Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Chukwuma Okorafor (76) participates in a drill during a team practice earlier this year. Okorafor was born in Nigeria before moving to South Africa and later Botswana. He came to Michigan in 2010 and initially was a punter at Detroit Mumford before becoming a tackle at Southfield High and Western Michigan University.

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Chukwuma Okorafor (76) participates in a drill during a team practice earlier this year. Okorafor was born in Nigeria before moving to South Africa and later Botswana. He came to Michigan in 2010 and initially was a punter at Detroit Mumford before becoming a tackle at Southfield High and Western Michigan University.

Photo provided by Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers


Former Southfield standout drafted by Pittsburgh Steelers

By: Timothy Pontzer | Southfield Sun | Published July 18, 2018

Eight years ago, Chukwuma Okorafor had never worn a football helmet.

In less than eight weeks, the Southfield High product will don the iconic black and yellow headgear of the Pittsburgh Steelers as the historic franchise suits up for the season opener.

Equipped with a 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame, Okorafor became a force on the offensive lines of the Blue Jays and later the Broncos of Western Michigan University. Selected by the Steelers in the third round (92nd overall) in this year’s NFL Draft, Okorafor’s journey starts with humble beginnings over 6,000 miles away.

Set to turn 21 in early August, Okorafor was born in Nigeria. He and his family moved to South Africa when he was 6 and later lived in Botswana before coming to Michigan in 2010.

Before moving to the United States, Okorafor had never watched a football game or even tossed around a pigskin. New to the sport, he initially attended Detroit Mumford, serving as the team’s punter. 

After transferring to Southfield High as a junior, a meeting with football coach Tim Conley proved to be a turning point in Okorafor’s life and career.

“I was in gym class just chilling, and the coach came up to me,” Okorafor recalled during the Steelers minicamp last month. “He saw how big I was and asked if I wanted to play football.”

Conley vividly remembers the encounter.

“In late January, I was called down to the gym by our physical education teacher, Ernie Taber, to meet a new student,” Conley said. “At that time, ‘Chukes’ was 6-foot-3 and he told me he was a soccer player back home, and he wanted to punt and kick. By that June, Chukes was already 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. After watching his footwork and learning his natural football IQ, I knew he was a Division 1 prospect.”

Conley said Okorafor gained confidence and skill by holding his own against future college stars in practice. Collin Buchanan (Miami of Ohio), Malik McDowell (Michigan State) and Lawrence Marshall (Michigan) were all teammates of Okorafor at Southfield.

“He really benefited his junior year from playing opposite Buchanan, who really helped him develop,” Conley said. “During his senior year, Chukes played against McDowell and Marshall every day in practice. That was a benefit of being in our program. Our schedule that year included games against returning state champs (Detroit) Cass Tech and future champs Clarkston (High). By the time he finished his senior year, he had over 40 scholarship offers.”

Okorafor said he relished and cherished his time playing for Conley.

“They put me in at right tackle. I wanted to try and play defense too, but the coaches always said no,” Okorafor said with a laugh. “Being the new guy there, it was nice how guys came up to me and taught me all about the game. I became friends with everybody while learning how to improve in every way.”

While top programs like Ohio State, Oklahoma and Florida had him on the recruiting radar, Okorafor chose to stay close to home by heading to Kalamazoo. He credits former WMU head coach P.J. Fleck (now in the same role at Minnesota) with providing advice for on and off the gridiron.

“I loved Coach Fleck. He was there with me for three years teaching life lessons,” Okorafor said. “He obviously helped with football, but (he) really helped so much with stuff that goes on in life. He taught us to be you, not be anyone else. He said, ‘Don’t work to please anyone else; work on being the best version of yourself.’”

Okorafor started each of the final 39 games of his collegiate career, earning First Team All-Mid-American Conference honors as a junior and a senior. He showed versatility, playing his entire sophomore campaign at right tackle while moving over to left for his final two seasons.

While he aided the first bowl victory in program history with a Bahamas Bowl win in 2015, Okorafor said he was most proud of his junior campaign in which the Broncos went undefeated in MAC play, won a league title and earned a trip to the Cotton Bowl, finishing 13-1 overall.

Okorafor was the first member from the MAC selected in this year’s draft, also holding the distinction as the first player from any college located in Michigan to be taken.

“Those things don’t matter to me. What matters is seeing nine different tackles taken before me,” Okorafor said when presented with those facts. “I want people to notice my university, and I will be ready to prove myself when my time comes. I was at home with friends and family, and (Steelers) coach (Mike) Tomlin called. It was pretty neat. To be playing football for only a couple years to now be part of this is amazing.” 

While many NFL teams place a premium on the trenches, Okorafor is the first offensive lineman taken by the Steelers in the draft’s first three rounds in the past five years.

“(Okorafor) will fit exactly what we’re looking for. He has great size and strength,” said Mike Munchak, the Steelers offensive line coach, in a press conference following the selection April 27. “I’m really excited to add someone of his caliber. The goal would be that he can play at both sides of the line for us.”

A first-round pick in 1982, Munchak played 11 seasons on the offensive line of the Houston Oilers. He later earned an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. While some critics may question the decision of drafting a relative newcomer to the sport itself, Munchak said Okorafor’s raw talent and athleticism spoke for itself.

“With a big man like him, it’s hard to run around him,” Munchak said. “He’s capable of doing everything we want him to do. He’s not limited in any way. He’s developed nicely over the last three or four years. It’s exciting for me to get a guy who doesn’t have a lot of bad habits. He can still add a lot of strength, and I’m looking forward to working with him on technique.”

Okorafor said he is thrilled to join a storied club like the Steelers. He cited blocking for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and tailback Le’Veon Bell as an exciting start to his career.

“This is huge. I’m blocking for such big-time guys who have already proven themselves,” Okorafor said. “They’ve been doing it not just for two or three years, but many, many years. It makes you want to come in and do your best and take no days off.”