Gameday+ | How the support, and loss, of his mother has shaped Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah

Joey Kaufman
[Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Marie Okudah would have loved to see the highlights from her son as he grew into a star in the Ohio State secondary and one of the best cornerbacks in college football.

It’s certain she would have had a few to choose from this season.

There was his career first interception in September against Miami University, when he dove to snag an overthrown pass before it hit the turf. Or the following week at Nebraska, when he intercepted two more in acrobatic fashion.

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Several years ago, as Jeff Okudah emerged as a standout cornerback in high school in Grand Prairie, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth, she viewed every big play.

Okudah noticed her gazing in front of a computer at their home. She found YouTube clips and read articles about his latest performances on Friday nights. There was glowing praise for the blue-chip recruit.

“She felt like she was there in a way,” Okudah said.

At times, she was not. She had lymphoma. Okudah was a toddler when she was first diagnosed with the cancer. It could leave her exhausted and required trips to the hospital. An aunt, Jane Obodo, often ushered Okudah to his high school games and sat in the stands to root for him.

The highlights and clippings offered respite. Marie never much cared for football. The sport was too violent. She preferred watching soccer, especially the Nigerian national team. But these were moments for a mother’s pride to swell over a child's success.

“When you're sick, you don't have a lot of happy moments,” Okudah said.

The routine ended as Jeff reached Ohio State in January of 2017. Six days after he arrived on campus as an early-enrollee freshman, Marie died.

“It was tough because I was far away,” Okudah said. “Not that it really mattered, but I was so far away and I couldn’t do anything about it. For me, I never dealt with anyone passing away. So for the first one to be your mom, it kind of hits differently.”

The following months encapsulated his toughest semester at the school, he said. Along with the grief, he adjusted to a new locker room, a new playbook and a college course load.

Comfort came from friends.

During his recruitment, he had met running back J.K. Dobbins and linebacker Baron Browning, fellow Texas natives who enrolled early with him. Dobbins told him about coping with the death of his father who died when he was 15.

“After that, me and him were attached at the hip,” Okudah said. He roomed with quarterback Tate Martell, a “really good dude” who later transferred. When Okudah returned home to attend his mother’s funeral, Browning joined him.

“We all just looked after each other,” Okudah said.

He thought about advice from Greg Schiano, then the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator who recruited him and persuaded him to pick a school 1,000 miles from his home state. Other schools, such as Oklahoma, were closer.

“He told me, ‘I know you've gone through a lot of things, a lot of tough times in your life, it's time to take a turn for the better. If you come here, you can start that turn,’” Okudah said. “That hit home for me.”

Okudah saw a future, a program producing a prodigious number of NFL draft picks. In the spring before he joined the Buckeyes, he saw Eli Apple, also a cornerback, picked No. 10 overall. Seven former Ohio State players went in the first two rounds, tying a record.

Many draft analysts project Okudah to join their company, possibly picked toward the top of the first round in April if he bypasses his senior season.

It would follow a breakout stretch this fall, which continued Monday when he was named one of the three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. Along with three interceptions, he has four pass breakups this season.

Jeff Hafley, the Buckeyes’ first-year defensive co-coordinator and secondary coach who was coincidentally a former assistant with Schiano at Rutgers, has praised his coverage ability, as well as his focus to all areas for improvement.

“The best thing I could say about Jeff, and this is the truth, is he gets better every single week,” Hafley said. “He does stuff at practice, every single day that he looks better at. He just absorbs everything. And that's fundamentals, technique, that's scheme, that's reading routes, it's understanding zone concepts, it's understanding leverage and man, it's understanding stacks and bunches.

“He's always in my office, he's always texting me questions. The mental aspect of his game has grown so much. The physical aspect has grown so much.”

Often, his mother remains at the forefront of his mind.

It was less than a half-hour in September after Ohio State ended its rout of Miami, the moment of his first interception, when Jeff grabbed his iPhone and tweeted, “Mom is looking down smiling right about now! All GOOD.”

“Everything that happens with me, she's just watching over me, letting it happen,” he said. “With that interception, it's like it’s time, it's time to make your mark on the college football scene.”

Okudah keeps her closest with a black bracelet worn on his wrist. In teal letters, it’s scripted with, “RIP MOM.” His older sister wears one, too. The opposite side reveals a Bible verse, Revelation 21:6: “He said to me: ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.’”

It carries deep significance for him.

“It talks about in heaven, there's going to be no pain,” Okudah said. “You don’t have to worry about all the sickness and stuff like that because you're gone to the next life. It's more joyous things.”

In his own way this fall, on football fields stretching across the Big Ten, he’s still left her with highlights, moments of joy.