Titans TE Chig Okonkwo grateful for the opportunity to play the game he loves

NASHVILLE – Chig Okonkwo got his first taste of football at the age of 7 and he was hooked.

Even if his first position wasn’t a glamorous one.

“Right tackle,” the Titans tight end said with a smile. “I was a pretty big kid, so I was put on the line. But the sophomore, I had to play running back and then receiver. From the beginning I loved football. It’s one thing that I’ve always been 100 percent positive about in what I wanted to do with my life.”

From those early days on the Pop Warner fields outside of Powder Springs, Georgia, through his prep days at Hillgrove (Ga.) High School, to his college years at the University of Maryland, Okonkwo’s love for the game only grew deeper.

Then it was taken away from him, and that changed his perspective forever.

Halfway through his rookie season, Okonkwo looked back on one of the most difficult times of his young life – when he had to retire from the game due to illness in 2020 – and said the experience makes him even more grateful for his chance in the NFL, in Tennessee the titans.

“When all of this happened, I didn’t really know if I would get another chance to play again,” said Okonkwo. “When you say you can’t play anymore, it’s like, damn. But I’ve always kept the faith and always believed in it.

“And I never take it for granted that I can play again. I’m very grateful for my chance. To be able to come back and play the game I love is another level of appreciation now.” for sure.”

Okonkwo, a fourth-round draft pick for the Titans in the 2022 NFL Draft, sat out the 2020 season in Maryland after being diagnosed with myocarditis due to COVID-19.

Okonkwo said he developed chest pains in the spring of 2020 and went to the hospital for tests. He was sent to a cardiologist and was told he had scar tissue on his heart.

Doctors told Okonkwo to rest for at least six months. Then, after persistent complications and discomfort, there was reason to fear the worst.

“I knew then that my season was over,” said Okonkwo. “And at first I was afraid it would be the end of my playing career.”

Okonkwo, who appeared in 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’ve seen 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-high marks with 52 catches for 447 yards and five touchdowns that led the team.

Along the way, he became an intriguing candidate 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, taking his chance is exactly what he did. Every time he gets in there and a ball comes his way, it seems like he’s doing a great job of opening up, making the catch and being a tough, physical runner once he’s got the ball in his hands .”

In 10 games this season, Okonkwo has eight catches for 172 yards and one 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 turned a short reception against the Chiefs into a 48-yard gain. Okonkwo scored his first NFL touchdown on October 2 against the Colts.

Okonkwo is the Titans’ only tight end since the start of the 2000 season to have at least a 30-yard reception in three straight games.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel said the team needs to find more ways to get the ball to Okonkwo.

“He’s certainly working on it,” Vrabel said of Okonkwo. “He’s working his way into it and is still trying to find a role for us. … He uses his skills and his speed whether he’s covering kicks or on the punt team. He’s working hard on his blocking. he can run . He was a reliable pass catcher. … (We must) keep trying to find ways to get him the football.

Okonkwo, whose 52 Maryland receptions ranked second-highest after a tight end in a single season in Maryland history behind former Titans tight end Frank Wycheck (58; 1990), said he’s working to become the best player become who he can be in the NFL.

It is clear that Okonkwo has made progress.

Okonkwo is living his dream and is grateful for the opportunity.

“All my life, that’s all I’ve known,” Okonkwo said. “I’ve always had a special love for the game and now it’s certainly another level of appreciation.”

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