nashville is Chig Okonkwo got his first taste of football at the age of 7 and fell in love with it.
Even his first position was not great.
“A fair fight,” the Titans said with a smile. “I was a really big kid, so I was a linebacker. But the second year I played running back and then I played receiver. From the beginning, I loved football. I was always 100 percent. It’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
From those early days at Pop Warner Field outside Powder Springs, Ga., to his prep days at Hillgrove (Ga.) High School and finally during his college years at the University of Maryland, Okonkwo’s love for the game only grew.
Then it was taken away and it changed his perspective forever.
Halfway through his rookie season, Okonkwo recalled one of the toughest times of his young life — when he was forced to retire in 2020 due to a medical condition — and said the experience made him even more grateful for his opportunity. In the NFL, with the Tennessee Titans.
“When all that happened, I didn’t know if I was going to play again,” Okonkwo said. “To be told you can’t play anymore is like a curse. But I always kept my faith and always believed.
“And for me, when I get a chance to play again, I don’t take it for granted anymore. I appreciate my opportunity. To come back, to be able to play the game that I love, it’s another level of appreciation right now. Absolutely.”
Okonkwo, a fourth-round pick of the Titans in the 2022 NFL Draft, sat out the 2020 season at Maryland after being diagnosed with myocarditis due to COVID-19.
Okonkwo said in the spring of 2020, he started having chest pains and went to the hospital for a check-up. He was referred to a cardiologist, at which time he was told that he had a scar on his heart.
Doctors advised Okonkwo to sit out for at least six months. Then, after prolonged complications and inconveniences, there was reason to fear the worst.
“That’s when I knew the season was over,” Okonkwo said. “At first there was a fear that my playing career might be over.”
Okonkwo, who played in 24 games over his first two collegiate seasons at Maryland, spent the fall of 2020 away from the team due to the COVID outbreak.
He spent most of his time studying in his room, mostly isolated from others.
“I think a lot,” he said. “I watched a lot of NFL games.”
Eventually, Okonkwo felt better, and heart tests showed that his heart was on the mend.
He returned to football in 2021, starting all 13 games for the Terrapins, posting career highs with 52 catches for 447 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns.
Along the way, he has become an intriguing prospect for NFL teams. He ended up at Tennessee, where the Titans were pleased with his progress.
“He did a great job,” Titans linebacker Ryan Tannehill said of Okonkwo. “For a young player to take his chance is what he did. When he gets in there and the ball comes in front of him, he seems to do a great job of being open, catching and entertaining. A tough, physical runner once he has the ball in his hands.”
In 10 games this season, Okonkwo has eight catches for 172 yards and a touchdown.
Okonkwo caught a 31-yard pass against the Packers, his third straight game with at least 30 yards. Okonkwo caught a 41-yard touchdown pass against the Broncos, and he turned a short reception into a 48-yard gain against the Chiefs. Okonkwo scored his first NFL touchdown on October 2 against the Colts.
Okonkwo is the only Titans tight end to have at least 30 yards receiving in three consecutive games since the start of the 2000 season.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel said the team needs to find more ways to get Okonkwo the ball.
“He’s definitely working,” Vrabel said of Okonkwo. “He’s working there and trying to find a role for us. … He uses his skill and speed, whether on field goal kicks or on the punt team. He works hard at blocking. He can run. He was a solid pass catcher. … (We’ve got to) continue to find ways to get him the football.”
Okonkwo, whose 52 receptions are second in Maryland history in a single season behind former Titans Frank Wichek (58; 1990), said he is working to become the best player he can be in the NFL. .
Clearly, Okonkwo has made progress.
Okonkwo is living his dream and is grateful for the opportunity.
“My whole life, that’s all I know,” Okonkwo said. “I’ve always had a special love for the game, and now it’s another level of appreciation.”