When Denzel Okafor first put on football pads, he was not amused. In fact, he downright disliked it.
The youngest of six children, Okafor’s family members were very involved in track and field. But unlike his family, his body type did not fit the traditional track mold.
“I was always on the big side,” Okafor recalled of his childhood. “My family has always been in track and field, either running or jumping, but I didn’t have the body to do it.”
His brother suggested he try out for football, which would welcome his bigger frame.
The initial outcome was not what he expected.
“I didn’t really like it at first. It was hot and the helmet was so uncomfortable,” he said of his first memories of the game. “I started getting used to it and my coaches helped me get into better shape. But I wasn’t sure it was something I could be good at.”
Okafor’s football career began in fifth grade. But years would pass before realizing how far the sport he did not enjoy could take him.
As the years went by, many coaches told him he could have a future playing football if he learned proper technique and got stronger.
Still, Okafor continued to hold some doubt about his skills.
“I always would brush it off when people would say they can’t wait to see me on TV,” he said. “I would say ‘I’m not going to make it.’”
He left without extending an offer.
But Wickline commented about the then sophomore to his high school coaches – a comment that would ignite a fire and change the way Okafor approached the game.
“(Wickline) told my coaches that he thought I was good, but I needed to get a little bigger. My coaches told me about it and said Texas would keep an eye on me, but at that time, I was too small to offer,” he said.
“Then, I attended a camp and didn't do so hot at that camp. I didn't do good at all, so I thought, ‘Man, Texas is not going to come through with an offer.’”
After the initial disappointment subsided, Okafor could not let go of Wickline’s conversation with his coaches.
As someone who’s biggest driving force is when people tell him he cannot do something, Okafor used the assistant coach’s words as motivation to prove to himself and his doubters he could have a future playing the game he once disliked.
“Someone was doubting me because they said I was too small, so I stayed in the weight room to get bigger,” Okafor said. “I went through my junior year and shined. Then my junior spring, Texas came back to see me.
“I shined in practice and got a call that night. Wickline said he was impressed with how much bigger I got and how much work I put in. He said, 'We want you.' He offered me that night.”
After spending five years not fully believing in his talents, Okafor changed his tone.
For once he welcomed the support of his loved ones and started viewing football as something more than a game: it was an opportunity.
“I started getting offers my junior year and realized I could go pretty far with this,” he said. “I kept hearing people say they believe in me and couldn't wait to see me on TV. I realized if those people believe it, then I need to believe it, too.”
One of his biggest supporters was his older brother, Goldstein, who Okafor credits as part of the reason he is at the University of Texas.
“My older brother kept on me and told me to work hard because it will pay off,” he said. “He really helped me get my name out there.
“He would take time out of his schedule to pick me up and take me to camps, so I could get my name out there and show coaches my skill set. He definitely helped me throughout the recruiting process.”
Okafor committed to Texas last November and was excited to begin his college career playing under Wickline.
But that moment never came.
Wickline was fired following the 2015 football season and replaced by former Tulsa offensive line coach Matt Mattox.
“We had a really good relationship. I was shocked when he left. I didn’t know anything about it,” he said of Wickline's dismissal. “But Matt Mattox reached out to me and told me he wanted to get to know me when I took my official visit.”
Okafor was impressed with his new coach. Mattox took a personal interest in the offensive lineman, which made him very comfortable with the first-year assistant coach.
“He’s a really laid back guy and you can talk to him about anything. We talk about how much we like ribs and steak, and of course as an o-lineman, I like to talk about food,” he joked.
“He’s just a really cool guy. Plus, he has been around for a while in coaching and played the game, so I know he knows what he’s talking about.
“I know he will coach me as hard as I need to be coached.”
Okafor began his career as a Longhorn earlier this summer and is preparing for his first fall camp as a college football player. Coaches think Okafor has a chance to be special.
Okafor is looking forward to improving his game against the best of the best at Texas and across the Big 12. But more importantly, Okafor is excited to be a part of something he thinks is special going on at Texas right now.
“High school is great, but college is a time where I will be able to compete against some of the best football players in the country," Okafor said. "I think going against some of the better athletes will help me improve my game and will make me a better player.
“But honestly, to be a part of the tradition at Texas means a lot more to me than simply being a football player. What Texas stands for means so much to a lot of different people, so to be a part of that is an honor.
“I cannot wait to represent Texas.”
Taylor Estes is a senior reporter and Horns Digest site manager for Scout.com. Follow her on Twitter: Taylor_Gaspar.
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