COLLEGE PARK — In his mind, Chigoziem Okonkwo’s path to Maryland began when he scored his first touchdown as an 8-year-old playing youth football in Powder Springs, Georgia. It came on an 80-yard jet sweep — fittingly the same play call that led to his first touchdown as a Terp last season, 11 years later.
After the first touchdown, a different feeling came over the large boy everyone called “Chig” that he didn’t get playing other sports, especially tennis, a game he and his two older sisters played through the urging of their father, Charlton. The Okonkwo girls continued to play long after their little brother dropped it.
His dream of playing one day in the NFL was too strong.
“When I scored my first touchdown, I knew I wanted to play football for a long time,” Okonkwo, now a sophomore tight end at Maryland, said after practice Tuesday. “From that point, it really opened everything for me. I was like, ‘Wow, I love this sport.' That love for the game, it really drove me every day to work harder. As I got older and I got to high school, I was grinding for those [college] offers. I just wanted to do it at the highest level.”
There was something else that has driven Okonkwo the past four years. It happened when he was a sophomore in high school, outside Atlanta, when he received a frantic phone call on a Sunday night from his sister, Chika, a high school senior at the time. Okonkwo was out to dinner with his mother, Isioma, at a local Mexican restaurant.
Charlton Okonkwo, who dabbled in real estate and other businesses to support his family, had suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 55.
Suddenly, the younger Okonkwo was thrust into a new role, one that he will play for the rest of his life.
Isioma Okonkwo, who emigrated from Nigeria shortly after her husband did in the mid-1990s, said that when family and friends began to show up at their house to pay their respects after her husband’s death, most spoke to her youngest child before even talking with her.
“In our culture, the boys, even if they’re young or not, they’re always considered more important,” Isioma Okonkwo said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “When my husband passed, the people who came let him know that he’s the man and now he has the responsibility to take care of his mom and his sisters.”
Said Chig: “In our culture, [being] the man in the house is a really big deal. As the only male, I was the one giving my mom support."
When he was not trying to help his family, he was consumed by football. In many ways, it took his mind off the growing responsibility he felt.
“My dad’s passing made me focus more because it helped me get my mind off of it [his father’s death],” he said. “At the time, it also made me think deep down about why I played the sport. After seeing my entire family just down in a dark place and sad all the time, I knew football could be a way to bring joy to my family and put a lot of smiles on their faces.”
Even as a high school student, Okonkwo had already started being a role model for one of his cousins.
Before Charlton Okonkwo died, the family had taken in Joshua Ezeweani, who was a month older than their son. The elder Okonkwo was known throughout his family as a disciplinarian, and Joshua was starting to run with the wrong crowd. When his behavior continued at the high school the Okonkwo children were attending, the principal was about to expel him.
When he found out the family connection to Chig, the principal allowed his cousin to stay.
“He said that Chig made his [other students] better kids, he made them good,” Isioma Okonkwo recalled. “His principal said, ‘He’s such a hard worker, he doesn’t fight you about anything.' Everything is ‘Yes, sir.’ That’s what his coaches always say about him.’”
Said his 22-year-old sister Chika, now a senior at Georgia Tech studying computer science: “He has a way of drawing people to him. He knows what he wants and he knows how to take himself out of situations that are not going to benefit his future in order to make the right decision.”
A dual threat
While the dream of playing in the NFL is still a ways off for Okonkwo, he has started taking the necessary steps to make it a reality in his two seasons with the Terps.
The first was adding some 30 to 35 pounds to the 210 pounds he weighed when he first signed with Maryland. The second came in the past few months, when Okonkwo improved his relatively rudimentary blocking skills. In high school, Okonkwo said he “didn’t have my hand in the dirt too much.”
Asked how soon he realized that blocking was going to get him on the field more quickly in college, Okonkwo said: “I knew that immediately because my ultimate goal is to be an NFL tight end. NFL tight ends don’t only catch passes. Coming here, I embraced that role because I know I want to go to the league. That’s what drives me, knowing that I have to do both.”
“It was definitely harder, because I was also smaller,” he said. “As a freshman going up against seniors in college on Saturdays, it was definitely harder to move guys around. To get in the weight room and get stronger, just learn the technique and the footwork. It’s gotten easier.”
Fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ellis McKennie said he has seen blocking become a much bigger part of Okonkwo’s game.
“[It’s] wanting to block,” McKennie said Tuesday. “When you get a freshman tight end, they want to score touchdowns. Getting his drive in wanting to become a good blocker these past two years has been incredible. When we do individual [drills] and the tight ends come over with the offensive line, he’s asking coach [John] Reagan questions, trying to figure out the little things he can do to get better.”
Maryland coach Mike Locksley said that Okonkwo has made his biggest jump since spring practice — which ended with him being named the Most Valuable Player of the annual Red-White game — in his blocking, especially against defensive ends who often outweigh him by 30 pounds. Okonkwo is a “focal point” when it comes to blocking on the edge to free the team’s dynamic running backs, according to Locksley.
“In the area where I’ve seen him make some progress is in the C area — playing an in-line tight end position, blocking,” Locksley said after practice Wednesday. “Not even close to where he can be. But I think he’s really made strides in the fundamentals and the techniques that go along with blocking the area against defensive ends and bigger defenders as well as the physicality that goes along with playing in there.”
Still, Okonkwo is known more for being a playmaker. There was the initial touchdown on a 31-yard jet sweep last season as a freshman. It came in a 42-13 win over Minnesota, which Maryland (3-4, 1-3) will face on the road Saturday. The Golden Gophers (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) are ranked No. 17 in the country.
In a program that had all but ignored its tight ends as anything but run blockers and pass protectors in former coach DJ Durkin’s two seasons, Okonkwo added three more touchdowns under interim coach Matt Canada — a 54-yard run and 25-yard catch in a 63-33 win over Illinois and a recovery of a fumble in the end zone toward the end of regulation of a heartbreaking 52-51 overtime loss to then-No. 10 Ohio State.
Though Locksley wasn’t immediately aware of what he was getting with Okonkwo — one of the reasons the Terps pursued and signed graduate transfer Tyler Mabry of Buffalo — it didn’t take long for the newly hired coach to realize that the way he used Irv Smith Jr. and other tight ends as offensive coordinator at Alabama might work at Maryland.
“The thing I saw with Chig is that he has exceptional range as a pass receiver,” Locksley said Wednesday. “He’s a guy that wins at the top of the route. He’s a mismatch against linebackers typically.”
Locksley used his tight ends more to pass protect when a depleted offensive line led to quarterback Josh Jackson being sacked 10 times in a three-game stretch and eventually spraining his right ankle after one of them against Rutgers. However, Maryland’s tight ends seemed to get more involved in the passing game in last week’s 34-28 loss at home to Indiana.
Okonkwo caught a career-high five passes, including a 12-yard touchdown pass from redshirt junior Tyrrell Pigrome. It gave Okonkwo 16 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns this season. It is already the most catches by a Maryland tight end since Dave Stinebaugh caught 15 passes for 204 and three touchdowns in 2013.
Mabry, who early this season became the first Maryland tight end to catch touchdowns in back-to-back games, has 11 receptions for 142 yards and three touchdowns. He narrowly missed his fourth when it was ruled he stepped out of bounds after a 52-yard catch and run.
“Last year, I felt we were just running around a lot,” said Okonkwo, who caught six passes for 69 yards and a touchdown in 2018, the most by any Maryland tight end. “It’s like a decoy. This year, I feel our role’s increased. We’re always like a threat to catch the ball. I feel we impact the defense a lot. If they think we’re on the field to catch the ball, they have to worry about us and that can open up a lot of other stuff. If we go in there to block, we can help the run game too.”
Chika Okonkwo said her father’s death is “still a process, it’s something that will always be prevalent in our minds. It’s brought us all closer. We know that we’re all that we have left. We really appreciate each other more. Before something like that happens, especially if it’s out of the blue, you kind of think it’s going to be the way it is for a long time. I think we really value one another.”
As for her younger brother, it’s what could push him closer to his lifelong dream of making the NFL.
“It’s one of his main drivers,” Chika Okonkwo said. “My father always told us to reach for the stars, that we could do whatever we want. But he also wanted us to be good people and to have an impact. I think that my brother wants to make my father proud in everything that he does. It’s something we all do, but I think I see it in him the most. As the only son, he really wants to leave a mark in my father’s honor. It’s very cool.”
Said Okonkwo: “[My father’s death] made me pay more attention to the things he taught me in life like discipline, hard work and doing the right thing. All of those things contributed to my success on the field.”