All he wanted, really, was a second chance. He just wanted to redeem himself in the eyes of his coaches and teammates.
A talented 6-foot-1-inch, 213-pounder from Lanham, Md., Okechukwu Okoroha played in 21 football games at Boston College, making six starts at the end of the 2010 season. Projected as the Eagles’ starting free safety in 2011, Okoroha was dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons before the start of the season. He had failed a drug test.
Okoroha pleaded for a reprieve, but BC coach Frank Spaziani was resolute in his decision after Okoroha said he tested positive for marijuana.
“I felt I was owed another chance,’’ said Okoroha, who didn’t play in 2011, but accumulated enough credits to graduate with a communications degree, which helped pave the way for his transfer to Marshall.
“I personally felt that it wasn’t a fair situation for me,’’ Okoroha said. “It was my first [failed] drug test. Other people failed their first one and it was just a warning. But I accepted it. I accepted what I did because I put myself in that situation for that to happen.’’
But accepting his life as a football exile was difficult. Okoroha loved football. He had played it all his life. But now, Okoroha was forced to adapt to a new normal. He trained hard at the student recreation complex, stayed on top of his grades in order to graduate and transfer.
“There wasn’t anything, really, to replace [football],’’ Okoroha said. “It was just the belief that I was going to get back on the field somewhere. It was just keeping that hope. That’s all I had, really — it was just hope. It was the belief I was going to play again. So I just tried to stay as positive as I could.’’
When the Eagles played at home, Okoroha stayed away from Alumni Stadium. It hurt too much to sit in the stands.
“On the weekends, I used to watch all the college football games from my room,’’ he said. “There wasn’t anything to actually replace it. I couldn’t stand to be off the field during the games, it was heartbreaking.’’
Okoroha wasn’t alone.
He was joined by Dominick LeGrande, who left the team and decided to transfer shortly after Okoroha’s dismissal.
“Dom, we’ve been real close friends since the camp of our freshman year,’’ Okoroha said. “I wouldn’t go through this situation with anybody else. We became best friends and we were roommates since our freshman year. We always did everything together.’’
It appeared, however, they were going to have to part ways when Okoroha explored an opportunity to transfer to Penn State and LeGrande looked at Maryland. But when Marshall, in dire need of experienced players to bolster its depleted secondary, expressed an interest in both, Okoroha was elated.
“That was a blessing,’’ he said. “We had been talking to two different teams at first, until Marshall called us and said they actually needed two safeties and were willing to bring in the both of us.’’
It proved mutually beneficial, as Marshall provided Okoroha a platform to showcase his skills, and the Thundering Herd got a player who helped bring stability to the secondary.
“The previous year, before I got dismissed, I had started the last six games, and my thoughts were I was going to have two full years on the field and being able to show what I could actually do,’’ said Okoroha. “But having that year taken away from me was really devastating. I missed a whole year, so I couldn’t use it as a redshirt. I knew if I went to Marshall, I couldn’t have just a regular season.’’
Okoroha made 108 tackles (43 solo) to go with four pass breakups, three tackles for loss, and one fumble recovery. He was the team’s No. 2 tackler behind LeGrande (132), whose total ranked second in Conference USA and sixth in the nation.
While he was not invited to the combine, Okoroha hopes his dismissal from BC will not derail his dream of playing in the NFL.
But was his senior season at Marshall enough to make NFL scouts take notice?
“I felt like it was definitely enough, but I’m the type of guy who will always think, ‘I could’ve done more,’ ’’ Okoroha said. “But at the same time, I feel like I definitely did enough, making over 100 tackles, and Dom having over 100 tackles.’’
During a pro day last month at Marshall, where some 24 NFL scouts turned out to see wideout prospect Aaron Dobson clock a 40-yard dash, Okoroha revealed himself to be something of a poor man’s Kenny Vaccaro, the University of Texas star projected to be the first safety taken in this week’s draft.
“I had a very productive day,’’ Okoroha said. “I ran well, I lifted well, but I didn’t do as well as I had wanted in the vertical. I was really upset about that. It was the first thing we did during the workout, but I tried not to let it ruin my day.’’
Just as he had after getting dismissed from BC, Okoroha regrouped and persevered.
“I wouldn’t change anything about it,’’ Okoroha said. “I had a great experience at BC. Leaving there hurt, but it made me grow up as a man.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.