HOUSTON – Russell Okung was born with only trace amounts of football in his blood.
His sister says he was a "nerdy" kid, as he spent hours taking apart computers and putting them back together. He was a basketball player, and a soccer player, before being a football player. He probably still would be a soccer player but says, "all that running wasn't for me." Okung admits he played flag football growing up but "I can't say I was mad about it." He only got serious about the sport in high school because "I was told I couldn't be big for nothing."
Given all those factors, would you pay this man $50 million? Would you pay him to ensure the safety of Matthew Stafford(notes), Josh Freeman(notes) or Donovan McNabb(notes)? He'll be assigned to contain some of the nastiest athletes in sport: James Harrison(notes), Jared Allen(notes), Julius Peppers(notes), DeMarcus Ware(notes). And yet he has little or no mean streak.
Nobody in his family can remember him being angry – ever. Even scouts who love him admit in certain games against lesser opponents he didn't exactly look hell-bent. His pastor says he speaks to Russell daily, but Okung has never brought up the NFL draft. Not once. The coach who mentored him at Oklahoma State calls him "a naïve young 'un." And the coach who recruited him to Stillwater says, "I don't think he's gonna grasp what he's about to walk into."
Is Russell Okung worth all this money? Fans of the Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins – franchises possessing the Nos. 2-4 picks, respectively, during the draft's first round Thursday – might come up with 50 million reasons to say no. But the story of Okung's life screams out one huge reason to say yes. And it has nothing to do with being big.
Child turned 'Big Daddy'
On Nov. 23, 1992, a gas station owner was murdered in southwest Houston. He was shot in the chest and in the back. Most likely, he was being robbed.
Later that day, his 5-year-old son came home from school with a photo. It was a portrait taken of him wearing a blue shirt, black suspenders, and black pants. He had a roundish nose, earlobes pulled a little away from his head, and a big smile. He looked like his dad. Okung proudly handed the photo to his mom to give to his father, Victor. Dorothy Akpabio tried to smile and pretend like nothing was wrong. She cradled the photo, thanked her boy, and told him Daddy was away for a while, but she would give him the picture as soon as she could. Then she went to her room, shut the door, closed her eyes and thought, "How am I going to give him this picture?"
It was two weeks before Okung's mom sat down with him and calmly told him "Daddy has passed away and he's in a better place." Okung tilted his head slightly, as if he didn't quite understand. But on some level, he did. He was the man of the household now and he knew he had to look out for his mom and his 1-year-old sister, Nicole. The family rarely spoke about the death, and Okung still doesn't want to talk about it, but the meaning of the loss lingered in the house. Dorothy remembers whenever she felt especially low, Okung would walk over to her and wordlessly kiss her on the cheek. She called her son, "Big Daddy."
Okung's mom worked – a lot. She got jobs at fast food restaurants, at drug stores, even at the Houston Chronicle. She left early every morning and got back at 11 or later every weeknight, leaving dinner for her kids to microwave when they got home from school. "Over the course of days, I wouldn't see my mom," Okung says. "But there was food on the table. She was providing. You could see the struggle. But not once did I see her actually complain."
Only now, years later, do Okung and Nicole realize the seriousness of the situation. One night, they were sent to stay with cousins, not cluing in until much later that the lights in their house had been shut off. "We were in financial trouble, and we didn't know it," says Nicole, now 20 and studying biomedical sciences at Texas A&M. "Russ had to take the man-of-the-house role."
He rarely, if ever, hung out with friends. He never got into trouble because he simply couldn't. Okung went to school, and went home. Every day. "I definitely had to grow up fast," he says. Was it scary, to be home alone so much? "I was never afraid," he says. "I didn't have time to be afraid."
There was only work for Okung – at home, at school, at Home Depot when he was old enough, and, eventually, on the field. He gravitated to football not because of his NFL dreams, or even because of high school glory – his school has never made the state playoffs – but because others nudged him into it. And because of a possible scholarship. "The reason I wanted to play football," he says, "was to go to college."
So he put on weight like it was a job (adding 40 pounds), lifted like it was his job (power cleaning more than 300), and studied like it was his job. When he got the scholarship offer from Oklahoma State, his mother wailed and screamed with joy. Okung simply said, "Yeah Mom, it's good." Okung didn't decide on Stillwater because he thought it gave him the best chance to make the NFL. He went there, his mom says, because the coaches were so nice. "I chose," says Dorothy.
Joe DeForest, Oklahoma State's lead recruiter for Houston, says, "We told him one day he'd be a first-round draft pick in the NFL, not really thinking that would happen."
In his first team meeting, all the Cowboys freshmen were asked to stand up and introduce themselves. Okung spoke in his barely-audible mumble. "Speak up, rookie!" came a bellow from the back of the room. Okung's eyes went wide. It was NFL-bound defensive end Victor DeGrate(notes): "Try it louder!" Okung hardly raised his voice at all: "I'll tell you what," he said. "You'll get to know me when we meet in practice, one-on-one."
Cowboys fans got to know him soon after that: Early in that first season, in a game against Kansas, Okung had to replace injured right tackle Brady Bond. Okung cramped up almost immediately, but went back in and finished the game. The Oklahoma State offensive line coach, Joe Wickline, thought he did fine for a freshman but not memorably well. Wickline thought of Okung as a kid with potential, but basically a "gangly" 250-pound project who was just "a guy on [the recruiting] board." But the next morning, at 6 a.m., Wickline sat down to watch the game film and got a text. He looked down at his phone: Okung. "Hey Coach," Okung wrote. "Want to know how I'm looking for starting next week."
The coach figured Okung wasn't being brash. He was guarding his turf. "I don't think there's any bone in his body that's about Russ," Wickline says. "He felt it was important to get it right." Okung was just as diligent about holding his ground in Stillwater as he was at home. "He's the same in real life as he is on the football field," says Nicole. "He protects. That's how he is – he's a protector."
Okung did not let his starting job go. He started 47 straight games. As a sophomore he helped keep the NCAA's sack leader, Indiana's Greg Middleton, from making a tackle. A year later, he shut out future Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo(notes) in the sack department. He then went his entire senior season without allowing a sack. The kid who couldn't put on weight in high school blew up to 307 pounds. The prep who played football because he couldn't be "big for nothing" put up 225 pounds 38 times at the NFL scouting combine.
But you've likely heard next-to-nothing about him – not just because he's an offensive lineman, but also because he doesn't want any attention. "If you've got to tell people why you're that good," he says, "you're really not that good."
Even as he was on his way to earning all-Big 12 honors as a sophomore, he was explaining to his mom what he did on the field: "She asked me, 'So do you catch the ball? Do you throw the ball? Do you run? Do you tackle? Do you kick?' I told her I push people around, and then I got stuck. I just said I make the people who throw and run look better." Okung had a similar talk with his sister. "To this day," he says, "a lot of people in my family still think I play basketball."
Okung doesn't mind. "You wake up," he says, "and you gotta get the meal. You gotta work." He even attends church like it's an occupation: "He would be at every service," says his pastor (and OSU strength coach) Joel Tudman. "Every service. He never missed, anything." Okung even made sure to attend service the Sunday of his trip to Detroit to meet with the Lions. He knew months ago he'd be a millionaire, but the only splurging he's done this year was on a new suit for church.
Is he too nice? Too good? The NFL is filled with bloodthirsty marauders. Recently retired Kurt Warner(notes) occasionally lost his cool. Drew Brees(notes) has a chip on his shoulder. Even Tim Tebow has been known to scream at teammates. Okung has two decibel levels: quiet and silent. What about the Grambling State game, last September, when he seemed dispassionate, even apathetic?
Yet the big misperception about offensive linemen is that they need to be aggressive. "There are a lot of tackles that don't have a mean streak," says renowned former Dallas Cowboys scout Gil Brandt. "When you have good feet or long arms and you have strength and you're smart, that compensates for anything. I think you need to play under control – play smart. If you're looking to start a fight, you don't have the priorities in the right place."
There are no highs and lows for the offensive lineman in the NFL. Just the Sunday marathon. The motivation can't be the payday or the glory. It has to be the job itself. It has to be the endless, existential journey down the field and back. Block. Shift. Finish. When pro teams call college coaches about linemen, they don't ask if a guy is "long" or has "tremendous upside potential." They ask how he plays in bad weather, or with injuries. They ask not about the first 10 plays of a game, but the last.
Last weekend, before she left for New York, Dorothy Akpabio went to her son's favorite restaurant and ordered a salad. She welled up at times, talking in her sing-songy Nigerian lilt about how "Big Daddy" promised to help with money, coming home from Stillwater with checks from his part-time jobs. "I was broke, broke, broke," she says. "He kept saying, 'Momma, I got money comin'! And he would present this check to me, and I would look at it, and it was for $69. I'd laugh and say, 'Yeah, you helped!"
Okung's father had his own promises, Dorothy says. He wanted a big, fancy wedding for her. "He always said he was gonna take care of me," she says. "And it's funny because the person who ended up taking care of me was his son." Then she held up her arms and spreads out her wide hands. "I think the football field is a way for him to show the world you cannot touch this," she says. "You cannot come for what I have."
Is Russell Okung worth $50 million? There might be no safer place for that money, considering how steadily he worked for a check for $69, and a college scholarship, and a suit for church. It's never been about football for Russell Okung. That's scary for some, but it shouldn't be. Because while other kids were dreaming of the game, Okung was holding back the nightmare – heating up the microwave dinner, holding his little sister's hand, kissing his mom on the cheek, and protecting everything he had until his dad came home to see that picture.