Jeff Okudah is becoming the player he (and the Detroit Lions) always thought he could be

Detroit Free Press

CHICAGO — Jeff Okudah was sprinting to the tunnel to celebrate with his teammates in the locker room at Soldier Field when he paused in the north end zone. Photographers spotted the pose and captured the moment that will frame the Detroit Lions’ 31-30 win over the Bears, and could well frame Okudah’s NFL journey to that moment.

His head was tilted toward the sky. His arms were stretched wide. His eyes were closed. His cheeks were smeared with black grease and his jersey and pants were stained with grass marks.

He was smiling as he exhaled and when the shutter opened Okudah looked free and easy and joyous. What was he thinking?

“Just enjoying the year,” he said.

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Also, everything that led to this year, and to this season, and to this game in Chicago in mid-November, a game Okudah helped change when he intercepted Justin Fields early in the fourth quarter and sprinted to the end zone to tie it at 24-all.

“I didn’t do a lot my first two years,” he said. “I’ve had plenty of lows. Winning these games … I’ve seen the other side of it.”

Not the just losing, but struggling as the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, getting injured just as you think you’re starting to figure things out, watching from the sideline, or from home, rehabbing a torn Achilles, trying your best to block out the negative noise.

He’s too slow. He’s a bust. He can’t cover. He’s fragile.

Lions QB Jared Goff can relate. He, too, was a high draft pick. He, too, struggled to handle the criticism.

“I think at times it’s hard,” he said.

Goff said he is proud of Okudah’s ascension this fall. He watched the third-year player work all last season in the training rooms. He saw him work this past offseason. He watched him “put his head” down and “put in extra time.”

He has watched him challenge the offense in practice. Something, Goff said, we haven’t seen but they’ve seen for a while.

“The timing is there (now),” said Goff. “(You’re) starting to see who he is come out. It’s fun to watch.”

And critical to the Lions’ recent surge on defense.

Oh, there are other youngsters behind the surge as well — safety Kerby Joseph, defensive lineman Josh Paschal, linebacker Malcolm Rodriquez, edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson; 2022’s No. 2 overall pick had his best game as a Lion, and it was his pressure on Fields that led to Okudah’s pick-six.

None have had Okudah’s path though. Or have had to overcome what he has. Not that Okudah would ever think his ordeal makes him special. His faith wouldn’t let him.

In fact, he gave grace to the almighty on Twitter:

“GOD has been blessing me extra this year!”

Whether or not God works that way is beside the point. What matters here is his faith. That he believes. That his belief allowed him to work through all those calf stretches and single-leg stands and wobble board exercises, all the leg lifts and icing and electrical stimulation.

That his belief pushed him to extra film and extra reps and extra Zen so that, say, when his former college teammate outruns him for a touchdown as Fields did Sunday on a 67-yard burst to give the Bears a late-fourth quarter lead, there will always be another chance to make another play.

One bad angle can’t lead to another. One penalty can’t lead to three. This isn’t Ohio State.

He understands this more than ever. He has made the leap. He looks like he belongs. How good he gets from here is up to him and his faith.

But even if this is as good as it gets, it’s a long way from his 2020 debut and an even longer way from last year, when he was on the mend and wondering, like everyone else, how a cornerback would return from the most devastating injury for an athlete.

The Lions will take this version of Okudah. The one who broke up a couple more passes Sunday. The one who sneaks into the box and sets an edge and flies around like a headhunting safety.

The one who runs stride for stride with every receiver he’s matched up with, no matter if he occasionally gets beat. That’s part of the job anyway, and something he also had to learn to accept.

Give up a play; go make a play. Short memory is the key.

Long memory has its place, too. That was obvious in the photo. The joyful Zen he revealed wasn’t just the win or the pick-six “that was crazy,” or the defensive stand he and his teammates made to seal the game, a stand they made for the second week in a row.

No, that was the time in recovery and the time swatting away doubt and the time remaking the projection of who and what he could be.

“I didn’t see anyone waver,” he said Sunday, speaking of his teammates when they trailed by two touchdowns to begin the fourth quarter.

He could’ve been talking about himself. He could’ve been talking about the moment the cameras caught him pausing in the end zone before sprinting to the tunnel and to the locker room to celebrate.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I’m enjoying every single moment … because you never know when the moment might be over.”

Maybe what the photos captured was grace.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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