When Jeff Okudah first learned that he tore his Achilles in the Detroit Lions’ 2021 season opener, he did what a lot of us do when dealing with an injury or illness. He googled it.
“Pretty basic search, ‘Torn Achilles,’” Okudah explained on Thursday in his first media sessions since the injury. “Looked at athletes that have had it in the past.”
And off he went to recovery. He quickly got into contact with some professional athletes who had returned from one of the more serious sports injuries. He slid into the Instagram DMs of NBA stars John Wall and Boogie Cousins looking for inspiration and guidance on how to recover.
“They just kind of gave me the confidence to know the Achilles will be the least of your worries,” Okudah explained. “It will be about getting back mentally, taking care of the rest of your body.”
The physical rehabilitation, Okudah explained, was the easier part. Obviously, it’s not easy for most people, but professional athletes have to put their bodies through physical exertion the likes of which many of us never go through. This was just another step in that process.
“The rehab is going to be a strenuous process, but something you’re really accustomed to being an athlete, especially playing a sport this long,” Okudah said.
The mental part, though, was not easy, and it started with the heartbreak of losing his second year in the NFL before even finishing his first game. After the game, he got in the car with his aunt Jane, a mother-like figure for him, and broke down in tears. She had never seen him cry before.
“The second I got into the car with my aunt, I just broke down and started crying,” Okudah said. “A lot of emotion kind of poured over me. She had never really seen me cry before, but it was a lot of like—I just had big hopes for that last year. So that day I was really down. It kind of felt like I was living a nightmare honestly, man.”
Another tough day through the rehab was when the Lions finally got their first win of the season in Week 13, breaking through following their 0-10-1 start. While Okudah was obviously happy for the team, he wanted, more than anything else, to be a part of it.
“I just wish, almost selfishly, that I could have just been out there and helped some kind of way,” Okudah said. “I know all the work these guys put in and I could only imagine how great that moment felt because it felt great for me and I wasn’t even playing.”
Several things helped Okudah get over the mental hurdle of the devastating injury. First was watching undrafted rookie cornerback Jerry Jacobs play. Jacobs had clung to Okudah the previous spring and summer to help teach him the way. Okudah was a mentor and a model of hard work and devotion.
“He’s taking me in a great way,” Jacobs said after training camp. “The first day I met him and the days we’ve been talking since, it’s just been love. I feel like he is my brother. He takes me home every day, and we just talk, we go eat. It’s just great being around Jeff.”
Jacobs was a long-shot to make the roster. However, after collaborating with Okudah, he not only landed on the 53-man roster, but he eventually found his way into the starting lineup and played well. Okudah took pride in Jacobs’ accomplishments, and it even provided him with confidence in his own game.
“There were times it almost felt like I was playing through Jerry, you know?” Okudah said. “Me and Jerry had all these conversations, took him under my wing during training camp. Just to see his growth was so cool for me because it showed me the things we talked about were translatable to the game. It just gave me so much confidence in myself that when I get back, I can do it because we’ve had these conversations and spoke in detail about how we’re going to attack these receivers.”
Okudah also took inspiration from his own mother, whose long battle with lymphoma came to an end in 2017. She was diagnosed when Okudah was just a young child, and he witnessed her not only battle cancer for a decade, but raise him and his sister while doing it.
“I thought, ‘Who better to look at than my mother and the adversity that she went through in her life?’” Okudah said. “I just kind of leaned on the things that I’ve seen from her, and if she can do it, I can do it. If she can show resilience, I can also display that same resilience because I’ve seen it (first)-hand how strong someone can actually be, especially when it’s even more adverse circumstances.”
Now it appears he’s just about ready to take the field full-time again. Throughout OTAs, he’s in the starting lineup during walkthroughs at the beginning of practice, and he’s going through positional drills with the rest of the cornerback group. At this point, he’s only being held out of full 11-on-11 drills, but he knows it’s best for him to sometimes pull back even when his instincts are to go, go, go.
“Sometimes, I need to protect me from myself,” Okudah said. “So you just have people that you trust around you that are like, ‘Hey man, you’ve been going pretty hard, you need to tone it down these next few days. Trust me, it’s not going to delay your progress.’”
But it’s only a matter of time before he’s officially back. It’s not if, but when—and when appears to be coming pretty soon.
“I really feel good about where he’s come and where the injury’s at,” head coach Dan Campbell said. “I feel like he’s right where he needs to be. I would say in some regards, that’s the least of my concerns, is the Achilles, and that’s a good thing.”
With the physical rehabilitation mostly behind him, it’s now on Okudah to prove it on the field, something he struggled to do in his rookie season and never truly got the chance to prove last year. He won’t be able to prove it until the season starts in September, but until then, he’s going to let his hunger take over.
“I feel like I’ve been hungry like I haven’t ate in years,” Okudah said. “That hunger has just been inside of me since the injury. Really, even before the injury. I’ve had that feeling, man, for like two years, just that hunger. I’m ready to go out there and play to the best of my ability, honestly.”
I would highly suggest watching Okudah’s entire media session here.