In late November of 2017, the Missouri Tigers played SEC-rival Arkansas in the second to last game of the football season. Mizzou had started the season a dreadful 1-5, but entered the game with a five-game winning streak. They were down 35-31 heading into the fourth quarter. Tigers red-shirt freshman tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who had scored an earlier touchdown in the second quarter, caught an eight-yard pass from quarterback Drew Lock to put Mizzou up 38-35.
"Our OC calls an isolation route play to me," Okwuegbunam recalls. "It's me against the corner and I ran a corner [route] on him, hit him with a double move. Drew Lock was our quarterback at time. He threw it to me and I made a crazy catch in the corner of the end zone to take the lead back." Both teams would score another touchdown and each would kick a field goal, but the Tigers would hold on for the 48-45 win.
Okwuegbunam finished his freshman season with 11 touchdown passes on 29 catches for a total of 415 yards. He was named second-team All-SEC and was an SEC All-Freshman selection, and his connection with Lock was palpable. The following season, as a sophomore, Okwuegbunam would log 43 catches and 466 yards, again with Lock as his quarterback. As a junior, without Lock, Okwuegbunam's production dropped to 26 catches for 306 yards, but now, he'll get another chance to pair up with his former Tigers' teammate.
A year after trading up in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft to select Lock, the Denver Bronco's took Okwuegbunam in the fourth round of April's NFL Draft. But not before Bronco's general manager John Elway got the scoop on Okwuegbunam from Lock.
"When Drew gave him the seal of approval, we were glad he was our target in the fourth round," Elway told the Denver Post. "Plus, he's a 4.49 guy that can really run at 258 pounds, and he's a big target in the red zone."
The 6-5, 258-pound Okwuegbunam had electrified at the 2020 NFL Combine in February with that 4.49-second performance in the 40-Yard Dash. According to NFL Research, his was the second-fastest 40 time clocked by a player who is at least 6-5 and 250 pounds since 2003; only Montez Sweat's 2019 effort of 4.41 was quicker.
No one doubts Albert O's ability to catch passes and score TDs, but some question his skills as a true blocker at the next level, and injuries nagged him throughout his time at Mizzou. His final season was cut short by a shoulder injury, but he still managed to play in nine of the Tigers' 11 games in 2019.
Still, Okwuegbunam's big-play ability cannot be ignored. In his sophomore season, Okwuegbunam helped the Tigers romp Memphis when he hauled in six passes for 159 yards and three touchdowns. He also showed up big with a career-high nine catches for 81 yards in a loss to No. 2 Georgia. Okwuegbunam has six multi-TD games on his resume.
"I think what makes Albert so special is how smart he is and how he finds open spots on the field," Lock told the Denver Post. "Really, him in the red zone, you can find a lot of clips of us at Mizzou on corner routes, putting it up high to him and letting him go get it."
"He is a massive human being," Lock continued. "He is very athletic, can go up and get the ball and moves really well."
Okwuegbunam, whose father, Albert Sr., emigrated to the United States from Nigeria, was a football and basketball star at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, Illinois.
STACK met with Albert O when he was training for the NFL Combine at EXOS in Pensacola, Florida. Below is the transcript of that interview, edited for length and clarity.
STACK: What were some of your earliest memories of playing football, and where did those take place?
Albert Okwuegbunam: I can remember throwing a football around since I could walk. But I started organized football when I was 9 years old, summer going into third grade, and ever since then, it's just where my heart's been. I fell in love with it
What did you like about football right away?
Really just the competitiveness. I love the competitiveness of football. I felt it from a young age, I think that's really what drove me to it.
Was there any one person who had a really big impact on you as a youth athlete, who kind of helped shape you and make sure you were staying on a good trajectory?
Both of my parents were really, really discipline-oriented, made sure academics came first and also they preached, I gave everything my 100 percent. Never could quit or anything like that. But as far as an athletic role model, going into high school, I really liked Calvin Johnson and his game. With me being a big athletic receiver, when I first started playing, I watched a lot of his tape and tried to emulate my game after his.
You also played basketball in high school. What kind of basketball player were you?
Yeah, I was good. I played mostly in the post growing up, just from being bigger than most of the kids that I played with. And then moving into high school, I played center as well. I'm 6-5. At the time in high school, I was probably one of the tallest centers in our conference, but in the Division-I level, I would have been too short. That's kind of where I leaned to football, where I felt like I just had a much better athletic advantage than I did in basketball.
When did you start getting serious about actually training and maybe getting in the weight room and stuff like that?
Definitely going into college. Being in the area that I'm from, I was blessed and had a big advantage, physically, over a lot of people I played against. I wasn't necessarily forced to take the weight room seriously. Going into college, when I actually transitioned, because I played wide receiver in high school, so when I transitioned into the tight end role, that took a lot of adjustment just to actually take nutrition seriously, take the weight room seriously, because I had to gain a lot of weight. I had to put on a lot of strength and muscle. That's when I really learned how to work hard in the weight room and just all that.
Were you someone in high school who would wake up early or stay late to try and get in extra work, and if so, what did extra work look like for you?
Well luckily for me, the high school that I attended, it was so oriented around doing extra. I had no problem with finding guys. Our coach would have us up early before school, in the gym, running routes. They did a really good job of encouraging that. And even the summer practices, as 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, we were out there almost every day of the summer, on the field at 5:30 a.m., warming up, catching balls before practice, which started at 6 a.m.
Were you a guy who wrote down goals?
No, not really. I don't really like to talk about my goals. People talk about speaking your goals into existence, and I believe that they can also be spoken out of existence. I like to keep my goals to myself. I feel like the only person that it's important to know your goals is yourself. Other than the general one of being the best at what you do—I think that should be everybody's goal—but specific goals, I just like to keep those to myself and work on them every day.
Was there a moment in high school, or maybe a game where you kind of realized, 'OK, I'm pretty good at this football thing and maybe this could take me pretty far?'
I feel like it was my sophomore year, in general. I was playing JV at first, and I felt like that's when I really started to dominate. It's just the plays that I was making and I started to get in sync with my body, so my coordination started coming together and I started playing really well. That's when coaches started to come to me and said they've seen what division one talent looks like. They said that they saw it in me. I just continued to work hard in developing into what I am today. And then actually, at the end of the sophomore year, I had a chance to play in the state championship on the defensive side of the ball. That's when I first really got the first taste of what it was like to be a good football player. I think I just built on from there
Did you go through a period where you had a growth spurt and were kind of adjusting to your body?
I tell you, my freshman year was the biggest one. After my freshman year, I think I grew 3 inches in a summer. That was definitely different for me at first, because I was really skinny and lanky, and then that's kind of when I started to even out and bulk up a little bit, and it all started to come together.
There's a quote from you where you said your first four games your senior year of high school, you didn't get tackled. Is that true? How that's possible?
Yeah, that's true. Actually, if you pull up my highlights, you can see a lot of it. A lot of the times when they threw me the ball, I would just score or I would get ran out of bounds, but I didn't hit the ground until, I think, the sixth game or something like that, sixth, seventh game, something like that.
What was the recruiting experience like for you? How was that journey and why did you end up picking Mizzou as being the best place for you?
You have a lot of, essentially, grown men telling you why you should commit to their school and come in to their program. It is a lot of stress, especially if you don't have a lot of resources, if it's parents or other family members helping you make that decision, which can be a lot of our cases. I think it was good. I had a chance to visit Mizzou and another couple of places, and I really just fell in love with the atmosphere there and the players and just everything about it. The coaches as well, but ultimately the atmosphere, and so that's why I committed there.
How different is your body now than it was when you were a freshman at Mizzou?
It's a lot different. When I first got there, as a freshman, I was just told to eat whatever and just put on as much weight as possible. I was bulky, not as lean, so I feel like I've definitely leaned out a lot, obviously a lot stronger.
I remember, pretty much every day that summer, for breakfast especially, I would just eat a ridiculous amount of food. I would have two big Belgian waffles, with the waffle makers, and a plate of eggs, a giant plate of eggs, and I'd eat that every morning for breakfast, and a big, big lunch, a big dinner, and then snacks in between. I was doing that every day, plus with the strenuous workout regimen, working out six days a week, that put weight on me pretty fast.
Where do you feel like you made your biggest improvements from last season to this season?
I'd say, just definitely and just overall knowledge of the game. When it comes to the real fine details, the X's and O's, just whether it's talking defensive fronts, defensive coverages, or just overall route schemes and just going through the quarterback's reads and which coverages are making them look at which route first. Just certain things like that helped slow the game down and definitely gave me an advantage.
Being a college athlete is a lot. It's a lot of responsibility. Did you have any habits you utilized that helped you stay on track and helped prevent you from getting overwhelmed?
Oh yeah. I think it's good important to take advantage of your teammates. Being in college and being such a tight knit group, a habit that I had would just be getting with my tight end group or just getting with close friends I had on the team and making sure we set up a schedule. Come in to eat at this time together, just finding times in your schedule when you can come in and eat, when you can come in and stretch, rollout, get an extra lift in, get in the cold tub. Just certain stuff like that, I think it's important to utilize your teammates and help encourage each other. That helped me create a lot of good habits.
Do you have any game day rituals that you go through?
I have to take a shower on game day. It has to be a relatively soon before we leave the hotel to head to the stadium. That's really the only the ritual that I have.
Everyone has an escape from football, as much as you love the sport, everyone kind of has a hobby or something they use to escape from the game for a while. What would you say is your escape from football
In high school I used to like to fish a lot with my friends. Just go around the neighborhood ponds and fishing. But now it's gravitated a lot towards video games. I play a lot of video games with my friends and it helps me stay connected too, with my friends that are scattered all throughout, whether it's back in Missouri, back in Illinois. It helps me stay connected with them and it's really accessible and easy to do in my free time.
Everyone has a different leadership style. How would you describe your leadership style and maybe how did it evolve from high school to Mizzou?
Growing up, I've always been a more lead-by-action type of guy. Just making sure I'm trying to be the best me and doing what I can to help our teammates, but not as much vocal. Moving into college and growing up to be into a senior-junior role, I focus more on being more of a vocal leader. Just because your teammates respond better to that and you can have a bigger impact on the team. That's kind of how it's evolved.
What do you want to accomplish at the NFL combine?
I want to have one of the best performances there, especially in the tight end position. I expect to perform really well. I've been taking every day here (at EXOS), coming and working my butt off. My biggest thing is I don't want to look back and have any regrets, feel like I left anything here. I've just been taking everything super seriously, just attacking everything with a realistic approach and just making sure I give it my all, because I expect big things at the combine. I expect to have a big performance and in order to do that, I know what I have to accomplish here and I've just been working towards that every day.
What improvements have you made so far here training at EXOS?
Definitely with my 40, with just how fast they've had me running. I've been clocking some good times. Whether it's the L drill, whether it's the pro shuttle, just everything. They've got me moving around real well and I'm really looking forward to showcasing it.
People like to say that a player's film speaks for itself. When someone turns on your film, what do you think it says about you?
I think it says just a big, mismatched guy. I can be utilized all over the field. You can put me against a linebacker and I'm going to be too fast for him. You put me against the DB, I'm going to be too big for him. I just feel like I create mismatches all over the field. I can move the chains. We get to the red zone and I'm a lethal weapon there too. I just feel like that's what will jump off tape to you, immediately.
How's your nutrition evolved over time? Let's start with high school and kind of go up to now, because it's probably been a big change.
Yeah, that's definitely the biggest jump, between high school and college. High school athletes might work out a lot, but I guarantee you their nutrition isn't very good. You're not eating breakfast, you're not eating a good lunch. Your only real meal might be dinner, that your parents make for you. As far as college, it all started with knowledge. I started learning what vital nutrients do what for your body, and then I started learning where those nutrients come from. And then also, how to get a good balance in each portion of each meal that you eat. That's kind of where I started and built on that every year and got better. And then to here, where I'm at now, the access to facility training, they've done a really good job of providing everything for us, kind of having a map for us, and really, we've just got to follow the map they provide.
Was there any one game at Mizzou where you felt like you were just at your peak?
Not one game in particular. I've had a lot of games where I've had that feeling, but if I had to pick one game that was kind of my favorite, that felt the most rewarding, was my redshirt freshman year, playing against Arkansas last game of the season. We had started the season off really rough. I think we had lost five straight and then flipped it completely and won four straight. We're playing Arkansas, last game of the season, and just to cap off a really good season, it was a crazy game.
It was a shootout and we get into the red zone, I already scored a touchdown. I had already had three or four receptions, and we get to the red zone and we have to score. I think we're down by six points and it's fourth and goal. Our OC calls an isolation route play to me. It's me against the corner and I ran a corner [route] on him, hit him with a double move. Drew Lock was our quarterback at time. He threw it to me and I made a crazy catch in the corner of the end zone to take the lead back and we ended up winning that game.
Where does your mind go when you're in the middle of a really hard workout and you might feel like stopping but you want to push through?
A big thing for athletes is to know their 'why.' Why do you do this? Because if you're just playing football to play football and you don't have any other purpose, then it's easy to lose focus and lose track of why you're investing so much into this, emotionally and physically. Why you're pushing through the pain. I feel like it's important for athletes to know their why. That's kind of what gets me through everything.
What is your why?
I love the sport. Just because I feel like there's nothing better in this world that I'm better at. Just the gratification of feeling I get, I'm the best at what I do and I can't get that in anything else. It's the competitiveness of it, and then also just the resources that come with football. Just working hard towards all that, I just never second guess myself when I'm in a hard workout or I'm straining through a play or when things get tough. I always know my why, and that's what gets me through it.
Where does your confidence come from?
Confidence, that just comes from success. When you've had success, you can just never forget that feeling and you have to constantly reassure yourself that you know who you are. You have to believe in yourself or no one else will. I think that's important in football, just because, especially when you you first get to college, because you're good enough to be there, or else you wouldn't be there. Just having that mindset that you're the best, you can't be stopped at what you do, I think that's important.
Say an NFL GM calls you and says, "Why should I draft you?" What would you say to him?
I would tell him that I can instantly make an impact on his team. I'm a mismatch guy. His offense coordinator will have a lot of fun drawing up plays for me, whether it's the red zone or open field, I can help move the chains. I can help in the red zone and ultimately I can have an immediate impact.
Tell us about the Nigerian meaning behind your name.
Okwuegbunam means evil cannot bring me down. And then Chukweuka is my middle name, and that means God has done something wonderful. I think it's pretty cool. A lot of people don't know what their last names mean or they might not have any meaning at all. I think it's cool just to have a meaning behind my last and middle name, for sure.
If you could give one piece of advice to high school athletes, what would it be?
Only listen to yourself. You're going to have a lot of people tell you what you can and can't do, and ultimately the only person who puts a limit on what you can achieve is yourself. Whether it's physically, mentally, anything you want to do, the only person that has a limitation on what you can do is yourself. Just always remember that and always believe that.
Did you have experiences with that, of where people tried to tell you that you couldn't do certain things?
Oh yeah, definitely, my whole life. I've kind of been the underdog, just from people telling me I could only be this good or I would never make it here, to do this instead of that. I feel like it's human nature for people to tell other people what they should and shouldn't do. That's been a huge thing for me, is just keeping quiet, keeping my goals to myself and just keep pushing and just knowing what I want to achieve and just stopping at nothing but myself to get there.