Editor’s note: We originally published this story in our high school football preview in fall 2011. We’ve republished it given recent interest in Romeo Okwara and his younger brother, Julian, becoming teammates for the NFL’s Detroit Lions.
By Aaron Garcia
“I want to get three sacks per game.”
Though the words roll off Romeo Okwara’s tongue rather easily and confidently, his eyebrows recede slightly, as if to say, “No, really! Three!”
Three sacks per game. It sounds like a reasonable goal for the upcoming football season, at least for Okwara, Ardrey Kell’s dynamic defensive end who committed to Notre Dame this summer.
But Okwara’s eyebrows are perhaps a little justified in playing the role of salesman. After all, a lot goes into getting just a single sack. First, you have to beat the offensive player charged with stopping you, and in the Southwestern 4A conference, that’s no easy task. After that, it’s a matter of whether or not the quarterback still has the ball or if he’s close enough to catch. Did he hand it off? Will he throw it away? Will someone else get to him first?
Three sacks a game can be a tall order, even for some of the best pass rushers.
If Okwara accomplishes his goal for the season and indeed brings down the opposing quarterback three times per game, then he’ll have solidified himself as a dominant force in high school football, as many expect him to be.
Just consider his list of scholarship offers that have rolled in lately: Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Clemson, South Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, Louisville, Illinois, Maryland and of course, Notre Dame. And those are just the ones off the top of his head.
Rivals.com reports that Georgia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Virginia Tech were all looking to get into the Okwara lottery.
But really, whether or not Okwara flattens quarterbacks at a clip of three times per game, his senior season alone will mark a pretty remarkable milestone in a story that started with a 10-year-old boy from Nigeria moving across the world with his family in search of greater opportunities, a place with a higher ceiling.
But his Nigerian upbringing, especially in his early years of school, served him well. When he enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, he was advanced enough to move up a grade. Academically and physically, he kept up; after playing soccer growing up, Okwara made the Community House Middle School football team as a linebacker on his first try in seventh grade.
But it wasn’t all success. Okwara was cut from the team as an eighth-grader when he struggled to keep up. But deep down, Okwara said he understood the decision.
“I got over it because I really didn’t know what was going on on the field back then,” he said with a shrug. “But I just worked hard and learned the positions a little bit better.”
The next year, Okwara went out for the Ardrey Kell team as a 6-foot ninth-grader and stuck as a defensive lineman. His progress continued, and as a junior last year, he had a breakout season with 70 tackles and nine sacks while helping the Knights to an 8-5 record and a second-round appearance in the Class 4AA playoffs.
So, it makes sense that Okwara has big goals. After the journey he’s taken, why not shoot high? After all, he’s carried a GPA well above 3.0 through his first three years of high school.
But the thing that has made the recruiters drool most is the fact that, despite being 6 foot 5 and 235 pounds, Okwara’s early advancement left him young for his grade as a 16-year-old senior.
“There were some schools on him early because they saw his potential,” Ardrey Kell coach Adam Hastings said. “He’s a tall kid, he’s lanky and has a real long reach, but he does a really good job with his hands. He gets extension and does some things that kids his age can’t do.
“As far as recruiting, when he told me he was just 15, that’s when I knew he was going to go from getting offers (from smaller schools) to getting offers to places like Clemson and Miami and Notre Dame, Pitt, Louisville, West Virginia and all those big schools that come through here. That’s when I realized he’d start pulling those kinds of offers.”
Fortunately for Hastings and the rest of the Knights, Okwara has avoided having a big ego and takes a more natural, laid-back approach to the attention he’s gotten. For Okwara, moving thousands of miles to the U.S. meant his academic future was as important as his football-playing one, which was an ideal he has maintained.
“I think he just took it in stride,” Hastings said. “He appreciated the attention, but I think he also took a businesslike approach to it, (where he said), ‘OK, this is a big decision for me, I need to make the right decisions, and I need to make sure I’m doing everything to put myself in that position.’”
It also helped that he had a friend in Ardrey Kell alumnus Prince Shembo, who also migrated from Nigeria before starring for Ardrey Kell as a senior in 2009. Like Okwara, Shembo also committed to Notre Dame and is starting as a junior linebacker for the Irish this fall.
“It wasn’t just (Shembo), but all my other teammates right now – (senior defensive lineman) Ian Dibble and (senior tight end) Kyle Duke, all of them – have helped me get used to (life over here),” Okwara said.
Now, with his college decision all but made – recruits can’t sign National Letters of Intent until February of their senior years – Okwara wants to finish his high school career with more team success, and tallying three sacks per contest sure would help.
“I want to be a leader and get everyone on the same page,” Okwara said. “(I’m) working my best every day and believe in my teammates that they can do their own job. We should be pretty good.”