DETROIT – Jeff Okudah could not stop crying.
Hours after limping off in the fourth quarter of the Detroit Lions’ 2021 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, the cornerback was in the passenger seat of his Mercedes-Benz G-Class parked outside of Ford Field, waiting for his aunt, Jane Obodo, to drive him home.
“When he got in the car and shut the door, he broke down crying,” Obodo told ESPN. “I’m telling you, I have never seen this kid this devastated before. He was just sobbing and just crying profusely. He was hitting his hand on the dash. I was confused. I’m upset, but just seeing him just break down that bad, I was like, ‘wow.’”
“It was just very stressful and intense, but I knew I had to keep it together,” she said. “To see him that way kind of broke me down. I was crying on the inside, but I couldn’t. I had to be strong for him. That’s how we rode until we got home.”
During the drive, Obodo said she used one hand to steer and the other to console her weeping nephew. The next day, an MRI confirmed Okudah had ruptured his left Achilles tendon and would miss the rest of the season.
“A lot of emotion kind of poured over me,” Okudah said. “She really never seen me cry before, but I just had big hopes for that last year, so that day, I was down. It kind of felt like I was living a nightmare, honestly.”
The Achilles tear was the second season-ending injury Okudah had suffered in as many years, after a groin injury cut his rookie campaign short. But from that dark car ride nearly a year ago, Okudah’s road to recovery – thanks in part to the support of his aunt and advice from a pair of NBA stars – has led him to reclaim his starting cornerback spot and restart the process of trying to fulfil the promise that compelled Detroit to take him with the third overall pick in 2020.
“Whenever I can just sit down and think about the journey thus far, the things that come with an Achilles injury, and where I’m at, I try not to be too hard on myself and just be a little bit proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish,” Okudah said. “But, with that being said, I still try to keep the mentality of 'the work’s not finished.'”
THE FIRST FEW days and weeks after the Achilles injury were rough for Okudah. Mentally, his spirits were low after training hard to come back as a better player for Year 2 – and for a new coaching staff – only to be injured again.
So, Obodo called off from her middle school teaching job in Texas to be with him throughout his initial diagnosis and subsequent surgery in Green Bay, Wisconsin, so he wouldn’t have to experience those moments alone.
She encouraged him spiritually in the same way she did with his late mother, Marie Okudah, who died from cancer in 2017, less than a week after Jeff arrived on Ohio State’s campus as freshman.
Her advice was to keep focused and control the things he could, which Obodo said was comforting to him.
“I said, ‘it’s the same reason why your mom suffered through all of those odds. And just before things were about to get better and your mom passes.’ That’s something that I struggled to understand too,” Obodo said. “But, I said, ‘You know God isn’t just going to give it to you.’
“And I told him, there were times when his mom got really bad and she would say, ‘Why me Jane? Why is God letting me go through this? And I would say, ‘Marie, you didn’t do anything.’ It’s just life. It just happens. We can’t comprehend it,” she said. “So, I told Jeff this was one of the things I used to tell your mom when she would get there, is that we’re Christians and the Bible said even Jesus suffered.”
During his rehab, Okudah stayed close to the team between trips to Orange County, Calif., Canada, Atlanta, Dallas and Detroit to receive medical treatment. He drew inspiration from watching Los Angeles Rams’ running back Cam Akers’ return from an Achilles injury in less than six months.
Okudah also reached out to Houston Rockets guard John Wall, who tore his Achilles in December of 2018, and DeMarcus Cousins, who tore his in January of 2018, for advice. His reasoning for contacting basketball players was because of the similarities in movements between playing basketball and playing cornerback.
“It was big,” Okudah told ESPN. “I wasn’t necessarily looking at the sport, but I was looking at the type of athlete John Wall was and the explosion that he played with.”
Thank you for all the support through the highs and lows... God is good. 🙏🏾— Jeff Okudah (@jeffokudah) August 29, 2022
Wall didn’t see the call from Okudah as surprising. He was honored to help and felt it was important to pass on knowledge to a fellow athlete.
“I said, ‘Bro, just attack it the best way you can. You’re gonna have high days, you’re gonna have low days because that injury takes damn near a year or year and a half to really get back to where you want to be at,’” Wall told ESPN. “You might think you’re there, but physically, you’re not there. The doctors might clear you, but you’ve got to be clear with yourself 100%, and I said, ‘Don’t rush yourself back.’
“I said, I know you’re young, you want to play, and people say you heal fast when you’re younger, but take your time because this is something you don’t want to reinjure or overcompensate to mess anything else up.”
“Just to hear him say that,” Okudah said, “it was something I was going to listen to wholeheartedly.”
ENTERING TRAINING CAMP, Lions general manager Brad Holmes highlighted the secondary as an area of concern due to the unit’s lack of experience, playing time and injury history. Holmes, with the help of assistant general manager Ray Agnew, created competition at cornerback to see who would cut through. That included making Okudah compete with fellow corner Will Harris for a starting role opposite Amani Oruwariye.
Okudah, who was showing no lingering effects from the injury, accepted the challenge.
On Aug. 12, exactly 11 months after tearing the Achilles, Okudah returned to Ford Field for his first live action since the injury, making three tackles in Detroit’s 27-23 preseason loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Two weeks later, Okudah officially reclaimed his spot in the starting lineup with two tackles and a touchdown-saving pass breakup in the Lions’ 19-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason finale.
“I appreciate the way Jeff Okudah responded, and he was challenged, and he earned it,” Holmes said on Thursday. “We were up front and honest with him, and he didn’t cower or back down from anything. He took it, and he earned it, so a lot of those questions [about the secondary] were answered and it was much appreciated.”
Okudah reflected fondly on his journey back to the starting lineup, but acknowledged there’s still plenty of work to do.
“I’m proud, but at the same time, I’m still as motivated as ever, as hungry as ever, because I don’t think that I’ve come close to accomplishing my goals,” he said.
And for Aunt Jane?
“Proud. She’s definitely proud,” Okudah said, “but my family, we always keep high expectations, so she’s proud, but at the same time, she knows where my mind is at and we’re still striving for what’s to come.”