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Chig Okonkwo knows tomorrow is not promised
He lost his father, then suffered a heart condition of his own. Both events were traumatic, but both absolutely shaped everything we see out of the Tennessee Titans tight end today.
Forget playing football. Forget lifting a dumbbell or even running a mile at a leisurely 6 MPH pace on a damn treadmill. For six months — six excruciating months — Chigoziem “Chig” Okonkwo was more than quarantined.
He wasn’t allowed to even raise his heart rate.
When Covid tore through the country, he was stricken with myocarditis. Doctors were befuddled. The Maryland tight end couldn’t risk a racing heart, nor did he want to be around teammates. The virus was ripping through the Terrapins’ roster and — hell no — Okonkwo did not want to risk re-triggering everything he had just been through. So, the college junior embraced school, and school only. “Became a student,” he jokes.
Honestly, it wasn’t a daunting proposition considering this is the kid who didn’t dare bring home a “C” to his father growing up. Once in 7th grade, Dad found out his son had a “C” in math and immediately called up his basketball coach to have Okonkwo pulled off of the team until he improved this mark.
With time to kill, Okonkwo started taking extra classes.
Did Okonkwo like any of these classes? No. Not at all. But that doesn’t mean he loafed. This is precisely when he took the most difficult course of his life under a kinesiology instructor named Seppo E. Iso-Ahola. The professor was “old school.” The 12 students in this class didn’t even discover their grade until the final day. Thus, pressure was constant. Iso-Ahola had students read hyper-, hyper-scientific articles that were… dense. Beyond dense. In microscopic type. Thinking back, Okonkwo estimates there were a “billion” words on one page, and an article could last 28 pages. The articles were written in English but it might’ve well of been Dutch.
Class was held only once per week, but lasted three hours.
For those three hours, Iso-Ahola put students on the spot. Nobody could shift into autopilot. All 12 students were called on, so all 12 needed to immerse themselves into the material.
“I'm like, ‘Bro, this can't be a real class. This can't be a real class!’” says Okonkwo, pronounced oh-KAHN-kwoh.
It was very real. And wildly enough? Very fun, too. Okonkwo eventually realized how much this class applied to the love of his life: Football. One discussion focused around the idea of athletes choking under pressure — the power of the mind. When there’s so much at stake, he learned, certain individuals mentally shrink. Then, there was the concept of “flow state,” a lesson that’ll stick with the Tennessee Titans tight end the rest of his NFL career.
The more he learned about flow state — the psychology of being “in a zone” — the more Okonkwo realized he had entered this realm a handful of times as a football player. He felt so “invincible,” so “loose.” Okonkwo was so immersed into the game he wasn’t thinking at all. Only reacting. To everything. Oh, there were instances in which Okonkwo thought his professor was certifiably “nuts.” Certainly when he found out his final paper needed to be 20 pages long.
But he earned an A. He graduated in three years. He got back onto the football field, too.
Now, these Titans are hoping the 6-foot-3, 238-pound tight end feels invincible this 2023 NFL season. They’ll be leaning on Okonkwo’s life-and-death perspective. Specifically, the two events that forever shaped him. His father, who emigrated from Nigeria, suffered a heart attack and died when Chig was only 15 years old. A crushing loss. Charlton laid the foundation for his life. Five years later, Okonkwo had a horrifying scare of his own. Myocarditis easily could’ve ended his lifelong dream of playing professional football.
After a joint practice with the Minnesota Vikings this August, he takes a seat to reflect with Go Long.
“Those two situations, it just really shows you how — out of nowhere — life can just instantly change,” Okonkwo says. “So, you have to live every day to the fullest. I didn’t think my Dad was going to be randomly gone. When I finished one of my workouts, I didn’t think my season was going to randomly be gone. I’m over here trying my hardest to make it to the NFL. That’s my No. 1 goal. And then having to sit there and have those dark thoughts of, ‘Man, am I going to really be able to get back? Is this it for my dream that I’ve worked on for 15 years?’ But yeah, man, it really does put it into perspective for you how quick life can change.
“And that’s also the NFL too, is how quick life can change in the NFL. The league stands for Not For Long. And you’ve got to make every day count.”
So, that’s the plan in Nashville.
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Dad was strict — “super strict.” Lord knows Chig never, ever risked talking back. Many days, Chig couldn’t help but sigh and groan “Oh, my God!” Now, he sees Dad’s wisdom. Countless lessons stuck and he’s eternally grateful. Those lessons guided both Chig and his sisters who also earned free college educations.
Above all, Charlton stressed that hard work can get you anywhere in life.
Charlton grew up in Nigeria. He was a civil war baby. The poverty in his homeland was unlike anything we see in the states because countless people had nothing. “Truly nothing,” Chig stresses. Dad explained to son how nothing but hard work got him and Mom to America in the mid-90s. Chig was born in 1999 and grew up in Powder Springs, Ga. But he has visited Nigeria and seen this poverty his father spoke of firsthand. He learned that a lot of it had to do with how the country is managed. There actually is a lot of money and resources in Nigeria, but the disparity in quality of life is jarring.
In certain pockets of the country, you’ll see million-dollar homes. Elsewhere? “Slums,” Okonkwo says, “of pure nothingness.”
Seeing this all, the first thought that crossed his mind was, How in the world did my Dad make it out of this? To set up his kids with a better opportunity?
Next, he wondered if he would’ve been able to do the same. He’s not sure. But Chig Okonkwo does know he’s a direct product of his father. And that’s someone capable of sonic-blasting through hardships after everything that happened when he was 15 years old.
There was zero warning. This was no different than any other day. Okonkwo doesn’t remember his last substantive conversation with Dad. One night, his parents said goodbye and headed off to a restaurant for dinner. His oldest sister was in college. He and his middle sister — high schoolers — were at home. Suddenly, Chig’s older sister called in a panic. A total panic. “What’s wrong with daddy?!” she wailed. Chig was confused. He saw his father a mere half-hour ago. “Something’s wrong,” she continued, “something’s wrong.” As it turned out, their mother, Isioma, had called her from the restaurant moments after Dad collapsed with a heart attack. All she heard on the receiver was frantic screams.
When his aunt came to the house to pick him up, a bizarre sensation overcame Chig.
He accepted this loss. He was never in denial. Before even walking into the hospital, Chig had a feeling his Dad had died.
The news became official and Chig felt… “foggy.”
“Like a dream,” he says. “It was just like, ‘Bro, I just seen him an hour ago! And now he's laying here dead? How is this possible?’ So yeah, that shit was a dream.”
Time helps. Family, too. He’s thankful to get 15 years with his father when some of his teammates never had 15 seconds. Yet, he’ll never completely get over this loss. Every time Okonkwo sees a teammate chat with a father after a football game, it hits him that his Dad would’ve absolutely loved this journey. Charlton never even got to see Chig play in a high school football game. Son knows Dad would’ve been at every single one of his varsity, college and pro games.
Dad would’ve flown all over the country. From the stands, he would’ve looked down at No. 85 ramming through DBs and beamed with pride.
“That still gets me,” says Chig.
It’s also true that Dad’s spirit continues to live through Chig Okonkwo. Especially in 2020.
Especially after he started feeling chest pains of his own.
“That shit,” he says, “was even crazier.”
It was March 2020. A month none of us will forget.
School had just let out — and nobody could return due to the pandemic — so Okonkwo was spending some time with his girlfriend in Pennsylvania. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. Pain that then moved to his back. Okonkwo applied a heating pad and downed Advil, but nothing worked over this five-day stretch. Everything throbbed. And after initially refusing to go to the hospital, Okonkwo had no choice after getting his blood pressure taken. As he recalls, the readout was 160 over 100 or 120.
On the drive to the hospital, the pain intensified. Okonkwo didn’t panic because he didn’t want anybody else to panic, but couldn’t help by peel over in agony. Shortness of breath soon followed. (“I’m like, ‘What in the world?’”) Doctors swiftly administered an electrocardiogram and informed Okonkwo that this was the weirdest EKG they had ever seen in a 20-year-old. Next, he had an angiogram done. A catheter was inserted into his wrist to dye his heart and, no, doctors didn’t detect anything abnormal. This was strange.
Okonkwo stayed overnight at the hospital. The nurse in this ward told him he was the youngest patient she ever had. Not only that. The youngest person she ever tended to was more than double his age: 45 years old. Which wasn’t exactly the most comforting news for a kid whose chest was still hurting. Nor did it help to hear that this was not genetic. Further, Okonkwo had just finished up a winter training session with the Terps, and it was brutal. (“Why is this happening?” he asked himself repeatedly. “I’m at the peak health of my life.”) He genuinely was in the very best shape of his life. Or so he thought.
As it turns out, this was a side effect of Covid. Inflammation of the heart muscle. The doctors’ theory was that since many elite athletes already have enlarged hearts to increase aerobic capacity, more inflammation can over-inflame the heart. This was not vaccine-related — the vaccine wasn’t even out when Okonkwo suffered myocarditis. When he surfed around on Twitter, Okonkwo found that seven athletes had suffered from myocarditis. A few in college, a couple in the NFL, a baseball player.
It only fed more confusion.
“I was literally the first case,” Okonkwo says. “I was the first case in college football. I was Patient Zero. Whenever the doctors would go to their seminars and stuff, I was the case that they were using because I was the first person to get it and then recover.”
Football was out of the question that 2020 season, and doctors were strict.
Okonkwo could not exercise — period — for six months.
“Imagine someone who worked out every day of their entire life,” he says, “so literally doing nothing for six months straight.”
He ramped up his academics, learned all about flow state and could not wait for his shot to impress NFL scouts that 2021 season at Maryland.
Even if, uh, things didn’t begin as planned. Okonkwo can still remember his very first training session. After ballooning to 254 pounds, the tight end knew he’d need to lose 15 to 20 pounds but also that he could not slam the gas pedal. After being sedentary for six months, Okonkwo figured he’d ease into shape by doing some simple band and body-weight exercises. And… yikes. This felt like running a damn marathon. After the workout, Okonkwo went into the locker room and hunched over in extreme pain. Stomach pain. Off to the trash can he went to puke like he's never puked before.
“No matter how hard a workout was, I’ve never thrown up like that before,” he says, chuckling. “I was like, ‘This can’t be real. There's no way.’ Every day from that point on was just a grind. A grind to get back to where I was.”
Still, that’s exactly what he did. Okonkwo made it back. That 2021 season, he started all 13 games and caught 52 passes for 447 yards with five touchdowns. Those 52 grabs ranked second in school history for a tight end, trailing only Frank Wycheck (58) in 1990. His 447 yards were the most for a Maryland tight end since Vernon Davis (871) in 2005. As the first athlete of his kind with this mid-Covid heart condition, Okonkwo became a lab rat in pre-draft meetings with NFL teams. Everyone asked about his heart, constantly, and put him through stress tests.
The Tennessee Titans selected him 143rd overall in the fourth round.
Okonkwo believes everything he’s been through will continue to manifest into everything we see on the field. He flashed potential as a rookie with 450 yards and three scores. No play reflected his turbulent life quite like a 48-yarder on Sunday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs. He caught a quick screen from Malik Willis and, one by one, embarrassed eventual Super Bowl champions. Okonkwo first bowled through linebackers Leo Chenal and Willie Gay Jr., and then burst right through three more helpless red defenders into the open field.
You’ll probably see a juke or two this season. His inspiration in football has never been up for debate. It’s always been Reggie Bush. When he started playing ball in ’07, Okonkwo tried imitating Bush on the field with a flurry of cuts. He couldn’t get enough of his USC domination on YouTube. The clips were “mesmerizing.” Okonkwo calls the former USC running back the “greatest player ever” and demands the NCAA give the man his Heisman Trophy back — pronto. To him, Bush was no NFL disappointment. He points out that Bush won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints. And, after weeks of begging, Mom finally bought him a No. 25 Saints jersey that he proceeded to wear all the time.
Getting to the NFL was always his No. 1 goal in his life.
Before doing anything, Okonkwo started asking himself one question on repeat: Does this help me make it to the NFL? Yes or no? That’s why he quit basketball. Once Okonkwo got to high school, his football dreams started feeling real, and he sure as heck did not want to attend 7 a.m. basketball practices on Saturdays. So, he slept in. When his his basketball coach — who also happened to be his receivers coach in football — expectedly reamed him out in front of everybody, Okonkwo didn’t care. He stared at his coach. Didn’t say a word. Told himself, “I don’t give a f--k about this sport,” and certainly didn’t care that he was benched for a half.
He decided to ditch basketball, focus solely on football and, today, is now a needed weapon on these 2023 Titans.
A team that’ll stay in the playoff mix as long as Mike Vrabel’s the head coach.
Last week, Tennessee earned an uplifting 27-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. On paper, Okonkwo’s day seems tame: four targets, four catches, 35 yards. But on his 20-yarder, he carried All-Pro safety Derwin James on his back like a little kid. Astute observers might’ve noticed a bulky flak jacket underneath Okonkwo’s jersey, too.
Okonkwo absorbed a blow to the ribs earlier in the game, but didn’t want to come out.
As tight ends coach Tony Dews explains, all players are either in the midst of a storm, exiting a storm or about to walk into a storm. A reality Vrabel leans into when he speaks to his team. The head coach likes telling everyone — players and coaches — that adversity is part of life, and bound to reveal your character. No wonder the coaches have wasted no time relying on Okonkwo. He’s been through the fire.
“It usually helps you and makes you better in some way,” Dews adds. “There’s usually a lesson on the other side of it. As Chig goes through different things, obviously it's going to continue to build character in him, build mental toughness in him because he has the physical attributes.”
Okonkwo brings a unique skill-set. Dews starts with that YAC ability.
“He runs like the guys that are similar in his size,” he says, “like George Kittle. Like Sam LaPorta out of Iowa. Reminds me in some ways of Jonnu Smith when Jonnu had the ball in his hands. You think of traditional tight ends and even some of the H-backs that you see, some of the H-backs are a little linear, skinnier guys. Where the tight ends are the in-line tight ends or the big Y’s that don't run well and he's somewhere in-between because he's bigger than your traditional H-type of guy, yet he’s not quite built the way of a true in-line Y blocker.”
Dews describes his starting tight end as more of a “high-end H” who can run the entire route tree like a wide receiver. A modern player for the modern game.
The key, Dews believes, is figuring out exactly what Okonkwo does best and letting that shine.
If last week’s any indication, it’s probably any play that gets Chig Okonkwo the ball with a chance to then lower his shoulder. More short crosses, more screens. Anything that allows Okonkwo to wreak havoc in the open field because this is when urgency overtakes him. When the kid who lost his Dad and could’ve lost his own life treats a play like it’s his last.
After seeing the razor-thin line between life and death, he takes no practice, no workout for granted. When others complain about the heat or the intensity, Okonkwo cherishes it. Demands more. His only regret is that he wasn’t more “present” those 15 years he had a father. If he knew that’s all he’d get with Dad, Okonkwo would’ve made a point to sincerely embrace every second of every day. It pains him that he’ll never get those days back.
All he can do now is appreciate each day. Stampede through a defender or two and — he’s certain — teammates will want to follow his lead.
Inside the locker room, he’ll share his perspective on life with anyone who’d like to hear it.
“Be a leader,” Okonkwo says. “I’m trying to transition to becoming a leader on the team. Guys respecting me more. I’m trying to step into those shoes and really own that role. Speak up more instead of being the guy just doing the work.
“I’m trying to inspire guys.”
“FAVRE” returns Friday AM. Here’s Episode 1, icymi. (You won’t want to miss Episode 2.)
And speaking of tight ends, be sure to pick up a copy of “Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football” and/or can catch up on “Tight End Days” at Go Long from last season below:
The unrelenting grit of Dallas Clark, Go Long
New School vs. Old. Glitz vs. Grunters. Tony Gonzalez vs. Mike Mularkey, Sports Illustrated
How Mike Ditka changed football forever, The Dispatch
The Rise of Gronk, Buffalo News
Yo Soy Fiesta!, NBC Sports Boston
Jimmy Graham becomes a Saint, NOLA.com
Tears & Beers: How Jackie Smith found himself, The Read Optional
The alter egos of George Kittle, Go Long