DETROIT -- It was mid-March and Romeo Okwara needed a keg. He didn’t care what kind, per se, just had to go and find one.
COVID-19 was shutting down Southern California and the Detroit Lions defensive end needed to improvise. Living with six friends in a house with a massive backyard, Okwara assessed the situation and began to think of what could substitute for the workout equipment he had hoped to use but had no real access to.
Okwara’s breakout season, in a contract year, began here. In a backyard during a pandemic prior to a season he wasn’t even sure would come.
“That,” Okwara said. “Was this moment of scramble.”
A fire pit table became an option to do one-armed bench presses. A yoga mat turned into a core station. Jump ropes and loose bands became key tools. A rowing machine turned into cardio and arm workouts. A bicycle transitioned into sprint rides around the block. Inclined streets in their Sherman Oaks neighborhood became hill runs. Okwara’s one-gallon Hydro Flask water bottle turned into an additional weight for step-ups.
And there was the iron keg, already tapped with college-party-quality beer, they bought for $30 on Craigslist.
“The guy was like, ‘Wait, you only want one? What are you doing?’" said James Onuwalu, one of Okwara’s roommates, a former Notre Dame teammate and current Las Vegas Raiders linebacker. “But no attachment to fill any beer or anything. But we got creative with it, just doing different squats with that, overhead squats with that.
“We had to get creative, but we made it work.”
DE Romeo Okwara save the day with a strip sack pic.twitter.com/3oHNQvp— Romeo Okwara (@RomeoND45) Dec. 11, 2020
This lasted for months before their gym -- Proactive Sports Performance in Thousand Oaks – reopened for small private workouts. The high school they initially planned on working at wouldn’t allow them to use the field, so they went to Triunfo Park to get outdoor workouts in.
The workouts might sound scattershot and put together on the fly -- which they were -- but with the help of trainers advising them, they made their makeshift gym into something capable of benefiting them.
“We’d just rotate and literally one day we did, I don’t know, 10 sets of five different workouts,” Okwara said. “And I guarantee you that you would be very sore after that workout."
With friends working their 9-to-5 jobs in the house, Okwara and Onuwalu blasted music during afternoon workouts loud enough neighbors dubbed them the party house.
Those raging celebrations? Usually rousing games of chess, continual orders of Postmates (food deliveries), impromptu photography collaborations and long book-reading sessions in between lifting makeshift weights.
It became a different type of experience for Okwara, who craves originality and wants to create a vast network of people. He hunkered down with friends. One, Theo Chapman, is the co-founder of Darkroom and, like Okwara, an accomplished photographer. Everyone in the house had some sort of creative outlet.
“We’re probably the most random group of people to move into that neighborhood,” Okwara said. “I love music, so I’m always blasting music regardless, but we’re definitely blasting extra music while we’re working out, and the neighbors, the people behind us, they actually loved the music.
“But we were taking a walk around the neighborhood one day, and they asked us when they were going to get an invitation to one of our parties. We were like, ‘Actually, we’re just working out in the backyard.’"
Okwara wasn’t happy at the end of the 2019 season. Detroit foundered to a 3-12-1 season, and his own performance sagged. After a whirlwind 2018 season culminating in the best year of his young career, he thought he had started something promising.
Playing in a struggling defense, he managed just 1.5 sacks and 28 tackles last season, starting only one game. Usually in offseasons, he would spend time both training and traveling the world, exploring his other interests.
Even before COVID hit, he planned on scaling that back. He refused to have a similar performance in 2020.
“This year I just basically went straight into training,” Okwara said. “I visited New York for like a week after, and even when I was in New York, I was training the whole time in a gym and went straight to California right after season ended.
“Was just kind of go-time since then.”
He’d shown before what he could do and what he could build on, so regression wasn’t acceptable. Okwara had already experienced going undrafted in 2016, then being cut by the Giants in 2018, resulting in a waiver claim by the Lions.
A couple of months into his initial training, he considered taking one trip for a short break. COVID-19 thwarted those plans, keeping him in the middle of the neighborhood with young families, young professionals and the house full of Boston College and Notre Dame grads.
He did take one brief break. For the NFL draft, Okwara returned to North Carolina, where his family lives. His younger brother, Julian, was going to be selected at some point.
On Friday night, the call came. His brother would become his teammate, taken in the third round by the Lions. Julian told his brother, “we about to be roommates.”
After the draft, Julian moved to California, too.
Even though they both grew up playing football and were both standouts who went to Notre Dame, Romeo and Julian had very rarely actually trained together.
Schedules didn’t align. Most of Romeo’s training occurred while Julian was in school, and Julian’s work in the summer came when Romeo was in spring workouts or resting up for the season to start. But now, they lived feet from each other again.
Proactive reopened, and the high school they planned on training at let them work again, so the three of them had private sessions daily to prepare. In addition, Romeo joined some of Onuwalu’s ACL recovery training and stability work for body alignment from another roommate, former Notre Dame safety Austin Collinsworth.
“We were all trying to reach out own fitness goals,” said Collinsworth, the chief operating officer of Pro Football Focus. “At the same time everyone, when anyone would start training it was like, ‘OK, I should be training, too.’"
Romeo wanted to set a strong example for Julian. He worked with him on the playbook and answered any questions. On a daily basis, one of the Okwaras or Onuwalu would challenge the other to do a little bit more or push a little bit further. If a training session began at 8 a.m., they were in the kitchen at 6 a.m. prepping food for the day.
“When we had the three of us to really create that environment and the competition of 'all right, who is the strongest here?'” Onuwalu said. "Like Julian, are you going to out-bench Romeo today?”
Competition went beyond training. Chess became a constant. Collinsworth, who used to play with his father, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, brought a chess set to the house and taught them all how to play.
Romeo had always wanted to learn. This was an opportunity to stimulate the mind. They picked it up quickly. Julian won his second-ever game. They wouldn’t argue over chess, but they were still intense.
“[Julian] beat me at one chess game ever in his life,” Romeo said. “And that was a couple months ago. Since then, I think I am the chess king.”
All of this -- the keg workouts, intense California training and even chess -- led to one goal for Okwara: to become the player he prepared his entire life to believe he could be.
He also received constant tips from Lions defensive end Trey Flowers. They shared pass-rush technique videos and brainstormed ideas of moves they could do and what could work. They constantly tinkered. Okwara said Flowers’ work ethic rubbed off on him, and he’s tried to emulate how Flowers approaches practice and training. Fittingly, Okwara leads Detroit with seven sacks and a career-high 15 quarterback hits with four games remaining.
He has a pass rush win rate of 19.4 -- tied for No. 16 in the NFL with Jadeveon Clowney -- and is tied with J.J. Watt, Brandon Graham and Clowney with 27 first pressures according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“That’s kind of why you train in the offseason the way we do is the hopes that obviously what you do in the offseason will kind of carry over and help get your body sustained for the season,” Okwara said. “Hopefully see some success out of that. So yeah, there’s definitely points where I’ll be looking back into training, and it’s kind of I guess what you can hang your hat on in getting you through the season.”
It all started in Southern California with a water bottle, a fire pit and a keg that Okwara believes still sits in the backyard, waiting for them to return.