While talent is ultimately the paramount determination of whether or not a player is capable of participating in the NFL, there are so many factors that go into shaping a man’s career in the game of football.
One of the factors that simply does not get talked enough is the value of having veteran leaders around you to show you how to be a professional so that you don’t have to perpetually learn from your own mistakes as you feel your way through your journey.
Such has been the case for young Chukwuma Okorafor, the 21-year-old who was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ second of two third-round picks in the 2018 NFL Draft. While the selection raised eyebrows at the time, he had a very solid rookie season and will be in competition to be the team’s starting right tackle in 2019 and beyond following the trade of Marcus Gilbert.
“I learned to take the ups and downs”, he told the team’s website about one of the most important lessons of his rookie year. “Whether we win, lose or tie, keeping it moving toward next week. Stay even keeled. I watched guys like Ramon (Foster), Maurkice (Pouncey), and Al (Villanueva). They were the same after a win or loss. They kept the focus on the next week”.
This was perhaps especially important for a player like Okorafor, who is still relatively new not just to playing football, but to knowing anything about it. The African-born product of Western Michigan did not emigrate with his family to the United States until 2010.
That is when he was first exposed to football, and he tried out for the team a year later—as a kicker. Because as he grew up in Botswana, the only sport he was closely familiar with and played was soccer. It wasn’t until a bit later that somebody decided to move him to the offensive line. That changed everything.
And even with a couple of years of high school experience playing in the trenches, he also declared for the draft early after spending three years as a full-time starter at both right and left tackle at Western Michigan.
Having decorated Pro Bowlers around you ready to embrace you, accept you into their inner circle, and show you the way of a true professional at the top of the game is of incredible value for a young player that can play a very direct role in accelerating his growth.
With that solid structural environment in which he was placed, perhaps it’s not greatly surprising that he exceeded expectations as a rookie, immediately contributing as an extra lineman and even starting a game at right tackle.
If he can secure the right tackle job in competition with Matt Feiler and Jerald Hawkins, the Steelers could have that position locked down for quite literally the next decade, which would be a huge respite as the rest of the veteran group gets up there in age.