Editor’s note: We originally published this story in our high school football preview in fall 2015. We’ve republished it given recent interest in Julian Okwara and his older brother, Julian, becoming teammates for the NFL’s Detroit Lions.
By Ben Doster
Call it the luck of the Fighting Irish that landed the University of Notre Dame a commitment from Ardrey Kell defensive end Julian Okwara.
“Notre Dame is where I feel like I’m supposed to be, because my family is always about the degree, and getting your schoolwork done,” Okwara said. “I’d come home and get school work done before I’d do anything else.
“I wanted to study something in business. I wanted to major in business management. They were 10th in the nation for that… Everything felt right football-wise, school-wise, coaches-wise, people I wanted to be surrounded with. Everything felt like home.”
Okwara, who is rated as a four-star recruit and the No. 14 overall prospect in North Carolina by Rivals.com, enters the 2015 season with high expectations for an epic final campaign with the Knights after making 90 tackles and 10 sacks last fall.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound English-born son of Nigerian immigrants might have the highest ceiling of potential of any high school football player in Charlotte – and maybe all prep athletes in the Queen City.
He didn’t start playing football until he was a 13-year-old eighth-grader, but he was blessed with elite athleticism cultivated through playing a variety of sports.
Okwara, who does flips and backflips for fun, ran track, swam, played tennis, soccer and basketball before he reached the gridiron.
Those sports showed him how to use his body in different ways, developed his footwork and eye-hand coordination, which have all translated to his play on the football field.
“My parents kind of forced me to be outside and stuff,” Okwara said. “They
didn’t want to keep me inside playing video games. I did a lot of physical activity stuff.”
He played safety when he took up the sport, but decided he wanted to play wide receiver like his older brother, Romeo Okwara. But it was former Ardrey Kell coach and current Providence Day coach Adam Hastings that moved him to defensive end – and the position fit like a glove.
“I came out here and lined up in line at wide receiver,” Okwara said. “Coach Hastings was staring at me like, ‘What are you doing? Go down to d-end.’
“I started liking d-end a lot… By tenth grade, I was picking it up a little bit. I was starting. In eleventh grade, I was starting over some seniors just be a playmaker.”
Okwara, who spent a good portion of his childhood in Nigeria, moved with his family to Charlotte when he was 8 years old.
The transition was difficult for him early, and other kids made fun of him because he couldn’t speak English well.
But Okwara persevered through their derision. And just because he struggled to verbalize the English language as a child doesn’t mean he struggled to read and write; in fact, he was proficient in those areas compared to his classmates.
When teachers assigned essays he would finish in two hours, while other students spent the entire day slaving on theirs.
“Everyone made fun of me,” Okwara said. “I’d take it to heart sometimes, but going on I realized you shouldn’t pay attention to little things like that, just pay attention to things ahead of you. Don’t listen to other people, just go on with whatever you want.
“Coming into high school, everything started kicking in. People tried to act like I’m friends with them or act like their friends with me just to get by. I try to focus on school, football and the things that matter the most.”
Okwara is a quick learner and it’s helped him not only in the classroom, but in athletics, too.
“I feel like what makes me a good player is I’m very coachable,” Okwara said. “I learn things fast. When I started playing tennis, I was getting the hang of it a little bit. After a couple of months, I was beating kids higher level than me.
“I was 13, beating 17-year-olds. Everything kind of comes to me real quick. Football, it took me two years to get the hang of it. Everyone started playing when they were little kids. Being coachable and able to learn stuff real fast helps you learn stuff in the long run.”
Okwara remembers other people used to tell him he wasn’t a good football player, and it would make him mad. He channeled that anger to a driving determination to learn the game and get better. He began to take football seriously as a sophomore.
“My first step off the ball is real fast,” Okwara said. “I’ve always practiced running, real explosiveness, using my hands real well I get off the ball, using my hands to get to the quarterback.
“This season individually, I feel like I want to be a more vocal leader, more
physical leader, but in school, I want to be a leader in general. I want to leave AK knowing people look up to me.”
The sky is the limit this year for Okwara. He’s ready to lead Ardrey Kell and the Knights, who already have high expectations lined up for them before the season begins.
But even if the season doesn’t end with a league title or state championship ring, Okwara knows what’s most important.
“Seeing little kids come out here for the youth football camp, and coaching them … I was messing with the little kids, spraying water on them, teaching them how to play football,” Okwara said. “They were coming up to me, asking me, ‘Do you play football? What position do you play?’ All of
that stuff means a lot even though it’s the littlest things. You take that for granted.”