Okorafor is beating the odds

A tweet from Chukwuma Okorafor this offseason summed it up best.

It's a tweet that he has pinned at the top of his timeline.

What an amazing journey it’s been for the young Steelers offensive lineman.

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.

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.

Being new at the sport, and with a strong soccer background, he became a punter. 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.

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, 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, was a first-team All-American selection by FWAA and Phil Steele, and a second-team All-American and was 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 just when he thought things couldn’t get any better, he was selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, played in 13 games as a rookie, starting three, including his first NFL game against the Browns as a sixth offensive lineman.

“The first couple of snaps against the Browns I was taking it step by step,” said Okorafor. “I was a little bit nervous. After that it was just football.”

There were some things to learn along the way though in making the jump from college to the NFL and everything that comes with it.

“I learned to take the ups and downs,” said Okorafor. “Whether we win, lose or tie, keeping it moving toward next week. Stay even keeled. I watched guys like Ramon (Foster), Maurkice (Pouncey) and Al (Villanueva). They were the same after a win or loss. They kept the focus on the next week.

“I also learned about the approach. Coming from college to the NFL, the speed, strength, everything is different. In college if you took a play off, you could get by. Here you have to be at your best every play, every snap, especially going against the guys you go against.”

Having a veteran offensive line worked in Okorafor’s favor in multiple ways. First, it allowed him the time to get adjusted and while he did see some playing time, he wasn’t thrown right into the fire. Second it provided him with the best resources anywhere to learn from.

“It is the best line in the league,” said Okorafor. “Pouncey, Dave (DeCastro) and Al all going to the Pro Bowl. Ramon has been so good for so long.

“Those guys would always work with us young players. Al worked with me a lot. With them and the coaches, they would let you know everyone does something a little different. Al can do stuff I can’t do. I can do stuff he can’t do. It’s working to see what the best fit for you is.”

This offseason Okorafor is focused on continuing his learning. Football in a sense is still new to him, and going to the next level makes him realize what he needs to work on.

“I need to work on my feet,” said Okorafor. “I need to be more physical and work on finishing more plays. Just work on everything overall.”

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