Golden: Texas ex Okafor can cap off turbulent year with Super Bowl
Chiefs defensive end had a rough 2020 but has a chance to play in his first Super Bowl. He missed last season's game because of injury.
- Okafor lost his mother before the season and dedicated the season to honoring her memory.
- Okafor has appeared in 11 games.
Alex Okafor has a Super Bowl ring but rarely wears it.
Before this season, Okafor and his Kansas City Chiefs teammates received their rings in a socially distanced ceremony at Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 1 that was streamed live for fans on YouTube.
Okafor’s ring is a conversation piece but not one you will see on his finger.
“I’ll go and check it out every now and then, but I don’t really wear it that often," he said in a Zoom conversation days after the Chiefs beat Buffalo for a second consecutive Super Bowl berth. "I’m nervous when I leave the house with that thing.”
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Since he is 6 feet 4 and 260 pounds, the idea of Okafor getting jacked for his jewelry shouldn't be a worry, but the former Texas All-America defensive end is really jacked about his upcoming assignment because he will extend the Longhorns’ streak of players participating in the Super Bowl to 16 straight seasons.
"It’s something you work for," he said. "Everybody in their career just wants the opportunity to play in the big game. Last year, I wasn’t able to get that opportunity, but I'm thankful my team was able to pull it out and get here."
A victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and legendary quarterback Tom Brady next Sunday would be the greatest moment of his career, surpassing those 4½ sacks in the 2012 Alamo Bowl win over Oregon State to close out his college career. It would also be more gratifying because he will actually suit up this time, barring any major setbacks. The 2013 fourth-round draft choice missed last season’s title victory over the San Francisco 49ers because of a torn pectoral muscle that landed him on injured reserve after he sacked Denver’s Drew Lock in a Week 15 win.
A pesky hamstring injury limited him to 11 games this season, his eighth, but he has been a nice presence on the defensive line since returning to the lineup in Week 11. He finished the regular season with three sacks and nine solo tackles.
Playing alongside All-Pros Frank Clark and Chris Jones, Okafor is finally on the right side of things after some horrible playoff disappointments at his previous stop in New Orleans. The hard-luck Saints lost on a last-second 61-yard touchdown catch by Minnesota's Stefon Diggs in a 2017 divisional playoff and then were absolutely robbed of a Super Bowl opportunity on a missed pass interference call late in the 2018 NFC title game loss to the Los Angele Rams.
By comparison, the confetti shower he received in suburban Miami last season was great, even though he wasn't in uniform for the organization's first Super Bowl win since 1970. It's part of the reason Okafor is some kind of pumped for the chance to walk off the field in full uniform with a second title, especially after such a turbulent 2020, which affected him greatly, not only because of the social unrest in America and the ravages of COVID-19, but mainly due to the tragic loss of his No. 1 fan.
Sonia Okafor died in June, three weeks after a leukemia diagnosis at age 59. She was only four months from watching Kansas City’s Super Bowl win from the stands of Hard Rock Stadium with her son and husband Chris. Mama Bear was very protective of her two boys, Alex and Anderson, particularly the one who played ball at Texas. After I wrote during Alex's junior season that he had not become the breakout player on the defense many expected, I received a phone call at the office from a concerned party.
“Hi, this is Sonia Okafor,” she said. “You’re writing that my son hasn’t become a breakout star because his sack totals are not there, but if you’ve been watching, they have been playing him at defensive tackle a lot, and he is giving up more than 50 pounds blocking those big guys. You need to pay more attention, Mr. Golden."
She talked, and I sure listened.
"I've never heard this story, and it's incredible," Okafor said. "That sounds like her. It makes my day."
Sonia was Alex's rock. Her loss was so devastating — COVID-19 restrictions did not permit the family to visit her in the hospital during her chemotherapy treatments — that he penned a letter that was published in the Kansas City Star. Her death came about the same time as the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the ensuing protests were dominating the headlines.
Sonia Okafor was a champion for the underprivileged and a civil rights activist, so Alex, who was the lone Chief to kneel during the national anthem before the season opener against Houston — he also held a gloved fist aloft — believed putting pen to paper would serve as a cathartic aid in dealing with his massive grief and anger.
“At this point, I’m about to melt down,” he wrote. “The pain from my mother’s death is sitting heavily on me, not to mention the rage that has taken over me since these slaughterings. I’m overwhelmed with so many emotions. All I wanted to do is crawl into a cave and hide while the rest of the world burns down. Then I thought to myself, ‘What would Mom have done?’ ”
Mom would have gone back to work, and that's what the son did, battling through injuries to provide an added boost to a talented front.
This season has been a dedication of sorts. Continuing her legacy of service and charity drives Okafor, who will turn 30 the day after the Super Bowl. He is part of the Kingdom United Reading program in Kansas City, which donates books to elementary schools educating students in the areas of diversity and equality. Pflugerville’s Spring Hill Elementary, which Okafor attended, was one of three schools that received books this year.
Once his playing days are over, he will devote even more time to charitable pursuits and community activism but his current focus is on shutting down a talented Tampa Bay offense. Okafor will be clear of mind once he takes the field — mental focus has always been a strength — but memories of his mother are are never too far away.
Mama Bear will be watching.