NASHVILLE- Chig Okonkwo got his first taste of football when he was 7 years old and he was hooked.
Even if his first position was hardly glamorous.
“Good tackle,” the Titans tight end said with a smile. “I was a pretty big kid, so I got put on the line. But the second year I got to play running back and then receiver. From the very start, though, I loved football. It’s something that I’ve always been 100% positive that I wanted to do in my life.”
From his early days on the grounds of Pop Warner outside of Powder Springs, Georgia, to his prep days at Hillgrove (Ga.) High School to his college years at the University of Maryland, the Okonkwo’s love for the game deepened even further.
Then he was taken down, and that changed his perspective forever.
Halfway through his rookie season, Okonkwo looked back on one of the toughest times of his young life – when he had to step away from the game in 2020 due to a health issue – and said that the experience had made him even more grateful for his opportunity. in the NFL, in Tennessee, with the Titans.
“When all of this happened, I really didn’t know if I was going to get another chance to play again,” Okonkwo said. “Being told you can’t play anymore is like, fuck. But I always kept the faith, and I always kept believing.
“And for me to be able to play again, I never take it for granted again. I really appreciate my opportunity. To be able to come back, to be able to play the game that I love, that’s another level of appreciation now for sure .”
The Titans’ fourth-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Okonkwo missed the 2020 season at Maryland after being diagnosed with myocarditis due to COVID-19.
Okonkwo said he started having chest pains in the spring of 2020 and went to the hospital for tests. He was sent to a cardiologist, and that’s when he was told he had scar tissue on his heart.
Doctors told Okonkwo to stay away for at least six months. Then, after complications and persistent discomfort, there was reason to fear the worst.
“I knew then that my season was over,” Okonkwo said. “And initially it was feared that this would be the end of my playing career.”
Okonkwo, who had played 24 games in his first two college seasons at Maryland, spent the fall of 2020 away from his team due to COVID outbreaks.
He spent a lot of time studying in his room, mostly isolated from others.
“A lot of thought,” he said. “I watched a lot of NFL games.”
Eventually, Okonkwo began to feel better, and further heart tests showed his heart had healed.
He returned to football in 2021, when he started all 13 games for the Terrapins and posted career bests with 52 catches for 447 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns.
Along the way, he’s become an intriguing prospect for NFL teams. He ended up in Tennessee, where the Titans were pleased with his progress.
“He did a great job,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of Okonkwo. “For a young player to take advantage of his opportunity is exactly what he’s done. Every time he gets in there and a ball comes his way, it looks like he’s doing a great job of getting himself. opening up, catching and being a tough, physical runner once he has the ball in his hands.”
In 10 games this season, Okonkwo caught eight passes for 172 yards and a touchdown.
Okonkwo caught a 31-yard pass against the Packers, his third straight game with a catch of at least 30 yards. Okonkwo caught a 41-yard pass against the Broncos, and he turned a short reception against the Chiefs into a 48-yard gain. Okonkwo scored his first NFL touchdown against the Colts on Oct. 2.
Okonkwo is the only Titans tight end since the start of the 2000 season to receive at least 30 yards in three straight games.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel said the team needed to find other ways to get the ball from Okonkwo.
“He’s definitely working on it,” Vrabel said of Okonkwo. “He makes his way there and keeps trying to find a role for us. … He uses his skill and his speed, whether it’s covering kicks or being part of the punt team. He works hard to block. He can run. He’s been a reliable pass catcher. … (We have to) keep trying to find ways to win him the football.
Okonkwo, whose 52 receptions at Maryland ranked second most by a tight end in a single season in Maryland history behind only former Titans tight end Frank Wycheck (58; 1990), said he was working to be the best player he could be in the NFL. .
Clearly Okonkwo has made progress.
Okonkwo is living his dream and is grateful for this opportunity.
“All my life is all I’ve known,” Okonkwo said. “I’ve always had a special love for the game and now for sure it’s another level of appreciation.”