Where the Grass Is Greener

Todd Rosenberg/AP Images

When the pandemic started, I guess we all needed to find hobbies to help us pass the time. 

For me, it was reading.

This has been a pretty big year for me — transitioning from college to the NFL and dealing with all the expectations that come with that — so I’ve taken to reading things related to ... well, I suppose you could call it enlightenment. No, I haven’t cracked that code yet, but I have learned some things that have helped me. 

In particular, there was this quote I read not too long ago that I really liked. It’s from a book called Chop Wood, Carry Water, by Joshua Medcalf.  It’s a pretty simple spin on a saying we’ve all heard a bunch: “The grass is not always greener on the other side, it's greener where you water it."

I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot and how it relates to my journey to this point. For as long as I can remember, my motivation has been about doing whatever I can to make a better life for me and my family. And I’m grateful for that mentality — that relentless determination that pushed me every day to become a top football prospect, get recruited by a great college program and someday get drafted to play in the NFL. But at the same time, I realize that, while setting a goal and accomplishing it are amazing things, they don’t necessarily equate to happiness and fulfillment. 

That’s something that requires a different kind of work that’s constant, and that happens internally. It’s about consistently watering the grass around you today so that it will grow tomorrow, and being grateful for what you have now because of the previous effort you’ve exerted.

So, while I’m extremely blessed to be in this position, starting my first NFL season in a new city, I also feel profoundly grateful right now for the journey that got me here.

More than I ever realized. 

Courtesy of Jeff Okudah

The first thing that really comes to me when I think back on my early upbringing are smells coming from a kitchen.

I grew up in a town called Parsippany, New Jersey. My family lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment that you could probably take a full tour of in about 30 seconds. It was kind of old looking. And it just wasn’t really what most people would consider “nice.” But when I was young, that was never something that really bothered me. Of course, I had dreams of one day buying a big house with two stories and a huge yard — the type of place that symbolizes that you’ve really made it. Those dreams definitely motivated me, but back then living in a small apartment was just what was normal — and we made it work.

Because the apartment was tiny, every room was filled with the smells of whatever was being made in the kitchen. Fortunately for us, my mom was a great cook. Being from Nigeria, she would make us traditional African dishes, but she also would put her own spin on things like spaghetti and hot wings. Man, just thinking about the smells lingering in that kitchen makes my stomach rumble.

What I learned from not having a ton of space was how to use the space I did have well. You figure out how to make it work and find your own escapes.

For me early on that was video games. That was what transported me into a different world. If the living room TV wasn’t occupied, it was almost like a vacation for me. I’d switch on Madden and get in as many dubs as I could. But the living room TV actually being available was always a huge if. And being the youngest meant always being last on the depth chart when it came to TV time.

I still vividly remember being in my room, biding my time for the instant the TV would be free. I’d wait until the coast seemed clear, then I’d slowly wander to the doorway with a sense of excitement and hope …  before hearing the theme music from House, that TV show with the doctor. If I heard that song or that actor’s voice, I knew it was a wrap. That was my mom’s favorite show. When House was on, it was her TV. And like I’m sure it’s a fine show, but to this day just thinking about that House guy makes my heart sink. That feeling of, Well, no Madden happening here.

So if the TV wasn’t free, that left me with one other option: Outside. And that’s where I spent a lot of my time — and honestly, it was the best time. We lived in a cluster of apartment complexes. And while we didn’t have a lot of green space, we did have more than enough kids in the neighborhood to play every kind of sport. 

You learn a lot about yourself playing football on the sketchy mix of patchy grass, rocks and concrete we had around our playground. I can’t tell you how many scratches and bruises I got from laying out to make a play because what else are you gonna do? Protect your body? Please. When I think back on my childhood, those are the times I miss. Not scratching myself up on concrete, but just playing. You know?

As I got older, sports became way more competitive and a lot of stuff changed. The crowds got bigger and so did the playbooks and the other players. But the thing that has never changed was that feeling of excitement, competitiveness and joy I got from playing sports — that all tracks back to my old neighborhood when I was just a kid messing around with my friends. 

Playing with friends and messing around was always fun because my mom was pretty strict growing up. There was this level of discipline that honestly I would get pretty sick of. Beyond the usual stuff like chores, homework and never talking back, two of the biggest things were that I always had my hair brushed and that I always had to say, “Good morning,” to start the day. Not, “Hey,” not “How are you?” and definitely not just, “Morning.” It always had to be, “Good morning,” first thing or I would be in trouble. And I got in trouble a lot for that one because I thought it was a dumb thing. My family saw me every single day. Why did it matter if I said good morning or not?

Who cares that much about saying good morning?

It’s interesting looking back on that time now because my perspective on it has changed a lot.

Like I was saying, growing up, I used to fantasize all the time about where I’d live when I was older. I’d think about that time in the future, after I put in the work and made it to the NFL or did well in business, when I could finally get that dream house. But not for me. I wanted it all for my mom. 

She deserved a huge kitchen to make whatever she wanted, beautiful rooms to decorate how she pleased, and yeah, a huge TV to watch any number of shows that I don’t enjoy whenever she wanted.

I’d tell her about the house I was going to buy her all the time. When I didn’t have money, but I knew I had potential, I put so much weight into that promise and so much work into making it come true. And wanting to fulfill that promise became such a powerful force for me. Whenever there was a distraction or something that might send me down the wrong path, what kept me from straying was that dream of building my mom the home she deserved. 

Then we’d be happy. 

Courtesy of Jeff Okudah

It’s funny, since I got to the Lions, I’ve noticed this small thing I can do that seems to brighten up people’s day.

Like it’s so small, I’m surprised it’s even a thing.

Whenever I get to the facility to start the day and I pass by another person in the hallway, for some reason, I instinctively always tell that person good morning. 

It’s not a big deal — it’s literally the very least I can do interaction-wise. But I’ve noticed that when I do it, the other person’s energy picks up a bit. They perk up. Maybe it’s because I’m the new rookie and they don’t expect to hear from me, or because I’m the first person to say good morning to them that day. But it always seems to leave an impression.

Many of you know about my mom's battle with Lymphoma. Even though it’s been a few years, I still pick up on more and more tiny lessons she instilled in me while she was alive — little gifts that I had no idea were gifts at the time. 

Like making another person’s day better simply by saying good morning.

It turns out that, while I was dreaming about the future and the life I wanted to create for myself and my family, my mom was watering the grass — making it greener right where I already was, laying the foundation for what home truly is. She was giving me the discipline I needed to stay on the right path, the kindness I needed to treat others the right way, and, honestly, the toughness I needed to lay out to catch a football on concrete, because it’s still better than watching House (no disrespect).

Now I understand that there’s a lot more to owning a home than just the features and accessories. You need to tend to it and fill it with all the things you can’t necessarily see or touch, things like morals, laughter and love. And of course, you need to water the grass. 

I know that now because, as it turns out, my mom already taught me everything I needed in order to make a home.