When his aunt picked him up from Ford Field after the Detroit Lions’ season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers last fall, Jeff Okudah sat in the car and cried.
The diagnosis was not yet confirmed, but Okudah knew his season — the one he was so looking forward to after a rough rookie year — was over because of a ruptured Achilles tendon, and a long, grueling rehab was ahead.
Speaking Thursday for the first time since his Sept. 12 injury, Okudah detailed his emotional recovery and said advice he received from two NBA players helped get him to the point he is at now: On the field, taking part in individual drills at Organized Team Activities, ready to make “a comeback you can be proud of.”
“Obviously, you try to stay optimistic in moments like that, but the second I got in the car with my aunt, like I just broke down, started crying,” Okudah said. “A lot of emotion kind of poured over me and she’s never really seen me cry before, but it was a lot like — ’cause I just had big hopes for the last year, so that day was really, I was down. It kind of felt like I was living a nightmare, honestly, man. So like I’m saying, to be here now and smiling, it’s just a blessing cause I know where I was at mentally and came a long way.”
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Okudah injured his left Achilles on a play away from the ball with just over 10 minutes left in a game that saw him experience the ups and downs of life as an NFL cornerback.
He gave up three catches for 109 yards and a touchdown and got chewed out on the sideline by Lions secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant for missing an interception, but he broke up his only pass of the season four plays before the injury and felt like he was progressing as a player.
After trainers made their initial diagnosis, which was confirmed by an MRI the next day, Okudah said he Googled “torn Achilles” to learn what he was dealing with.
Achilles tears have historically been one of the toughest injuries to recover from, with players such as Seattle Seahawks cornerback Sidney Jones and ex-Lions running back Mikel Leshoure never returning to their pre-injury form.
Okudah saw horror stories about the injury, but learned of plenty of successful rehabs, too. He took inspiration from Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers’ return six months after suffering a torn Achilles last season, and he spoke with NBA players John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins about their rehabs from the injury after reaching out to both on Instagram.
“They just kind of gave me the confidence that the Achilles will be the least of your worries,” Okudah said. “It’ll be about getting back mentally, taking care of the rest of your body. For me, that was really reassuring going into the process, the rehab process. So from there, just attack the rehab since like November, when I got out of the boot, just relentlessly.”
Okudah stayed with the Lions for most of the early part of his rehab before relocating to California in the offseason.
He took part in film sessions with teammates, occasionally watched practice from his knee scooter out on the field, and Lions coach Dan Campbell said the organization did its best to keep Okudah’s spirits up.
“For him, that’s the biggest thing right now,” Campbell said. “We’re not worried about Jeff’s movement skills. Like, he’s going to be able to move. You watch him, with his footwork and the things that he’s doing, he can do all that. What is real important right now is just continuing his growth mentally and him being able to get the walk-through reps and just get the film study. Those things are big for him right now. So it’s good to have him here, to have him available to do that. When the time’s right, to go full-speed when we get him in camp, he’ll be ready.”
Okudah, who posted semi-regular updates of his rehab on social media in recent months, said he got through the most trying times in his recovery by leaning on some of the same stoic philosophy teachings he used while rehabbing last spring from the core muscle surgery that shortened his disappointing rookie year.
He also relied on experiences he gleaned from his mother, Marie, who died after a long battle with lymphoma in 2017.
“I feel like I’ve just been hungry, like I haven’t ate in years,” Okudah said. “That hunger’s just been inside of me since the injury — well, really even before the injury, so I’ve had that feeling for, man, it’s about to be probably two years, just that hunger. So I’m ready to go out there and just play to the best of my ability, honestly.”
Okudah declined to put a timetable on his return to full football activities.
The Lions could opt to start him on the physically unable to perform list when training camp opens next month, though he is currently repping as the team’s first-string left cornerback, opposite Amani Oruwariye, in walk-through drills.
The No. 3 pick of the 2020 NFL draft, Okudah declined to predict what type of player he will be once healthy, saying, “I’d rather just go out there and show you.”
“Best way to describe it, I’m going to be ready when it’s time to be ready,” he said. “I’m confident in that. I’ll be ready when it’s time to be ready.”