By TOM REED | dkpittsburghsports
Tim Conley’s first look at Chukwuma Okorafor came in the school gymnasium while the super-sized sophomore was playing ping pong. Needless to say, the Southfield High football coach had not left his classroom in the middle of the day to see whether the new transfer student had the makings to be the next Forrest Gump of table tennis.
For years, fellow teachers had been alerting Conley to the sight of large kids roaming the halls of the suburban Detroit school, wondering if they could help impact his football team. The coach often walked away from such meetings disappointed. Big did not necessarily mean athletic. Even those students who looked the part sometimes had no interest in playing.
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The Nigerian-born Okorafor was different in many ways. At age 14, he stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 230 pounds with room to grow. Just watching the youngster move around the ping-pong table, returning volleys, Conley could see the fluidity of motion, the supple hips. And, yes, Okorafor was keen on sports. In fact, he had played football for a Detroit city school the previous fall, serving as the team’s . . . wait for it . . . punter.
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“Chuks (pronounced Chooks) had grown up playing soccer in Africa,” Conley said. “All he knew was how to kick the ball.”
The football coach couldn’t wait to get Okorafor on the bench press and take him outdoors to throw a shot put. But there was a catch.
Conley’s future right tackle couldn’t take part in any extra-curricular activities until his mother saw his first report card in six weeks. This was non-negotiable.
Was the teenager a bad student? Was he academically ineligible?
No. It was just the opposite. Emilia and Nwammiri Okorafor had not moved from Nigeria to South Africa to Botswana to the United States in a seven-year span just so their four kids could excel in sports. To mom and dad, America represented an opportunity to get a quality education. Both parents were in the medical field and their oldest son was already in college.
“My mom and dad cared way more about schooling than football,” Okorafor said. “It was all about academics.”
This is a story about the education of Chuks Okorafor, the 23-year-old starting right tackle for the Steelers. It’s a tale rich with irony. While the process remains ongoing, the most pivotal two years of his athletic development came in his final two seasons at Southfield High.
Academics might have been the family’s focus, but mom and dad could not have placed their son in a better environment to overcome his shyness and transform into a draft-eligible football player — one who’s added to the proud legacy of Nigerians thriving in the NFL.
All Okorafor had to do was trust in his coaches and learn the difference between blocking and holding.
Reggie Wynns sits at a picnic table outside the football stadium and chuckles about the memory of Okorafor’s first high school practice at his old school, Mumford High, in Detroit.
“Chuks told me about the first time he put on the equipment,” said the assistant coach, who’s become an invaluable resource to the Okorafor family. “He had his shoulder pads on backwards and his thigh pads where his knee pads belonged.”
Unlike his new teammates, Okorafor had not grown up around the game. The first time he watched the sport was a year after arriving in the United States in 2010. The Steelers were playing the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Although the family had relatives in other parts of the country, the Okorfors moved to Detroit because his dad had friends living in the region.
In an effort to assimilate, the youngster tried out for football over the initial objections of his mother.
“After my sophomore year, my mom didn’t want me playing anymore,” Okorafor said. “She thought it was too violent. Someone from our church talked her into letting me play again. It was my mom just being a mom. She wanted me to be safe.”
His good friend Calvin Graves recalls Okorafor barely speaking during his first semester at Southfield, which has been renamed Southfield A&T High. Okorafor quickly adapted to his second language, but fellow students had difficulty navigating his thick accent. The new kid, as Graves remembers, mostly communicated with a series of grunts and head nods.
When it came to expressing his dissatisfaction with being switched to the offensive line, however, Okorafor could not have been more clear.
“He grew about two or three inches in the last few months of his sophomore year — it was ridiculous,” Conley said. “He’s like, “Coach, I just want to punt and kick.’ I’m like, ‘No, you are going to play tackle.’ He’s like, ‘Coach, I can play tight end’ and I’m like, ‘Chuks, we don’t have a tight end in our offense.’
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“Turns out, he didn’t want to be an offensive lineman because he was afraid of getting big and fat.”
Once they taught him the proper stance, the coaching staff marveled at Okorafor’s agility. Years of playing soccer had blessed him with good footwork. He was still learning technique, but the lineman already moved with the grace of the team’s college-bound left tackle.
Okorafor became an immediate starter. As he gained weight and an understanding of the game, Southfield’s new right tackle was beginning to manhandle defenders. He missed his share of blocks, which was to be expected, but what bothered coaches was his failure to grasp the concept of holding. Okorafor had a penchant for grabbing defenders and throwing them to ground.
Flags and obscenities flew.
“Coach would be like, “You can’t do that, Chuks” and he would be be like, ‘Why can’t I?’” Graves said laughing. “He was so strong. He would knock guys’ helmets off and shove them to the ground and look at them like, ‘Do something about it.’”
Wynns, who serves as the team’s video coordinator for recruiting, made a tape of former Southfield offensive linemen who played at the collegiate level. They sat together in the office and watched how good blockers rely on leverage and technique.
“A lot of the kids had been playing since they were 5- or 6-years-old,” Okorafor said. “For me, coming out of nowhere, I was trying to learn the whole game. Not holding was my biggest thing to learn about.”
IRON SHARPENS IRON
Conley was walking through the weight room one day when he spied Okorafor visiting with his brother, Ezinwanne. Judging by the size difference, the coach pegged Ezinwanne for an eighth grader.
Another Okorafor in the Southfield pipeline, Conley thought. The vision brought a smile to the coach’s face.
That’s when his right tackle broke the bad news.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get your brother out for football,’” Conley recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘No, Coach, he’s in college.’ ”
Nobody in the family can explain where Okorafor gets his size, which the Steelers list as 6-foot-6, 320 pounds. His father is the next biggest member of the clan at 6-foot-1.
“I honestly don’t know how it happened,” Okorafor said. “My mom is only 5-7.”
There’s no question size played a role in Okorafor’s journey from west Africa to the east side of the Steelers’ offensive line. But it was the daily grind Okorafor endured on the practice field that truly prepared him for college and pro football.
In 2013, you would have been hard pressed to find better competition than at Southfield High. Malik McDowell was a five-star recruit headed to Michigan State. Lawrence Marshall was a four-star recruit destined for Michigan. Both were imposing defensive linemen eager to challenge a blocker’s manhood.
Any sign of weakness or retreat could have sent Okorafor back to gym class and the ping pong table.
“Those were the kind of battles you normally see at a college practice,” said Graves, who played at Grand Valley State. “Those were big boys getting after it every day.”
Wynns remembers Okorafor becoming so enraged at McDowell that he choked the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder — a future second-round pick of the Seahawks.
Okorafor seldom met competition as fierce on game nights. Wynns said the mettle-testing practices hardened Okorafor’s resolve. Such mental toughness would be key once he arrived in Pittsburgh. Okorafor didn’t become a Steelers’ starter until this season. He also had to battle back from shoulder surgery after his rookie year.
“Chuks wouldn’t be who he is today without Malik McDowell and Lawrence Marshall — I guarantee you,” Wynns said. “There were college coaches who would come here and just watch practice to see them go after each other. It was unreal.”
MAN IN DEMAND
“I’ve never seen you, Chuks, but oh my God you’ve got an offer from me today.”
Those were the words of Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, as told by Wynns, when Okorafor walked into the Southfield coaches’ office during a Buckeyes’ recruiting visit. Meyer was primarily interested in speaking with McDowell, but another OSU assistant coach asked to meet with Okorafor.
It had been less than two years since the offensive lineman had learned to put a hand in the dirt and fire off the ball for the first time. Life was changing rapidly. His head coach routinely was returning phone calls from major-college recruiters on his way home from practice to discuss Okorafor’s progress. His team had more than 20 players accept scholarships, full and partial, during his senior year.
Among the most unforgettable moments in the recruiting process for the coaches was seeing former seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Lomas Brown talking to Okorafor after a game during his senior year. Brown, who played 18 NFL seasons, was working with a rival high school.
He was so impressed with Okorafor that he asked Wynns to see a highlight tape the assistant coach had uploaded to the internet. One call from Brown to his alma mater, the University of Florida, produced a scholarship offer three days later.
Okorafor is a bit sheepish when discussing the meeting with the longtime Lions’ offensive lineman.
“I didn’t know Lomas Brown, no offense to him,” Okorafor said. “I had no clue who he was.”
Maybe that’s because his family was relocating from Nigeria to South Africa when Brown retired in 2003.
In the family’s quest for a better life, as it shuttled around the African continent, the concept of scholarships was completely foreign. Higher education was a core value of Emilia and Nwammiri, and here were colleges lining up to offer their youngest son no-cost schooling.
Okorafor recalls clutching his first scholarship letter — it came from San Diego State following his junior season — and just staring dumbstruck at the paper.
“I didn’t think it was real even though I had it in front of me,” he said. “I didn’t know you could go to school for free because of a game.”
Wynns walked the family through the overwhelming process of picking a college. Despite serious interest from Power Five programs, Okorafor chose Western Michigan because of its proximity to home, his comfort level with the program and the presence of his brother, Ezinwanne, who was an upperclassmen there. WMU was one of the first schools to heavily recruit Okorafor as a junior.
Some outsiders could not believe he settled for a Mid-American Conference school when more high-profile offers poured in during his senior year. But two values that dominate his life are honoring his family and keeping his word.
(Okorafor asked to delay an interview with DK Pittsburgh Sports for a week out of respect to his mother, who was grieving the Sept. 29 death of her brother.)
“The first day I went to Western, it felt like home,” Okorafor said. “I’m a loyal person. If I say I’m going to do something, I am going to do it. I don’t like going back on my word, and I’m not someone who’s going to chase a logo.”
Playing football at Southfield helped Okorafor emerge from his shell. He’s still not much of a talker, but his popularity within the school and the football community grew dramatically in two years.
Okorafor was named to a prep All-Star game that pitted Michigan versus Ohio, and Conley could not believe how quickly his new teammates gravitated to him. Every good block, according to Conley, drew chants of “Chooooks!” from the sidelines.
“What I like about football is how it brings guys together,” Okorafor said. “It’s about a bunch of different guys coming from different places, whether it’s the same country or different country, and having the same goals and mindset.
“It’s crazy what football can do for you. I’m not just talking about myself. But seeing where people come from and where it can take you and your family is amazing.”
STRAIGHT OUTTA LAGOS
Becoming a third-round draft pick in 2018 exceeded Okorafor’s wildest expectations. Attending his first training camp at Latrobe with a fellow Nigerian took the experience to another level.
Steelers linebacker and special teams contributor Ola Adeniyi is one of Okorafor’s best friends. They met in college when Adeniyi played for MAC rival Toledo.
“I’ve known Ola for five or six years,” Okorafor said. “It’s just nice having someone around who knows where you are from. We will get together and eat food from our home.”
When Okorafor was learning the game’s fundamentals in Detroit, he had no idea about the lineage of Nigerian born players in the NFL. There are at least 30 fellow countryman who have played in the league with former Chiefs running back Christian Okoye being its most famous. That sum doesn’t include countless more first generation Nigerian-Americans.
Okorafor has met the likes of Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who he will face again next Sunday. Browns tight end David Njoku is so proud of the heritage that he greets fellow Nigerians on the field with a handshake he says originates from the old country.
“I always like to find out what it took for guys to get here,” Okorafor said of the Nigerian contingent. “There’s something special about it.”
His parents retuned home last December, but due to football commitments Okorafor could not make the trip. He plans to go back at some point.
The right tackle spent his offseason training to compete for a starting job. His first two games in that role have delivered strong reviews. Okorafor was excellent in the Steelers’ 28-21 win over the Texans in which he helped neutralize three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Ben Roesthlisberger has the league’s fourth-highest percentage of clean-pocket dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, a testament to the work of his offensive line.
Okorafor returns to Southfield whenever possible. Coaches said he’s visited with current players, and spent time lifting with them in the weight room.
Graves added that fame has not changed his friend, and that life’s simple pleasures remain his most cherished.
“If you want to get Chuks something he would really like, you would get him a custom-made ping-pong paddle,” Graves said. “I can still see him in the gym playing. Everybody else is playing basketball, running on the track, lifting weights, and there’s Chuks playing ping pong.”
Last year, Okorafor and the rest of his family became United States citizens, he said. The lineman has been in America so long that the magnitude of the event was a bit anticlimactic.
Okorafor doesn’t take his freshly-minted citizenship for granted, however. He knows how vital those first few years at Southfield were to his assimilation into the culture and what the mentorship of Conley and Wynns meant to his growth as a man.
“America has changed my life,” he said. “It’s given me so much. There’s nothing I could say bad about it.”
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