For most players selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, one of the first things you hear them talk about is it being a dream come true, something they thought about as kids playing football in the backyard.
For third round pick Chukwuma Okorafor, who quickly said, ‘Call me Chuks,’ he didn’t even know about football when he was a kid.
Okorafor was born in Nigeria, and was raised for part of his life in Botswana, where the main sport was soccer. That’s all he knew. That’s all he watched. That’s all he played.
His family immigrated to the United States in 2010, settling in the Detroit area. It was a chance for a better life for them, a better job for his father, and a shot at the American Dream.
“I just had to adjust to different stuff,” said Okorafor. “I would say it was more the culture, but I don’t think of it as a huge difference.”
What he had to adjust to most, was a different sport. People were encouraging him to play football. It was a sport all the kids played, one that brought people together with a common love. And his first introduction to it, was watching the Steelers play the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
“I knew nothing about football before that,” said Okorafor. “Nothing at all.”
Being new at the sport, playing tackle was about the furthest thing from his mind. Nope, he became a punter, utilizing the skills he knew from soccer to make the adjustment. But before he knew it, his body outgrew that of the average punter, and he was asked to play tackle his junior year of high school. He had already mastered a new country and a new sport, why not a new position.
“It was something different, just being able to know the plays and the technique and stuff,” said Okorafor. “It was something that took me a couple months, or a year or two to just kind of get used to.
“Once I tried football out, I’ve just loved it since.”
The move to tackle was probably as important a move for him as his family coming to the United States. He was offered scholarships to several schools, deciding on Western Michigan and knowing it was an amazing opportunity at a free education, not even realizing at first it could mean so much more.
Okorafor started three seasons at tackle, one at right and the last two at left. He was a first-team All-American selection by FWAA and Phil Steele, and a second-team All-American by Sports Illustrated. He was also one of six semifinalists for the prestigious Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s best offensive lineman. Not bad at all for a newcomer not just to the position, but to the sport in general.
And now, he is an NFL player, something he never could have imagined as a kid.
“Being able to hear my name called was something special,” said Okorafor. “When I got the call from Coach (Mike) Tomlin, it was something that almost felt fake. I watched the draft for a few years, then to hear my phone ring was something special.
“Then to hear from the fans. I saw how nice the fans are. I got all kinds of messages on Twitter, on Instagram just saying congrats and stuff, so that was pretty sweet.
“I am very excited to be here and just do what I have to do.”
That all started this weekend with the team’s rookie minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Okorafor and his fellow rookies will soon have the opportunity to work with the full squad when OTAs begin later this month.
“Coming in, being somewhat young, I’m only 20-years old, and being able to learn from the two tackles they have who have been in the league for a while,” said Okorafor. “So just being able to listen and learn from them definitely counts.”
And while he doesn’t have a preference as to whether he plays left or right tackle, he said he does feel more comfortable on the left side just because of experience.
“I played it the past couple years, but it doesn’t really matter to me,” said Okorafor. “Being able to prove I could play right tackle and also play left tackle that kind of was a plus. It’s time to just learn. It’s me just putting my head down and getting to work.”