When Romeo Okwara moved with his family from Nigeria when he was 10, there were two staples of American life he was eager to try: McDonald’s and football.
The latter proved to be a more challenging pursuit.
While Big Macs and Quarter Pounders helped Okwara fill out, he needed more football polish after being cut from south Charlotte’s Community House Middle School team as an eighth-grader.
But a couple of growth spurts and eight years of football at Ardrey Kell and Notre Dame have put Okwara on the doorstep of the NFL. Okwara, a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end, is considered a middle- to late-round prospect in this month’s draft.
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Okwara is still relatively young – agewise and in football years. At 20, Okwara will need his parents to co-sign his first NFL contract, as they did when he signed with an agent after his senior season.
But Okwara, who was 16 when he arrived on Notre Dame’s campus in the summer of 2012, has tried to spin his youthfulness into a positive when meeting with NFL scouts and coaches.
“That’s one of the first questions – how young I am and why am I so young?” Okwara said. “I also think it’s a good thing because I show so much growth and more potential at that age.”
Most draft analysts use words such as “raw” when describing Okwara.
But Okwara has come a long way since failing to lock down a roster spot on the Community House team as a scrawny middle-schooler. He had grown up playing soccer in Nigeria but started watching the NFL’s Carolina Panthers when his family moved to Charlotte and decided he wanted to give it a shot.
“I was very new to the game. So I didn’t really know a lot. But I definitely learned,” he said during an interview last week at Ardrey Kell. “Eighth grade, I thought I had a pretty good tryout. I think I had some gifts physically and athletically,” but he couldn’t say why he was cut. “Who knows?”
Growth spurt, position change
Okwara says he grew nearly 6 inches before his freshman year of high school, a spurt that left him with sore knees and tendinitis.
“His body was built too small, but he just grew, and that was it,” said his mother, Melda.
But Okwara was still having trouble with the football fundamentals when he tried out as a wide receiver for the Knights’ junior varsity team.
“I just went out there and started running some routes. And immediately the coach told me to go play D-line, which is really funny,” Okwara said. “I guess it ended up working for the best.”
When Adam Hastings was hired as Ardrey Kell’s coach in 2010, he noticed Okwara when he watched tape of the junior varsity games.
“I remember looking at the JV film and seeing this guy who seemed like he was 145 pounds. I mean he was not big at all,” Hastings said. “But you could see there was something special about him.”
Colleges take notice
As Okwara continued to grow and improve as a player, colleges started to notice. His first scholarship offer came from Duke, followed by Vanderbilt, Central Florida and most of the ACC schools.
He was ready to commit to North Carolina when the father of Prince Shembo, an Ardrey Kell standout who played at Notre Dame, stopped by his house and urged Okwara to visit South Bend. Okwara, a 3.5 GPA student in high school, was wowed by the Fighting Irish’s football tradition and academic offerings.
Okwara, who was 3 when he started school in Nigeria, was a 17-year-old freshman in 2012 when the Irish went undefeated before losing to Alabama in the national championship game. Okwara played on special teams in the 42-14 loss.
Okwara played outside linebacker his first two seasons but moved to defensive end after Brian VanGorder was hired as defensive coordinator and installed a 4-3 scheme. Hastings, now at Providence Day, says he has heard from other players who wanted to transfer in similar situations.
“That was never a conversation at all for Romeo,” Hastings said.
A natural defensive end
Okwara looked more natural at defensive end, leading the Irish in sacks in 2014 (four) and 2015 (eight) and earning an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game in January. Okwara also worked out at the NFL scouting combine and Notre Dame’s pro day.
At the advice of his agent, Okwara turned down an invitation last week to attend the Panthers’ local pro day, which are generally showcases for lower-rated prospects. But Okwara said the Panthers helped fuel his passion for football when his parents and three siblings came to the States.
“I never really watched any football until I moved over here and started watching the Panthers,” he said. “I started watching Julius Peppers and Steve Smith, those guys.”
Okwara graduated in December with an accounting degree from Notre Dame, but not before hosting his brother Julian on a recruiting visit. Julian, a 6-4, 215-pound defensive end, signed with the Irish in February and will head to South Bend this summer.
The brothers have been working out at Ardrey Kell since Romeo returned to Charlotte last week after training in Las Vegas. Julian laughed and shook his head when asked if his older brother was again the big man on campus.
But several teachers and former coaches commented on how much muscle Romeo gained in college, with Ardrey Kell principal David Switzer joking about the Knights needing to get more weights for Okwara to lift.
A close family
Hastings was complimentary of Okwara’s parents, saying Melda, who works in Novant Health’s billing department, and Julius, who owns a Nigerian water company and is involved in real estate there, kept close tabs on their four children.
Julius travels to Nigeria a lot for his work but stayed in communication with Hastings.
“Any time I get a phone call that’s got about 15 digits on my phone, I know it’s his dad,” said Hastings, who also coached Julian and the boys’ older brother, Jimel.
“Their first question was never football. It was always, are they doing the right thing, and are they doing well in class?” Hastings recalled.
The answer was inevitably yes.
“Let me put it like this,” Hastings said. “If you said you need to bet a lot of what you have when it comes to your possessions on Romeo being successful in life – not just the NFL but past that – I wouldn’t think twice about it.”