Allen Park — Jeff Okudah was trying to keep a positive mindset following the immediate evaluation of his injured leg from last year’s season opener, but as he eased himself into his aunt’s car outside of Ford Field after the game, an emotional wave washed over the Detroit Lions cornerback.
“The second I got into the car with my aunt, I just broke down and started crying,” Okudah said. “She had never really seen me cry before, but it was a lot of like — I just had big hopes for that last year. So that day I was really down. It kind of felt like I was living a nightmare, honestly, man.”
After a tumultuous rookie year in 2020, Okudah was in a good place, both physically and mentally entering his second season. Throughout training camp he looked like a far more confident player, and the principles of stoic philosophy he had studied during the offseason had him at peace with his early struggles and the continued pressures that came with being the No. 3 pick in his draft.
But his opportunity at redemption would be put on hold after the injury was diagnosed as a torn Achilles.
A couple of decades ago, that kind of severe injury would often end a career, but much like Tommy John surgery gave new life to MLB pitchers who damaged their elbow’s UCL tendon, or the massive strides that have been made repairing torn ACLs, more professional athletes are returning to have productive careers after rupturing an Achilles.
“Now you see some guys that are back in five months,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “You saw what happened with the Rams (running back Cam Akers) last year and it is, it’s amazing. That’s a good thing, that’s a good sign guys can bounce back from that.”
After Okudah got the diagnosis, he did what many of us would and turned to Google for answers. He also reached out, through social media, to NBA stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who had suffered similar injuries.
That process helped Okudah better grasp the road that was ahead.
“Man, the mental aspect is definitely, probably (tougher),” Okudah said. “The rehab is going to be a strenuous process, but something you’re really accustomed to being an athlete, especially playing a sport this long. Mentally, it’s tough, just because you’re out of your routine. Getting hurt in Week 1, it’s a long season. Sitting down for 16 weeks, you have a lot of time to just reflect, self-evaluate. On the bright side, you’re able to really look at yourself, have honest conversations with people around you, and plan a comeback, plan a comeback you can be proud of.”
Okudah found additional inspiration in his mother, Marie, who passed away in 2017 after a lengthy battle with lymphoma.
“When the whole thing happened, I saw this was a lot of adversity, and for me, I thought who better to look at than my mother and the adversity that she went through in her life,” Okudah said. “I just kind of leaned on the things that I’ve seen from her, and if she can do it, I can do it. If she can show resilience, I can also display that same resilience.”
Re-centering himself after the initial grieving period, Okudah has attacked his rehab with zeal, only dialing things back when advised by medical staff and trainers. Mentally, his teammates, the Lions coaching staff and general manager Brad Holmes did all they could to keep Okudah engaged.
And even though he was well aware nothing would be guaranteed through the process, it was reassuring to see Akers return for the Rams at the end of last season, carry the ball 67 times during the playoffs, helping the team win the Super Bowl.
Okudah is closing in on nine months since suffering his injury. He’s been on the practice field during OTAs, although he’s yet to participate in any competitive drills. All signs point to things ramping up during training camp at the end of next month with an eye on being ready for the regular season, even if no one on the team, including himself, is ready to confirm that timetable.
“It’s coming along good,” Okudah said about his rehab. “I think that for me what helped was being in a really great mental place before the injury. Obviously when you have a big injury like that you’re going to be down for a little bit, but just rally around people that have love for you and they picked me back up. Just to be here today, to be in a great mental spot, I’m blessed.”
With the injury, it’s reasonable for outside expectations to subside, if only a little. But Okudah is never going to be able to escape the spotlight of being the first cornerback taken in the top-3 pick of the first round in the three previous decades.
Asked what fans should expect when he gets the green light to return, Okudah didn’t want to offer any bold predictions, only promising they’d get the best he has to offer.
“I feel like I’ve been hungry, like I haven’t ate in years,” Okudah said. “That hunger has just been inside of me since the injury. Really, even before the injury. I’ve had that feeling, man, for like two years, just that hunger. I’m ready to go out there and play to the best of my ability.
“…Honestly, I’ve never been one to say what I’m going to do. I’d rather just go out there and show you.”