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A Letter To My Mom

Jan 1 2020
Photo by
Ed Ruvalcaba/IOS/AP
Photo by
Ed Ruvalcaba/IOS/AP
Jeff Okudah
Detroit Lions
Jan 1 2020

Dear Mom,

I’m going to start by telling you something you already know: I miss you.

Now I’m going to tell you something nobody’s known until right at this moment: I’m officially declaring for the NFL draft.

I’m 20 years old, if you can believe it — which means it’s been almost three full years since the two most important things in my life happened. First, in January of 2017, I enrolled early at the Ohio State University. And then second, later that same month, you lost your long battle with lymphoma.

You passed away.

It’s hard to put into words, everything that’s happened since then. But certain memories have a way of standing out.

I remember when Coach Schiano brought me into his office and told me you’d passed. And I could tell right away from that meeting — how he spoke to me, how he comforted me — that he wasn’t just doing his job. Coach was there for me, really there for me, as a father figure. He knew I was a long way from home in Texas….. and he did everything he could to let me know that, while Ohio State might not feel like home yet, it was a place that I could count on. It was a place where I could show my emotions, and that would be O.K. It was a place where I could grieve, however I needed to, and no one would judge me. It was a place where everyone would have my back.

Courtesy of Jeff Okudah (2)

I hope knowing that makes you smile a little, Mom — just knowing that we really did end up choosing the right school. It’s probably not very often that someone can know they picked the right college to go to after only a week of being there….. but for me that’s what it was like with Ohio State. I’d barely even gotten settled there. I’d only been to a few classes. Hadn’t played a down. Hadn’t done anything yet for the program. But there everyone was, even still, stepping up when I needed them to, and treating me like I was family, no questions asked. It felt like the entire school was there for me — checking on me, rallying around me, sharing in my pain.

Three friends in particular really came through in a special way: Baron and Tate (my freshman year roommates), and J.K. I know you had always liked Baron, from knowing him a little back home — and you would have been proud of him for the way he helped me like a true brother when you passed. Traveled back with me for the funeral and everything. And Baron was also really good about encouraging me to keep plenty of room in my life for your memory. We’d be getting ready for a big game, and Baron would just come up beside me and say something like, “Let’s do this for your mom,” or, “This one, man, it’s for Ms. Marie.” That always meant a lot.

It felt like the entire school was there for me — checking on me, rallying around me, sharing in my pain.

And then Tate, you know….. I think you really would have liked Tate. You raised me to trust my own compass, and judge people for myself — and I think Tate is one of these guys where there’s this perception of him that just isn’t true. He was always reaching out to me after you passed, and not in a way where it felt like some obligation on his part. It was like my pain was his pain, and he wanted me to know that. He made me feel like I was a part of his family — his mom would even check up on me. And little stuff like that means everything when you’ve just lost your own mom. Tate was always there for whatever I needed. 

And then J.K., he really came up big in the way that he was able to relate to everything I was experiencing, firsthand. His father had passed away in prison five years ago….. and so he was kind of on a similar mental path as mine, only a little further along. And he just taught me so many helpful things about grief, especially grieving a parent, and especially doing that while trying to excel at something like high-level football. J.K. showed me how he got in a mindset where, it’s like, everything he does, it’s to honor his father. And just seeing the way that he was able to come back and be so strong from that loss, it gave me something and someone to look up to. One of the things J.K. would always tell me when I’d ask him for advice is, “We can’t afford to let our people down.” I think you would be proud of how that’s resonated with me, Mom — and how it’s stuck with me in such a permanent way. Letting my people down just isn’t an option, and I know that. I know I only have one chance to get this right.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

And there are so many other people from the Buckeye family that I want to tell you about. So many people who have helped me along the way.

There’s Coach Meyer, of course, who not only brought me in, but who also helped me find my initial role on this football team, as a special teams standout. He held me to such a high standard, and I’m grateful for that. Coach Meyer’s a legend in this sport, and I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for him.

There’s Coach Day, who took over for Coach Meyer and made sure we didn’t miss a beat. That was huge. Coach Day’s trust in me really allowed me to develop over this past year as a leader — and he’s also been a great leader by example himself. He has this unique personability, this ability to bring a big group together, that I’ve learned a lot from. It’s like, yeah, football can be a cutthroat sport. It can get rough. But at the end of the day we all have love for each other. I want to make sure I keep some of that with me from Coach Day as I move on to the next level. 

There’s Adam Stewart, our team physical therapist, and Mickey Marotti (aka Coach Mick), our strength coach. A lot of people might not know this, but I had a torn labrum for two years — and I got surgery on it in January of my sophomore year, which kept me out until May. And just the time I spent with those guys while rehabbing that injury, and the experience of being on the shelf like that, and getting to reflect a little on certain things….. it made a real impact, and shaped my whole perspective going forward. The positive influence that Adam and Coach Mick have had on me, I think it’s representative of what this program is like as a whole: It’s a place where you can grow and mature — not only on the field, but off the field as well.

And then there’s Coach Hafley, and — Mom, I’ll tell you what — you would have loved this man. I’d say as much as anyone else, he’s the one who really helped me to become the player that I always wanted to be. 

I remember when he came to the program, before this season. Coach Day had told us that we were going to be getting a DBs coach, but he didn’t say who. And then we started seeing these rumors on Twitter and all that about how it was going to be Jeff Hafley….. and of course none of us knew who that was. So we started doing our research and it was like, Wait. This dude is coming over from the 49ers….. who just went 4–12?!? And we were coming off a bad season on defense ourselves. So I think at first we were all like, Man, what is going on here?!? But I kept an open mind, just like you taught me to. And I’m glad I did.

Coach Hafley and our DBs, we were a match made in heaven. He was looking for redemption, and so were we. And it just fit. One thing I appreciated a lot about Coach is that he respected my desire to learn — and in a way that always felt real. He wouldn’t just get up in my face, or yell at me about something and then that was that. He would bring me in and actually pick my brain. He would let me go back and forth with him about the nuances of the game — not just the plays we were running, but the thinking behind those plays. And he’s the first coach I had where I felt like, when I came into his office, we could just talk. You know what I mean?? Not always about football — but just talk, and mess with each other, and have these real conversations. Coach is leaving Columbus now for a job as the head coach at Boston College, and I could not be happier for him. Those folks should know: They didn’t get a good coach. They got a great one.

But it’s also not just the football program that I want to tell you about, Mom. 

It’s all of Buckeye Nation.

It’s in the classroom, where I’ve been majoring in communications and planting the seeds for a career after football. But I’ve also been able to stretch myself beyond that focus, and take all these different types of classes. Mom, for real….. I took three years of Swahili. Swahili! It was unbelievable. I had this awesome professor, Professor Fouts, and we developed a really cool relationship. Athletes don’t always have the best reputation in the classroom, but I also knew you wouldn’t have patience for any of that from me. And so I took a lot of pride in the way that, you know, anytime a person would come in with low expectations for me, or for my performance in the classroom, just because I was an athlete — I always made sure I surprised them. I knew you’d be proud of that, too.

And it’s also been out of the classroom, around campus and all of Columbus, that I’ve been able to develop all of these cool relationships with people. Everyone is just so friendly, and acts like such a community — and I don’t think that’s only because I’m an athlete. I think it’s just how this group of people goes about their business. It really is a family thing.

But ultimately my closest family at Ohio State has been this football team.

Man….. this football team.

Scott Stuart/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesI’m writing with a heavy heart, as we just went through one of the most brutal losses ever, to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals. It really could have gone either way — one bounce here or there, Mom, and I swear: I’d be getting ready for the National Championship Game. And to leave this program without winning a national title….. it hurts a lot.

But I’m also trying to keep some perspective. And the truth is, I’m leaving with so much more to be proud of than to feel hurt about. Think about it: three straight Big Ten championships, three straight top five national rankings, three straight wins over TTUN, and a roster full of guys projected to play in the NFL. That’s a pretty good run for our class.

I’m leaving with so much more to be proud of than to feel hurt about.

And while I’m not someone who likes to brag about individual accomplishments….. I have to share this one with you.

Spring ball leading up to my freshman year was not the easiest time for me. That first stretch of spring ball, just on its own, can be a challenge for most guys. But for me, it was also my first time playing football since you’d died. I missed you so much….. but mostly I think I just hadn’t fully processed that you were gone. My head and my heart weren’t all the way into it, and it showed. I flashed some potential, but I still had a long way to go.

So when I was in Coach Coombs’s office after our 2017 Spring Game, for player evaluations, and Coach asked me, straight up, “What do you want to be?” — I would not be shocked if he was expecting a more humble answer than the one I gave.

I said, “I want to be the best DB in America, Coach. And I want us to be the best DB group in America. That’s my goal — Best In America. BIA.”

Jay LaPrete/AP Images

I’m not really sure how that all came out of me….. but I think a lot of it was just me thinking about you, and what you would have wanted me to say in that moment — and what you wanted for me in this life. I thought about all the incredible sacrifices that you made for me, growing up, and about how you did that because you believed in me. You believed in my ability to be great.

And Coach Coombs was so good to me on that day, Mom. He didn’t question my goal at all. He didn’t ask me to qualify it in any way. He just took what I said in stride, and then went to the drawing board. No, really — Coach went to the actual drawing board. That’s literally the next thing he did. He went to the drawing board and he drew this big, long line. And he said, “Jeffrey, that’s the line from where you are right now” — and he made a big X on that spot — “to where you want to be” — and he made a big X on that spot. And everything in between, that was how far I had to go….. and what I had to do to get there.

That was in April of 2017.

In December of 2019, I became a unanimous first-team All-American at defensive back.

BIA.

That meant everything to me.

And now I’m here. Now I’m here, writing this letter, ready to move on to this next phase of my life — which makes it hard not to miss you a little extra. Because the last time I had such a big change like this to make, when I was leaving high school for college, I had you by my side. And that was enough to let me know that everything was going to be O.K. Whereas this time, when I think about things, it feels like I’m on my own.

But then I think about things some more….. and I realize that maybe I’m not on my own at all. I have Karen, who’s been the best sister I could ask for, and who helps me to keep your memory alive every day. She lives in California now — but we’ve grown so much closer over the last couple of years.

I have Aunt Jane, who’s brought so much sanity into my life whenever things have threatened to spiral out of control. You knew exactly what you were doing by leaving me and Karen in her care. Thank you.

I have all of my brothers from this amazing football team, no matter where they end up over the coming years. I’ll have Coach Hafley, up in Boston, and Coach Schiano, up in Jersey. I’ll have my entire Buckeye family — both back in Columbus, and around the Nation.

And I still have you, Mom.

Maybe I can’t reach out and hug you. Maybe I can’t call you up and talk to you about life, or classes, or about how such and such should have been a touchdown, and are these refs blind?! Maybe I won’t be able to have you there physically, sitting by my side, holding my hand on Draft Day in a new dress that we just bought.

But you’re still here. You’ve always been here. You were here when I was trying to figure out life as a new student in those first few months after you passed. You were here when I was mapping out my goals as a defensive back with Coach Coombs on that board. You were here when I was welcoming this new coach of ours, Coach Hafley, with an open mind. You were here with me all season long, from the first practice to the last whistle, as I played the best football of my career. You were here for me after we lost in the semis to Clemson, in a game I wanted so bad — and thought we were good enough to win. You were here with me as I sat down to write this letter.

And as I get going on this next journey of mine, and say goodbye to Ohio State and start the process leading up to April’s NFL draft — I know you’re going to be here with me then, too.

As I get going on this next journey of mine, and say goodbye to Ohio State, and start the process leading up to April’s NFL draft — I know you’re going to be here with me then, too.

I’m sure teams will ask me about you. 

They’ll ask me about my upbringing. They’ll ask me about my mom, Marie, who passed away. They’ll try to figure me out, by trying to figure you out. And honestly I can’t wait.

Because I’ll just tell them the truth.

I’ll tell them that we never had the most money, in terms of our financial situation. And that we didn’t have the most time, in terms of our years we got to spend together. But we had the most love — that’s for sure. We had more love than anyone could ever imagine.

I’ll tell them that I was raised by a mother who believed in me and who supported me, and who always made me feel like my dreams were worth dreaming about — and then fighting for. I’ll tell them that, simply put, I was raised by the best.

BIA.

And not a day goes by that I don’t miss her more than anything in the world.

Justin Casterline/Getty ImagesMom….. thank you for everything. I still can’t believe how quickly life goes by. How it’s already been three whole years, almost, since the day that you passed. And how even right now, as I try to finish this letter, it’s only going to be a few more months until that moment we always talked about: when some team calls my name, and announces me as their pick, and officially makes me a part of the NFL.

I’m excited and I’m ready.

I’m ready to take my place within the lineage of elite Ohio State cornerbacks, and proud Ohio State alums. I’m ready to keep challenging myself, to keep grinding for more, to keep working as hard as it takes to accomplish my goals. I’m ready to provide for Karen and for the rest of my future family — to help these next generations of Okudahs reach their full potential, like you helped me reach mine.

But most of all? Looking back, when you left….. I was just a kid. And now I’m ready to be a man.

Now I’m ready for greatness.

I’m ready to be my mother’s son.

Forever and always,

Jeff

Jeff Okudah
Detroit Lions