More Than a Mission

Courtesy Alex Okafor
Presented by
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

I’ve learned something about grief this past year.

See, my mother passed away a little over two years ago now. I wrote about it last year, and I still remember every little detail like it was yesterday. I remember how she felt sick out of nowhere. I remember the doctor’s voice when he said leukemia. How COVID shut down the hospitals so I couldn’t visit during her chemotherapy. How hopeful she sounded over the phone, even on bad days. How hard she fought. How proud I was of her.

And I remember how fast it happened. 

In a matter of weeks, she was gone.

I actually spent a lot of time after her death trying not to think about her because all it did was make me cry. But that was a mistake. It wasn’t until I began thinking about her more — talking to her, keeping her top of mind and focusing on honoring her memory — that I started to welcome those tears and shift my perspective.

When I was in college at the University of Texas, my mother always used to ask me what my long-term goals were. When I didn’t have a good answer — which was most of the time — she would remind me that Austin, the city where I’m from, helped raise me, and I had a responsibility to give back to that community. That became a mission of mine, one I still carry out today by working with local schools.

But now I’ve learned that there’s a difference between a mission and a purpose. A mission is something you set out to do. Something you choose. A purpose is something that’s chosen for you. A destiny that only you can fulfill.

My mother’s death gave me a purpose.

Alex Okafor | Kansas City Chiefs | More Than a Mission | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy Alex Okafor

I realized early last year what that purpose was: to help people and families who have been impacted by blood cancer. So I decided to launch the Alex Okafor Family Foundation and partnered with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) to help provide college scholarships to blood cancer survivors. And since I made that decision, it’s amazing how many blessings have come into my life. I re-signed with the Kansas City Chiefs on a one-year deal, so I got to continue playing the game I love with a great organization, in an incredible football town, with a group of men I truly value. I grew closer to my dad and my brother as we worked together on launching the foundation and honoring my mother’s memory together. 

I even got married to my longtime girlfriend and love of my life, Kaylee.

That was probably the time when I missed my mother the most. If I could have brought her back for one moment, it would have been my wedding. Because the mother-son dance is big at a wedding, and I felt like I was going to miss out on that moment. 

But then my Aunt Deanna, my mother’s sister, approached me and said that if I still wanted to do it, she would dance with me. 

I told her I’d think about it. And I’m telling you, I probably texted her 10 times saying I would do it, and then changed my mind. I really struggled with it. But a couple of days before the wedding, I decided that I had to do it. I had to honor my mother at my wedding. 

So my Aunt Deanna and I danced to my mother’s favorite song, “I Knew I Loved You,” by Savage Garden.

Alex Okafor | Kansas City Chiefs | More Than a Mission | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy Alex Okafor

I’m glad that I didn’t let my grief rob me of that moment. I feel like people do that so often — let the grief take control instead of controlling it and channeling it into something positive. 

That’s what I believe I’ve done with my foundation. I’ve channeled my grief into fulfilling what I believe is my true purpose.

But honestly, having a purpose is … scary. I think that’s why so many people don’t recognize theirs, even when it’s right in front of them.

I mean, when I started networking and trying to raise money for my foundation and people actually started donating, the reality of what I was trying to do really hit me. I felt this overwhelming responsibility. These people were giving me their hard-earned money, and it was my job to make sure it went to good use. I was like, What if this doesn’t work? What if the money doesn’t go to the right people, or if it doesn’t have the impact I was hoping for? 

I basically felt like that the whole time my family and I were building this foundation.

Then I met Kyle.

Kyle was a senior at Glenn Hills High in Augusta, Georgia, and had already signed on to play football at Savannah State when, in 2019, he discovered a lump in his neck. Doctors identified it as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He started chemotherapy just days after his high school graduation. Four months, eight chemo sessions and 30 radiation treatments later, Kyle rang the bell and was declared cancer-free.

I didn’t meet him until much later. After cancer took his freshman season and COVID robbed him of another, he shared his story with LLS, which is a partner of my foundation. In May, I surprised Kyle with the first of 100 scholarships that my foundation awarded to our first class of cancer survivors.

Alex Okafor | Kansas City Chiefs | More Than a Mission | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy Alex Okafor

When I met Kyle — who is an honor student trying to pursue his academic and football dreams just like I was when I was in college — I knew we were doing this thing right. I knew the money was going to the right people. I knew we were having the impact we set out to have.

And I knew my mother would be proud.

Now that we’ve awarded our first round of scholarships, we’re focusing our attention on next year’s class. We’re aiming to raise enough money for another 100 scholarships, but we’re not putting a ceiling on it. The goal is to award as many as possible. 

It’s exciting, now that it’s all happening. I feel humbled — very much at peace with everything I’m doing. I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose and being the man my mother wanted me to be — the man I’m supposed to be.

But I still feel grief.

When I slow down and think about my mother, I still feel that hole in my heart. I feel her absence. It’s as big as her presence was when she was alive.

That’s what I’ve learned about grief this past year. I never goes away. It just evolves. It takes different shapes. And I can choose to avoid it — which I used to do — and let it grow to uncontrollable proportions, or I can harness it and channel it into something positive. 

I believe that’s what I’m doing.

I know my mother is looking down and that she’s proud. And one day, when my time comes, I hope I’ll be looking down with pride, too — at all the cancer survivors we’ve helped and will help in the future through my foundation. I’m excited to see the incredible things they accomplish, and I hope that what we’re doing helps them achieve it. 

That’s my purpose, and I believe it will be my legacy. 

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