For Russell Okung, protection is the name of the game

Published on April 25, 2010 by     

“He can be overprotective, which works out for the Seattle Seahawks,” said Nicole Okung, who is about two years younger than her brother. “It gets in my way sometimes.”

Becoming a protector

Victor Okung and Dorothy Akpabio were Nigerian immigrants who both settled in the Houston area. They didn’t know each other until they moved to Texas, but once they met, the connection was strong and immediate. Dorothy loved Victor’s ability to persevere through adversity, his love of family and his work ethic. He was what their son has become — a gentle giant.

Victor promised to take care of Dorothy, to be able to afford a big wedding some day, to create an empire and treat her like a queen. He was fighting toward that goal. He owned his own gas station, and though they weren’t rich, Victor and Dorothy had legitimate reason to trust in the American dream.

But on Nov. 23, 1992, tragedy struck. Victor was murdered at his gas station, shot in the chest and back. Russell was 5 years old, and his mother couldn’t bear to tell him the news for nearly two weeks. Dorothy would only say that Daddy was away, until she found the strength to tell the truth.

Russell still doesn’t talk about his father’s death in interviews. Victor and Russell were so much alike, Dorothy says. Facial features. Mannerisms. Demeanor. Naturally, he handled the tragedy like his father would. He promised to take care of his family.

As Russell was maturing into a protector, Dorothy became the provider. Now a single mother with two kids, she worked all kinds of minimum-wage jobs. She worked all day, all night if need be, and barely saw her children. She had a mission.

“Before they got hungry, I was going to take care of it,” Dorothy said. “I wasn’t going to sit back and have my kids starving. It was a challenge, but you love your children so much.”

Dorothy leaned on her Baptist faith. Church kept the family grounded. Russell and Nicole stayed out of trouble, even though their mother was away working much of the time. And the older Russell got, the more he turned into Big Daddy.

He became the man of the house and became determined to excel in everything he did. He made good grades. He worked as a teen and gave his modest checks to his mother. And when he realized his love for football, he refused to relent.

After the Seahawks picked Russell sixth overall Thursday night, those old memories entered his mind. Look at what he’d done. Look at what his family had done.

“It was a rush of emotions,” the 22-year-old said. “I tried not to cry. But I thought about it. I thought about how hard my life has been, and finally you see God working in my life, and a sudden rush of emotion just came into me. I just felt so overwhelmed with all the emotions that were going through me.”

Becoming a player

As a freshman in high school, Russell was a lanky, 6-foot-1 kid, not even 200 pounds. In Nigeria, his parents had been taught that “a football is something you kick with your feet,” Dorothy said. So Russell loved soccer, loved baseball even more, and when he went out for football at George Bush High School in Richmond, Texas, the coach didn’t know if he’d make it.

“He was a good kid,” said Scott Moehlig, the coach at Bush High back then. “His character is just unbelievable. But he was very, very quiet when he was a freshman, and I thought he liked basketball more. He wasn’t much of a standout.”

Eventually, Moehlig convinced Russell that he had a better future in football. By his junior season, Russell turned into a standout. In high school, he gained more than 50 pounds and grew to be 6 feet 5. Still, he weighed just 250 pounds, so at first, colleges weren’t begging to sign him.

Some coaches saw the potential, however. One of the first was former Texas Tech offensive mastermind Mike Leach. And at the end of his senior year, Russell had offers from Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Nebraska, LSU and Oklahoma State.

He chose Oklahoma State because the Cowboys had been steady suitors. He thrived there, gained 50 pounds to reach his current weight of 302, and became the finest left tackle in the college game. Russell did it with his own style. He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, but on the field, he has learned to be mean — to an extent.

New Seahawks safety Earl Thomas played at Texas and competed against Russell and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Conference. Thomas remembers playing the Cowboys and running into Russell on a blitz.

“He caught me up under my shoulder pads, and we talked, and I told him to please not throw me on the ground,” Thomas said. “He didn’t do it, and that’s how we first met. I’m glad he’s on my team now.”

Russell made a very Walter Jones-ian decision in that game. For a dozen years, Jones dominated in that same manner, keeping opponents at bay with his skill and athleticism rather than trying to pile-drive defenders who dared to enter his space. Though Russell shows flashes of nastiness, he plays the position with similar grace.

He’s a protector, not a fighter.

“I’m so proud of him,” said sister Nicole, 20, who is studying biomedical sciences at Texas A&M. “I’m his biggest fan. I knew he was going to make it. Anytime he says he’s going to do something, he does it. His position — left tackle, the protector — fits him very well.”

For 16 Sundays a year, a franchise gets to borrow Dorothy’s personal bodyguard. Big Daddy is a Seahawk now.

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