The NFL Is Calling

Russell Okung is expected to be taken Thursday night in the NFL Draft higher than any Oklahoma State player since Barry Sanders was the third overall selection by the Detroit Lions in 1989. The following story about the Cowboy All-American offensive lineman, written by Robert Allen, appeared in the February issue of Go Pokes Magazine.

You've heard of cultural exchange programs where a student travels to another country to soak up the culture of that country and then leaves a little bit of their culture with the people they touch. Russell Okung came to Stillwater, Okla., and Oklahoma State University from Fort Bend, Texas and George Bush High School three and a half years ago and now prepares to leave following a rapid four-season playing career having engaged in a character exchange with the Cowboys football program.

Okung has brought his noble brand of character instilled by his proud mother Dorothy Ojo and left it with teammates, coaches, and even a few of us civilian types. Okung has also soaked up character from his coaches, teammates, professors, and others that have touched his life as a Cowboy. In most cases student-athletes leave college with more than they came with in the character department. In college they learn, grow and develop. However, with Okung, it really has been more of an equal swap in that area.

I remember speaking with Okung and hearing of the respect and admiration he has for his mother, and from Dorothy the guidance and purpose she had in raising him to be a responsible, loving, but mentally tough young man. It is those first impressions and the constant expressions in that vein throughout his career that made the night of Nov. 19 so special. The booming voice of Boone Pickens Stadium public address announcer Larry Reece ran off the accolades in introducing Okung on Senior Night. Mike Gundy hugged his 6-foot-6, 305-pound left tackle and soon to be Outland Award finalist, and Okung jogged out to join his family including mother Dorothy.

"He's my hero, and I am so proud of him," she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. "Russell really makes me proud."

"My mother (Dorothy Ojo) is my inspiration," Okung has said on many more than one occasion. "Just the kind of woman she is, driven and determined. That inspired me to better myself as a person."

Flash back 10 and a half months when Okung was making the decision to stay at Oklahoma State and skip early entry into the NFL Draft. It was his mother that was a major inspiration in that decision. She had sent her son to college not to become a professional football player, which he will become this spring in the 2010 NFL Draft, but she sent him to Stillwater to get a degree, which he just received in December with a bachelor's degree in marketing.

"There will be time for (playing in the NFL)," said Okung. "I came here to get my degree, my education, and I promised my mother that. I am having fun playing football here, and I have no regrets about making this decision. This is the right decision for me."

Flash forward to the last week of the regular season and Gundy speaking at his weekly news conference after being asked about Okung.

"I would be proud if my boys could grow up to be like Russell, and I'm not talking about 6-6, 320, I am talking about as a person," started Gundy. "Russell has graduated. He's been here three and a half years, and I'd say there is really a good chance that he is going to get picked really high in the draft. "More importantly, you really never hear anything about Russ. He never shows up on class missed (list). He's been a great leader for us. When we had some difficult times here three years ago he never turned his back, never became a clubhouse lawyer. He stayed on the straight line and did everything he could to help the program, which in turn as we always say, if you do something to help somebody else or to help the team then it is going to benefit you as an individual. It has and now he is up for the Outland Award and ready to begin a successful career in the NFL."

Flash back to a couple of months earlier in the small lobby of the Ramada Inn in College Station, Texas. The next day the Cowboys would open their Big 12 season with a 36-31 victory over the Aggies but that night was time for Russell to sit back and enjoy the company of his inspiration, his mother Dorothy along with other family members including his younger sister, a student at Texas A&M.

The gathering was interrupted, first by several members of the Oklahoma State Cowboys radio broadcast crew – Dave Hunziker, John Holcomb and myself – along with Kevin Klintworth and Gavin Lang of the OSU media relations department all anxious to meet the woman we'd heard Russell talk so much about.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see how proud Russell was as his mother displayed her personality and charm. There were hugs all the way around, but the biggest hug was given to offensive line coach Joe Wickline. The sometimes gregarious Wickline was exchanging a hug with Dorothy Ojo – two of the greater influences in Okung's life. It was a really neat scene and one that is not viewed as often in college football as touchdown runs, interceptions, and long-range field goals.

Now flash forward to April where it certainly can be expected that Okung, his mother, and the family could be together in New York City in the Green Room behind stage at the NFL Draft waiting for Okung's name to be called. It won't take long. Gundy knows and he has seen it happen before with one of his top players. Waiting to become a pro can be profitable.

"I was talking to Brandon Pettigrew (former Cowboy tight end who was a first-round choice of the Detroit Lions in the 2009 NFL Draft), and I've heard Russell say this too," said Gundy recently. "Brandon loved his time here at Oklahoma State. They like living in Stillwater. They like the way they've been treated.

"You'd have to ask him but I've heard Russell say he likes his coach, he likes the system, he likes living here, and he had a chance to graduate and finish his college career. He can go out in the real world and get into what we're all into, but there is no rush for that. He got to stay here as long as you can.

"He was a give or take a late first-round to second-round pick (last year), depending on who you ask. Now he is going to be a very high pick and if you look at it from a monetary standpoint, he has made himself a lot of money, guaranteed," Gundy continued.

There is proof in Gundy's line of thinking as pro scouts and scouting services continue to rave about Okung. Even after the suspension and eventual end of the OSU playing career of wide receiver Dez Bryant, scouts flocked to Cowboy practices when they could. Okung was one of the primary players they were looking at.

"The first thing that you will notice about Okung is his size," wrote Bryan Dietzler of The NFL Draft Dog. "He is big at 6-5, 301 pounds although he's not the biggest guy out there. He uses his size effectively to manipulate defenders and direct them where he wants them to go. He also has good feet and is able to shuffle around and keep his feet in position well. Okung is also a fine run blocker and doesn't let off of his blocks until the play is over.

"Okung has had a lot of success keeping outside pass rushers off the quarterback thanks to his speed, size and footwork," continued Dietzler of his evaluation. "He also gets a good punch when delivering the initial contact with the defender and can sometimes knock a defender off balance. Okung also plays with good leverage and does get his hands in the proper position to control the defender. Okung is a hard worker both on and off the field and has a great attitude for the game. He plays with a lot of intensity and doesn't take plays off. He would be a great addition to any offensive line."

After detailing his physical attributes and noting his college career, The NFL Draft Bible was short and to the point. "Okung is considered by many as the top offensive lineman in the upcoming 2010 NFL Draft. He is a good athlete, with good lateral mobility which allows him to be a very good pass protector," stated the publication.

The same publication also points out that Okung is one of the few offensive tackles in college to shutout two national NCAA sack leaders. He prevented Texas A&M defensive end Von Miller from getting to quarterback Zac Robinson in OSU's game at College Station this past season, and back in the 2007 season, as a sophomore, he held Indiana's Greg Middleton, that season's NCAA sack leader, not only without a sack but without a single tackle in the Insight Bowl win over the Hoosiers.

He's more isolated against some of the premier pass rushers and some of the best players in the country," said Wickline. "He's done a nice job handling what he's been responsible for on matchups."

He's done so much more than that, and we go back to the character issue. Gundy knows that is another aspect of Okung, along with his physical ability, that appeals to NFL general managers and coaches.

"They like him a lot because the trend in the NFL is moving more to college in that they want guys they can trust and guys they can rely on," said Gundy. "With the new commissioner and what he is doing with players involved in off-the-field incidents, a guy like Russell's stock goes through the roof."

Okung's story is quite interesting. He lights up a room, and he has a manner of speaking that draws your attention. His size helps that, but a lot of it is presence and his comfortable but attention-getting voice. He seems natural as an offensive lineman, where the stereo-type characteristics include intelligence, instincts to protect, and close family-type attitude.

However, Okung started out in football as a defensive lineman that wanted to destroy quarterbacks.

"I played defensive line for a while," revealed Okung. "I wanted to be the next Michael Strahan, just hitting the quarterback all the time. Those guys just get to run around and hit people, and that was the pretty fun part. I got into high school at Bush, and they clocked me in the 40. That was it. They moved me to the other side of the ball. The coaches told me I wasn't fast enough. I felt terrible because I thought I had all the moves from watching the NFL."

With defensive end out as a position, and Strahan out as a football example, Okung, who says he never really had any sports idols just players he used as examples, found an interesting replacement. It was one inspired by Wickline and one that his mother gave him the chance to view at home.

"Our offensive line coach (Wickline) tells all of us linemen to be like (former NFL offensive lineman) Conrad Dobler," said Okung. "My mom bought the NFL Network channel, and I saw an NFL Films story about him, and I loved how everybody hated him yet he always found himself at NFL Pro Bowls every year. That's a guy we linemen like to model ourselves after."

That may not be as unusual as you think because as mild mannered and as much of a gentleman as Okung is off the field, on the field he is the warrior and competitor. He is extremely physical and wants to not only beat his opponent but also drive him into the ground. He is a team-first guy but to say he's never been called for a personal foul would be inaccurate. Okung is a team-first guy who cares about how people view the Oklahoma State offensive line.

"Chemistry is real important. You have all sorts of calls and all sorts of combos and steps that you always go through," said Okung when asked about the line. "That is why you don't talk a lot about individuals when you talk about the offensive line. There are five of you out there, and you are a unit, and if one person doesn't do their job then we all don't get it done.

"That is what we do, we get it done, we work. We have to get it done. We have to grind it. We have to push it. Chemistry is real important if you want to be successful."

He is as unselfish a teammate as you can find. The kind of guy that reads those quotes coaches put up in the locker room and weight room and turns them into more than words.

"All I know is that we've got a quote up in our weight room that I see all the time," said Okung before the season when asked about his goals and honors for the fall. "It says, ‘Individual desire fuels team success.' So if I do what I can do, and we all do what we can do collectively, that individual stuff, the accolades and the awards, they're just going to fall one after the other. We set our goals as a team."

Now that the season is over he is proud of a number of things that have happened in his career at Oklahoma State, and one of them is that the Cowboys have led the Big 12 in rushing offense each of his four seasons, including the 2009 season when they averaged 191.75 yards per game (which was No. 22 in the nation prior to the Cotton Bowl).

"It just means we are doing our job here," he said. "It would be a pretty big deal because as an offensive lineman a perfect game is to not have to pass the ball even though we've done that some. It would be a pretty big deal.

"We are kind of the unsung heroes. We don't get a lot of the glory. We don't get our names mentioned a lot out there and doing that all four years would be a big deal and would mean a lot to all of the offensive linemen that have come through here during that time," Okung added.

Another source of pride in his Cowboy career comes from the way the team responded this season to the adversity and injuries. Okung has been a leader throughout his Oklahoma State career. It is a natural role for him, albeit he does it in more of a strong, silent type of way. When you are a senior you are labeled as a leader, and Okung and his class obviously did their job well.

"Sometimes you are kind of forced into doing things to help the team that you really aren't expecting to have to do," he said of this season's team. "Football is a game of adversity, and it is a game that shows character. I think what our players have done this year is come together and not let the injuries and the things that have happened affect us. We have shown character and done what we have to in order to be successful. I'm proud of this team for that."

No more proud than his mother, his coaches, and all of us that have relished his accomplishments and benefited from being around him are of him. Russell Okung is special and so is his mother Dorothy for sharing him with all the folks at Oklahoma State. It has been a character-building experience for all of us.

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