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Okorafor is living the American dream
Steelers' right tackle shows that hard work does pay off
By Dale Lolley  Nov 23, 2022

When the Steelers agreed to a three-year contract extension with right tackle Chuks Okorafor in the offseason, some expressed surprise Okorafor was still just 24 years old at the time.

After all, how could a player who had been with the Steelers the previous four seasons, including the last two as the starter at right tackle, be younger than some of the players entering the league in this year's NFL Draft?

But Okorafor has always been a little ahead of his time.

To see that, you only need to go back and look at his history playing football.

In 2013, the new coaching staff at Western Michigan had a junior day on campus.

One of the young visitors hadn't been playing football all that long, but he caught the eye of assistant coach Bill Kenney.

After all, there weren't many 6-foot-5, 270-pound 15 year olds walking around Kalamazoo, Mich.

Welcome to campus, Chukwuma Okorafor.

But Kenney, who had previously been a longtime assistant coach at Penn State, saw something special. And he couldn't wait to tell the rest of the staff.

"​​We saw him at a junior day in April," said then-Western Michigan offensive line coach Brian Callahan. "That was the first time we saw him in person. Bill Kenney, who is still at Western, he kind of gravitated to him immediately. As a full staff, we put on the full press. We offered him early."

Okorafor, who had been playing football for just two years after moving to the Detroit area with his family from the Republic of Botswana via South Africa via his native Nigeria, accepted almost immediately. He was just looking for a place to call home.

And with an older brother already attending Western Michigan, just a couple of hours down I-94 from where the Okorafor family had settled in 2010 in the Detroit suburb of Southland, Mich., offered that – as well as an education.

And education was extremely important in the Okorafor family.

"They were a Nigerian family. Mom and dad were very well-educated. They had lived throughout the world," said Callahan, now the offensive line coach at the University of Minnesota under former Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck.

"During the home visit with his mom and dad, his father is a pharmacist, he basically said, 'I don't care about football, but Chuks does. I care about his education.' We reassured him that would be a very important part of his experience at Western Michigan."

Bigger schools came calling later in the process, but Okorafor was true to his word once he decided he was going to attend Western Michigan to play football and, more importantly, continue his studies.

"Western Michigan was like my second or third offer," Okorafor recalled. "I felt like once I chose them, I couldn't go back on my word. I got a bunch of bigger schools that kind of came in late. But I felt like I was their second or third choice. That didn't really sit too well with me."

It was bad news for Iowa, Florida, Oklahoma and the others that came late to the party. Okorafor was staying close to home.

His word was his bond.

To understand what a remarkable thing it was for Okorafor to reach that point in his career, understand that he didn't start playing football until he was a sophomore in high school. And even then, he was a kicker and punter – paying homage to the soccer he played in his younger days – in his first season at Southfield after being talked into going out for the team by a high school coach.

"I was in class and the coach was like, 'Hey, you want to come and try out?' I had no clue what football was. I was like, 'Cool, let me go try out.'" Okorafor recalled.

Well, that might not be completely true.

"I knew what football was, but I didn't know anything about it," he said. "It kind of just happened."

How big was the now 6-foot-6, 320-pound Okorafor at that time?

"Probably like 6-4, 270, 280 pounds," Okorafor said with a smile.

Big enough that the Southfield coaching staff began working overtime on the side with him to teach the youngster how to play offensive line.

Even after playing on the offensive line for two seasons at Southfield, Okorafor was understandably raw. But he had a thirst for knowledge and a will to get better.

"He showed up, he was very young for his class, he turned 17 in fall camp of his freshman year," Callahan said of Okorafor, whose birthday is in early August. "Obviously, he was raw to the game. But he wasn't afraid to ask questions. Coaching somebody with that ability, but not really having a background in the game like most of us that grew up, there were certain things he just didn't know.

"I would ask the group, 'Does everybody know what a draw is?' Chuks would raise his hand, 'No coach, what does that mean?' I would say, 'We're going to fake like we're throwing the ball and we're going to hand it off to the running back.' Those kind of little things would come up from time to time."

But Okorafor was a quick learner.

He appeared in all 12 games for the Broncos as a true freshman. The next season, he moved into the starting lineup at right tackle, moving future Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Taylor Moton to right guard.

The next season, when Willie Beavers, Western Michigan's left tackle, was selected in the fourth round of the draft by the Minnesota Vikings, Okorafor replaced him and Moton shifted back to right tackle.

It was in those days that Okorafor and Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane often banged heads in one-on-one and team drills.

"Chuks is a joy to be around. He works his butt off at practice on a day-to-day basis," said Spillane, part of the 2015 recruiting class with Okorafor. "We used to battle a lot more frequently at Western Michigan. He never backs down. I love that out of a competitor. He's a fun person to be around. He's fun to hang out around.

"Even at that point, you could see the athleticism in him. You knew he was going to be something really special. You could see his feet were light. He had a strong punch, long arms and a love for a game. I knew very early on he was going to be a special player for years to come."

Okorafor's athletic ability was going to allow him to be as good as he wanted to be. But to catch up to those around him, who had been around the game so much longer, he had to put in extra time.

It didn't hurt that Okorafor is extremely intelligent, a word everyone who knows him uses to describe him.

"That might be his best attribute," said Steelers first-year offensive line coach Pat Meyer, who has gotten to know Okorafor this season. "He is powerful and bendy, but his best attribute might be his mind. It's not just being smart, but he's a very intelligent kid. He gets it. He does study, but he doesn't have to study like some guys. Some guys have to have repetition, repetition, repetition. As a tackle, he's probably as good as I've been around in terms of his intelligence. You say, 'Hey, do this.' And he's good figuring it out."

Maybe that's because his childhood saw his family move around so much that Okorafor had to figure out how to adjust to different situations.As a youngster, Okorafor didn't understand why the family moved so often. He only knew he had to keep making new friends.

Now, 20 years later, he gets it.

"Looking back, I understand my parents were just trying to give us a better life," Okorafor said. "I can't complain about that. But it was for sure difficult to make new friends. You finally get used to living somewhere and then you move after a year. It was difficult. But everything happened well for me."

Largely because he used the talents with which he was blessed.

Okorafor was named first-team All-MAC as a junior in 2016, just five years after he started playing offensive tackle. The next season, his final one at Western Michigan, he was named a first-team All-America player by multiple publications. He was one of six semifinalists for the Outland Trophy.

When the Power-5 schools started recruiting him, there were promises of playing in the NFL. But when Okorafor started getting those kind of accolades later in his college career, he began to believe he had a future playing professional football.

"Every coach was like, 'If you come here, we'll make sure you make it to the NFL.' I didn't know if it was true or if they were lying to me," Okorafor said. "I was like, 'Cool, whatever.' After my third year (in college), I was like, 'OK, now there's actually a chance.' I didn't know how high I would go or how long I would be in the league."

But he knew he would give it everything he has.

Callahan knew early he had something special on his hands.

​​"We didn't have any doubt. We knew he would be that if he was what we thought he was personality-wise and work ethic-wise," Callahan said. "Obviously, that came to fruition. He's an extremely hard worker. He learned and developed. He did the work. We helped lead the path for him as a program. I'm very proud of what he's doing now."

That work ethic is something that has jumped out to Meyer as he's gotten to know Okorafor.

Okorafor took young left tackle Dan Moore Jr. under his wing in 2021 as the fourth-round draft pick learned the ins and outs of playing in the NFL as a rookie. It was something Okorafor, a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2018, didn't have to be as concerned with. He joined a veteran offensive line room led by the likes of Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, Alejandro Villanueva and David DeCastro.

But Okorafor understood how difficult it could be for a young player in the NFL, having joined the Steelers at just 20 years old.

Even if he had a little more experience under his belt, he and Moore both still have plenty to learn.

Okorafor and Moore stay after practice every day spending an extra half an hour or so going over whatever it is they need to work on that day.

"Chuks kind of took me under his wing and we started doing reps after practice," Moore said. "I think that's trickled down to this year. A few of the other guys have joined us. It's intensified a little bit, but that's OK."

Meyer has certainly noticed his two offensive tackles putting in that time.

"We practice hard and we demand a lot of reps from them in a row," Meyer said of the duo, who have both played every offensive snap this season. "That's part of being in condition. But they stay after practice every workday we're out here. They work on their craft and working different hand combinations or run-game stuff.

"They're doing that every day. It's a tribute to them. They're dedicated players. You have to have that to be successful. You can do the minimum. You have to do the extra for the average to become a good player, the good player to become a great player. That's what they have to do. They're working at it."

And Okorafor has taken it upon himself to try to make sure the Steelers offensive line comes together off the field, as well.

"He has taken on a leadership role just by the way he carries himself. He tries to group the o-line," Moore said. "We do stuff every week and he's usually the leader of that. I think he's definitely stepped into a leadership role."

That's not something that's necessarily a natural thing for Okorafor. He's not an outspoken person. He's quiet by nature, perhaps because so often during his childhood, he was the new kid in town.

But on this team, with five seasons under his belt in Pittsburgh, he's the veteran.

"I see him being more vocal. I know he's more on the quiet side by nature," said Meyer. "But he does express himself, which from what I gather might not have been the case in the past. He has taken on a more vocal role."

And he's taken it upon himself to make sure the offensive line, which included two new starters in guard James Daniels and center Mason Cole, has spent time together this season off the field.

Pouncey used to have weekly get togethers on Thursday night for the offensive linemen to watch film and have dinner together. Okorafor has done that with this year's line.

"I think we all learn from our elders and that comes with being the elder in the group," Meyer said. "I know they do get together. That's a good thing. It's good to have that camaraderie. They do something every Thursday together. They'll hang out, go to dinner, do something, just for camaraderie, to get closer, to get to know each other.

"Every year is a different group and there are young guys. They're all still young. Chuks has played a lot of football, but he's still a young kid. He's 25 years old. He played two years of high school and three years of college football at Western. He's young. He's still growing and still learning."

And getting better.

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