'An amazing young guy': Lions' pick Jeff Okudah covers the corner on character
The amount of time coaches get to know prospects before the NFL Draft is finite. They might get an hour here or an hour there in the months preceding the event, but there's rarely an opportunity to dig beneath the surface.
But in the 18-minute window Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia had with Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah at the league's scouting combine in February, the conversation resonated and stuck with Patricia long after the two sides parted.
"It’s not often that you meet someone, and you spend 15- to 18-minute interview at the combine when you’re rolling through players, and that player says something that just sticks so hard to you as a person that explains who he is as a person," Patricia said. "It’s something that makes you go back, and you talk to your wife about it and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is an amazing young guy.’ So we’re just really excited that we had the opportunity to add him to our team."
The conversation wasn't why the Lions selected Okudah, but it didn't hurt. Character is part of any draft evaluation, and the Lions fell in love with the entire package the Ohio State product brings to the table. There's a reason they were comfortable making him the first cornerback selected in the top-three in more than two decades.
"Obviously as a player, everything he’s done on the field is phenomenal," Patricia said. "His skill set, his ability to go out there and match up in different roles, play at a high level, knowing that teams are either game-planning to do different things to him to try to create confusion, and his ability to just go through play after play and be competitive, be tough.
"He has a great skill set," Patricia continued. "He tackles, he plays hard, he works even harder off the field. It’s something that’s so rare and unique — his ability to go in and study and outwork everybody that he plays against. Just his wanting to be great, his wanting to go compete and his wanting to go make the team better and go win. I think that’s everything that we want."
But what was it that Okudah said that hit Patricia so deeply? Well, both sides understandably preferred to keep the intimate details of the meeting between them, but Okudah said it had to do with his parents.
Okudah's mother and father moved to the United States from Nigeria before he was born. As a top high school prospect, he talked about the values they instilled in him growing up.
"I just got (my maturity) from my family's background, coming from an African ethnicity," Okudah told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "That's one of the things they focus on, just presenting yourself well because he have to make yourself look good in front of other people.
"Everything is based around school and how you can honor your family's name," Okudah said. "That means a lot to me. Not many people have the last name Okudah."
Sadly, Okudah's mother, Marie, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was a toddler. After battling the disease for more than a decade, she died in 2017, less than a month after Jeff had begun his freshman classes as an early enrollee at Ohio State.
In a letter addressed to his mom and published by The Player's Tribune in January, Okudah detailed how the coaching staff and his teammates at Ohio State helped him process and cope with his grief.
"Now I’m here, writing this letter, ready to move on to this next phase of my life — which makes it hard not to miss you a little extra," Okudah wrote. "Because the last time I had such a big change like this to make, when I was leaving high school for college, I had you by my side. And that was enough to let me know that everything was going to be O.K. Whereas this time, when I think about things, it feels like I’m on my own."
After years of hard work, months of speculation and a week he described as filled with anxiety about where he'd be drafted, Okudah will enter that next stage of his life as a member of the Lions.
And he couldn't wait to tell his mother about it.
“I know she would’ve been in tears," he said Thursday night. "Honestly, she didn’t really understand football like that just being born in Nigeria, but she knew what made me happy. So, I think just her seeing me smile, me being really excited, I think that it would just bring her to tears. She saw all the hard work. It was a moment that I was really just embracing each other in.
"I’m looking forward to getting to be myself tonight and just have a talk with her, a long talk with her."