In 11 days from the publishing of this article, it will have been exactly one year from the moment Detroit Lions 2020 first-round pick Jeff Okudah tore his Achilles. It was a devastating injury for both the Lions and Okudah, as expectations were high for him going into Year 2 of his career under a new coaching staff.
Since then, Okudah has aggressively tackled his rehab. He traveled all across the continent looking for experts in the field.
“I was in California, Atlanta, Dallas, Canada. I was out here (in Detroit) for a little bit,” Okudah said. “Just looking for the best of the best. People that had the most experience with what I dealt with, and, honestly, to give myself the best (chance to rehab). I mean, you could do everything you can, but it’s really out of your control. So I tried to give myself the best chance to come back healthy.”
The work paid off. Okudah showed up to training camp with the green light for full participation. He didn’t feel physically limited or mentally limited. For him, it was just a matter of getting back to the routine of competitive football for the first time in 11 months.
“It’s just more of a feel thing,” Okudah said. “Just feeling things out and letting the game come to you, rather than maybe going out of your way to make a play. Just staying within your lane.”
The game didn’t come right back to him. As he competed with Will Harris for a starting job, it was truly neck-and-neck for the first couple weeks of camp. During those trials and tribulations, Okudah was careful not to be too hard on himself. Be patient.
All of it—the preparation, both physical and mental—has paid off in the last few weeks of practice. He has started to stack days, make plays, and visibly distance himself from Harris. After the team’s final preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, coach Dan Campbell awarded him the starting job.
“There’s nothing after these two weeks to tell me that that’s not his job right now,” Campbell said.
In a lot of ways, that’s a heck of an accomplishment in and of itself. From going down with one of the more devastating injuries in football to being right back in a starting job in less than a year is an achievement worth a little pat on the back. And after being told by the coaching staff to take time to appreciate “small victories,” Okudah admits he’s proud of where he’s at today.
“I think the work that I invested into that process definitely is paying dividends right now,” Okudah said. “So I’m just kind of trying to enjoy the fruits of my labor, honestly.”
Those fruits, according to Okudah, are that—statistically speaking—he’s stronger and faster than he was even before the injury. But despite those physical improvements, Okudah is still looking forward and pushing those goalposts a little further.
“I try not to be too hard on myself and just be a little bit proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish, but with that being said, I still try to keep the mentality of ‘work’s not finished,’” Okudah said. “We still have a lot more to accomplish. So I’m proud, but at the same time, I’m still as motivated as ever for some reason, because I don’t think I’ve come close to accomplishing my goals.”