Indianapolis — Tyler Conklin started playing tackle football as an 8-year-old growing up in Macomb County.
Chukwuma Okorafor hadn’t even seen the sport until he was a high school freshman at Detroit Mumford.
But though they each took different paths to get this point, they’re both in the same place now: one important step away from an NFL career. And for a pair of unlikely draft prospects from the Mid-American Conference — Conklin at Central Michigan and Okorafor at Western Michigan — it’s hard not to step back and marvel at the journey.
“Looking back at where I came from, most people would say it doesn’t make sense how far I’ve come in such a short time,” said Okorafor, who moved to the United States from Botswana with his family seven years ago.
Born in Nigeria, he grew up playing soccer in Africa, but Okorafor said he hadn’t seen a football game until he watched Super Bowl XLV between Green Bay and Pittsburgh a couple months after arriving in the U.S.
“I came here, watched it on TV, then I just slowly learned it,” he said.
He started out as a punter and kicker at Mumford, then transferred to Southfield, where coach Tim Conley encouraged him to try the offensive line as a 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior. The growth has been rapid ever since, and now as a 6-6, 320-pounder, the two-time all-conference tackle is viewed as a possible Day 2 pick in April’s draft.
“I don’t think I really have a ceiling,” said Okorafor, who won’t turn 21 until August. “Just being so young and having not played the sport for many years, I feel like I have a long way to go.”
Conklin may have to wait until the final day of the draft to hear his name called next month. But even that is something no one would’ve predicted even a few years ago.
A two-sport standout in high school at L’Anse Creuse North, Conklin decided to give up a basketball scholarship at Northwood University after his freshman season. He transferred to Central Michigan to join the football team as a walk-on, then saw his career blossom as a tight end, hauling in 77 catches for 1,064 yards and 11 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
He impressed NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl last month, capping his big week with a diving touchdown catch from Wyoming’s Josh Allen — a likely top-10 pick in this year’s draft — and then joking with him afterward, “Who would have thought: Wyoming to CMU?”
And as he met with the media Friday in Indianapolis, he was saying much the same.
“I’ve always kind of dreamed of being here, so it’s surreal,” Conklin said. “But it’s been a cool experience. … It’s been unique, being with all these coaches that you’ve watched them coach, you’ve watched their teams growing up. But you’re interviewing for the job you’ve always wanted to have. So it’s huge.”
There are huge decisions looming at the top of April’s draft, and many of them revolve around the four quarterbacks at the top of this year’s class: Allen, USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
All four are expected to be selected in the top half of the first round, but each arrived in Indianapolis with significant issues to address.
Allen, knocked for his low completion percentage in college, said he’s working alongside Darnold with a quarterback coach to improve his footwork. Rosen is busy explaining away doubts about his passion for the game and his leadership ability. (“You have to own your mistakes — that’s what I’m trying to show,” he said.) And Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner, is out to dispel questions about his maturity.
“I’m upfront and honest,” he said. “I know exactly what I’m about and that’s the most important thing. What you see is what you get. I’ve always been brutally honest, and some people don’t like that because it’s rare nowadays. But I go into these meetings and I’m just myself. I want to get drafted to a team that knows exactly what they’re getting.”