernia is! I need help immediately!' ” Acho said. “We had people with cataracts who could barely see, coming to the ophthalmologists, asking, ‘Can you help me?’ ”
Acho added, “I was 15 years old. Obviously, I am not a doctor. I was just a kid. I was kind of big because I was a football player, so my job was crowd control, and I also escorted people up and down to their rooms.”
These years of service sparked an idea in his father, Dr. Sonny Acho, the founder of Living Hope Christian Ministries. Dr. Acho envisioned a world where they could expand the care they provided by building a permanent hospital to help local health care professionals meet the overwhelming demand.
“This was the dream and vision of my dad,” Acho said. “We’d go for two weeks and treat as many people as we could — thousands of people — but we would leave, and people still needed help. We just knew or felt that something else could be done.”
Though he was just a teenager when he started joining his parents on mission trips, Acho continues to value the life-changing experiences he encountered and often thinks about one specific turning point from his first mission trip.
“I met another boy in the village and we were just playing soccer, having fun,” Acho said.
While they were playing, Acho asked, "Hey, what's your name?”
“My name is Samuel,” the boy replied.
“Oh, that’s my name, too!” Acho said, who towered in size over his new friend.
“I asked, ‘How old are you?’ because I thought he was maybe eight or nine years old, based on his size,” Acho said.
Samuel replied, “I’m 15.”
“Talk about a paradigm shift,” Acho said, referencing his shock and sudden understanding of the conditions people faced in the area.
In expressing his gratitude for this friendship, Acho explained that the opportunity to immerse himself in this community broadened his global perspective, allowing him to see firsthand a world outside the U.S.
“The best thing about my experience with Samuel wasn’t the fact that I felt this sense of privilege of being in the U.S. I actually felt more discouraged for me, because Samuel, who didn’t have a whole lot in this village, seemed to have 100 times the joy I did. It just reminded me that I needed to open up my eyes.”
As Acho returned to Dallas with a changed perspective, he also started to gain traction in the college football world. That momentum led to an official UT Austin scholarship offer for Acho, who at one time wasn’t convinced he could play at the college level, let alone the NFL.
“It wasn’t a dream,” Acho said. “Oh, me of little faith. It wasn’t even an idea.”
But, he added, “All of a sudden, opportunities started to arise to go play football in college. I chose Texas not only for the McCombs School of Business and the honors program, but also then-head coach Mack Brown and his wife, Sally. They’re amazing. It was a perfect fit.”
In addition to the success he found during his college football career spanning the 2007-2010 seasons, there were three key lessons Acho learned off the field that went on to play significant roles in his life.
Juggling football, school and a social life required precise time management skills, while discipline equipped him with a blueprint for success with his football career and the pursuits that followed it. But going into his junior year, Acho also realized the value of belief — specifically, believing he had the potential to get to the NFL.
“For me, that was another turning point in my life,” Acho said.
That mindset helped Acho earn a starting role on Texas’ 2009 squad, which won a Big 12 title before making an appearance in the national championship.
After four years, Acho left Texas as one of UT Austin’s most-decorated Longhorns, both as a student and an athlete. The two-time Academic All-American earned the 2010 Wuerffel Trophy, a national award honoring the college football player who best exemplifies community service and leadership achievement on and off the field.
Acho was recently honored for his extensive resumé and global impact in September 2022, when he was welcomed back to campus to be inducted into Texas Athletics’ prestigious Hall of Honor.
A few months after his final season with Texas, Acho was selected by the Arizona Cardinals with the No. 103 overall pick in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, followed by a nine-year professional football career.
“Those are the three main lessons — time management, discipline and belief — that I took with me to my NFL career, then to my ESPN career and now, even as I write and speak publicly. What I learned at Texas, I’ve carried with me all the way up until now.”
Changing The World
Acho continued making annual trips to Nigeria as he progressed through his pro football career, bringing players and coaches from UT Austin and the NFL to see the work his family’s foundation was doing.
After working for years in an abandoned building-turned-hospital, Acho’s father was putting into action this plan to build a permanent medical facility. Living Hope Christian Ministries would soon provide the community with year-round medical care and create jobs for Nigerian doctors and nurses.
First, though, they needed to raise more money. They had the funds to break ground but not quite enough to complete the construction.
In 2016, the family took a leap of faith and started building. As luck would have it, Acho was nominated later that year for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which recognizes one player from each team for their civic and on-field production.
The award typically came with a $5,000 donation to a nonprofit of the recipient’s choice, but that changed in 2016, when the organization gained a title sponsor and bumped the award amount to $50,000.
“When did I get nominated for this award?” Acho asked. “It was just months after we said ‘Let’s build.’ So that $50,000 went straight to Living Hope Christian Ministries, which went straight to the hospital.”
One year later, Acho earned the nomination again, totaling $100,000 in donations toward constructing the hospital. Emmanuel, who was selected in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, also helped organize charity events with fellow players from various NFL teams.
In addition to support from former teammates and the UT Austin community, former Texas football head coach Mack Brown spoke at charity events in Dallas to help raise money for the foundation.
“Mind you, while we’re doing all this building, people from Nigeria are hearing and seeing this,” Acho said. “When people from America who left Nigeria would come back and visit the community, they’d say, ‘I want to help put a roof on this.’ Even my teammates from Texas and the NFL would come on these trips and say, ‘I want to help. How can I help?’ ”
In June 2017, the Acho family again returned to Nigeria. This time, they came not only to provide care but also to celebrate the completed hospital, which they named the Living Hope Medical Center.
The facility remains open year-round, allowing Nigerian and U.S. health care workers to accommodate the community’s needs while sharing knowledge, building relationships and bringing to life what was once just a dream.
“It's this huge hospital, allowing health care workers to come year-round, and other people are coming from different villages, as well,” Acho said. “It’s just been amazing to see. You talk about UT Austin’s slogan, ‘What starts here changes the world’? Well, one person’s dream — or one person’s faith, or one person’s belief and action — can, in fact, change not only your community, but the entire world.”