Little victories have been a big deal for Romeo Okwara the past 10 months. Such as the first time he wiggled his toes after surgery. Or the first time he walked up a flight of stairs.
The Detroit Lions defensive end tore his Achilles tendon in a loss to the Chicago Bears last October and is slowly making his way back to the field.
He is running again, but he declined to share other details about his rehab or put a timetable on his return.
“It’s definitely one of the hardest years I’ve ever had to deal with,” Okwara said Wednesday in an impromptu media session on Day 8 of training camp. “This is my first major injury playing the sport, so it’s definitely been like a mental challenge — and physically, of course. But definitely learned a lot through the process, and I’m just really grateful to be out here.”
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Okwara, 27, seemed poised for a big season when injury struck last fall.
He was coming off a career-high 10 sack in 2020, had signed a three-year, $39 million contract extension a few months earlier and was looking forward to playing extensively with his brother, Julian, for the first time in his career.
Okwara said he found himself in a dark place mentally after the injury, with no football to occupy his time.
He spent his days reading photography books, watching Quentin Tarantino films and catching up on Netflix. He watched the entire “Stranger Things” series “in like a couple hours.” And when he watched Lions games on TV, he did so with his foot in a cast elevated on his couch.
“My mom had to tell me to calm down a couple times ’cause I’d get a little too excited,” Okwara said. “I’m very hyper-mobile, so yeah, there was definitely some moments where I had to calm myself down.”
On the most difficult days, Okwara said he leaned on family and friends for support.
He sought advice from Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers, who played in the Super Bowl less than eight months after tearing his Achilles. And he received daily philosophical text messages from teammate Jeff Okudah, who was navigating his own Achilles rehab.
Okudah ruptured his Achilles about a month before Okwara, in the Lions’ season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
“We kind of leaned on each other throughout the whole process,” Okwara said. “He’d check on me every single day almost and, yeah, just being there for each other in that process and kind of seeing where he’s at as we go through this same surgery together definitely helped a lot.”
While every injury is different and no two bodies heal the same, Okudah’s rehab has progressed at a faster pace than Okwara’s.
Okudah returned to Organized Team Activities this spring on a limited basis and has taken part in all seven Lions practices this summer.
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Okwara opened camp on the physically unable to perform list, and has found inspiration in Okudah’s return.
“I’ve never really faced a challenge like this in sports so I think just mentally getting over that hurdle and coming back from an injury like this is really important,” he said. “It teaches you a lot about yourself. ‘Cause you see guys do it all the time and I’ve always admired guys who come back from injuries, and so just being able to go through this myself and go through that process, I’ve just got to stick the process, stay in it and just kind of focus myself and come back better.”
Okwara said he is “very optimistic” he will return this season, but said it is “a little too hard to predict” when that will be.
Whenever he makes it back, Okwara said he expects to join a more complete defense than the one he left last fall with a more ferocious pass rush, and he expects to be just as integral a part of it as he was before his injury.
“I’m very confident (I’ll be the same type of player),” Okwara said. “Guys go through the surgery all the time, especially recent years. The medicine with that has been way, way better. Like, back in the day, it was a career-ender, but I’m very, very optimistic in my recovery.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.