NASHVILLE – Chig Okonkwo got his first taste of football at the age of 7, and he was hooked.
Even though his first position was hardly a glamorous one.
“Right 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 beginning, though, I loved football. It’s one thing I was always 100 percent positive that I wanted to do in my life.”
From those early days on the Pop Warner fields outside Powder Springs, Ga., to his prep days at Hillgrove (Ga.) High School to eventually his college years at the University of Maryland, Okonkwo’s love for the game grew even deeper.
Then it was taken away, and that changed his perspective forever.
Halfway through his rookie season, Okonkwo looked back at one of the most difficult times of his young life – when he had to step away from the game in 2020 because of a medical condition – and said the experience made him even more thankful for his opportunity in the NFL, in Tennessee, with the Titans.
“When all that happened, I didn’t really know if I was going to get another chance to play again,” Okonkwo said. “Being told that you can’t play anymore, it’s like, damn. But I always kept the faith, and always kept believing.
“And for me, being able to play again, I never take it for granted any more. I am very appreciative of my opportunity. Being able to come back, being able to play the game I love, it is another level of appreciation now for sure.”
A fourth-round draft pick of the Titans in the 2022 NFL Draft, Okonkwo sat out the 2020 season at Maryland after being diagnosed with myocarditis due to COVID-19.
Okonkwo said he began having chest pains in spring of 2020, and he went to the hospital for tests. He was sent to a cardiologist, and that’s when he was informed he had scar tissue on his heart.
Doctors told Okonkwo to sit out at least six months. Then, after lingering complications and discomfort, there was reason to fear the worst.
“I knew then that my season was over,” Okonkwo said. “And initially, there was fear that would be the end of my playing career.”
Okonkwo, who had appeared in 24 games over his first two college seasons at Maryland, spent the fall of 2020 away from his team because of COVID outbreaks.
He spent a lot of times studying in his room, mostly isolated from others.
“A lot of thinking,” he said. “I watched a lot of NFL games.”
Eventually, Okonkwo began to feel better, and more cardiac 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 a team-leading five touchdowns.
Along the way he became an intriguing prospect for NFL teams. He ended up in Tennessee, where the Titans have been pleased with his progress.
“He has done a great job,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of Okonkwo. “For a young player, taking advantage of his opportunity is exactly what he has done. Any time he gets in there and has a ball come his way, it seems like he does a great job of getting open, making the catch, and being a tough, physical runner once he has the ball in his hands.”
In 10 games this season, Okonkwo has eight catches 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 October 2.
Okonkwo is the Titans’ only tight end since the start of the 2000 season to have a reception of at least 30 yards in three consecutive games.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel said the team needs to find more ways to get Okonkwo the ball.
“He is certainly working at it,” Vrabel said of Okonkwo. “He’s working his way in there and continuing to try to find a role for us. … He is using his skillset and his speed whether that is covering kicks or being on the punt team. He is working hard at his blocking. He can run. He has been a reliable pass catcher. … (We need) to continue to try to find ways to get 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’s working to be the best player he can be in the NFL.
It’s clear Okonkwo has made strides.
Okonkwo is living his dream, and thankful for the opportunity.
“My entire life, this is all I’ve known,” Okonkwo said. “I have always had a special love for the game and now, it is another level of appreciation for sure.”