The journey for a professional athlete is a rigorous one. They hone their physicality for years, competing from elementary school through college with the hopes that each step will take them to the next level in their athletic career.
Sometimes, the path may not end where it began. Quarterback Troy Aikman almost played baseball for the New York Mets. Basketball player Allen Iverson was the quarterback for his high school’s championship football team. Tim Duncan was a swimmer who only began his basketball career in the ninth grade after a hurricane destroyed the pool where he practiced. And Ogbonnia “Ogbo” Okoronkwo, one of the newest defensive ends for the Houston Texans, likewise had his mind set on other endeavors.
“I thought I was going to be a professional skater. That didn’t work,” Okoronkwo recalls. “I thought that I would be a writer—I even had a blog. I never really thought I’d be a professional athlete.”
That all changed in 2013 when Brian Randle, a health teacher and coach at Alief Taylor High School, suggested that he might excel at football. The advice led Okoronkwo to the turf, and his success as a defensive end afforded him offers from several schools, including Southern Methodist University and Texas Tech. What started out as a teacher’s belief that Okoronkwo was a natural football player became an opportunity for him to play at the collegiate level on an athletic scholarship.
He went on to attend the University of Oklahoma, where he earned the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017 while also being named second-team All-Big 12 in 2016 and first-team All-American in 2017. He recorded 21 sacks in his collegiate career, the second-most by a linebacker in Oklahoma history. After dominant junior and senior years, he was drafted into the NFL in 2018 by the Los Angeles Rams. In 2022, the Rams won the Super Bowl by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals, giving the franchise its second Vince Lombardi Trophy.
But even with a Super Bowl title already under his belt, Okoronkwo had his heart set on bringing one home.
“Every athlete wants to come back home and win a championship,” Okoronkwo says. “Winning a championship in your home city is literally the dream.”
In March, Okoronkwo became one of the new faces signed to the Texans—helmed this season by a new head coach, Lovie Smith, a leader the defensive end is excited to work with.
“Coach Smith is a guy you want to follow,” Okoronkwo says. “He’s old-school. You can tell he’s genuine and cares about everyone; you’re not just a number to him. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Even with his eyes on the prize, Okoronkwo’s homecoming also grants him the opportunity to give back to the city, particularly the southwest Houston neighborhood of Alief. The neighborhood has produced and cultivated the talent of entertainers like Maxo Kream, Mo Amer, Lizzo, Tobe Nwigwe, Tisakorean, and Young Deji. The once-rural area has experienced so much growth since the ’70s that it is now one of the most diverse communities in Houston. Still, Alief remains a tight-knit community, and many of the celebrities who hail from the area waste no opportunity to represent Houston and pay it forward.
For Okoronkwo, the opportunity came through hosting a camp for aspiring football players at Crump Stadium in Alief. The free youth camp immediately filled up with kids excited to see the Super Bowl champion. In his words, the event wasn’t just for him, but for the community.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “It was important for me to have a camp because I want to be able to connect back to the community in person.”
Now that he’s back and acclimated to being in his hometown, Okoronkwo says he plans to set the standard on the field while providing resources to help uplift his community.
“You work hard to get to where you want to be, but don’t keep how you got there a secret,” he says. “I want to show the young men and women the importance of wellness and making healthy choices, because when I was that age, I wasn’t always doing that.”