Sept. 21, 2015
By Renee Peggs
Romeo Okwara is full of surprises.
Offensive linemen facing off against the University of Notre Dame football team have certainly steeled themselves against his ability to take the wind out of their sails.
Fortunately, being slammed to the turf by this 6-4, 270-pound defensive lineman isn't a prerequisite to every instance in which he astonishes.
He's slated to graduate from the University in December with a degree in accountancy from the Mendoza College of Business, and he'll only be 20 years old.
Born in Nigeria, Okwara began school at age three. When his family moved to the United States several years later, he finished his sixth-grade year in North Carolina even though he was only 10.
"I was really shy back then," he says, "and I was afraid of being teased for my African accent. I hated reading out loud in class. But I adjusted pretty quickly and the transition really wasn't that bad."
Similarly, he also took his collegiate transition in stride. "I knew the academics would be harder than in high school, but I was ready for that and just kept working hard. Moving through Measurement and Disclosure -- a weed-out course for freshman accounting majors -- was probably the most difficult part of my degree, but I made it and that was exciting. The physical demands of college football are way more than high school, but I set my mind to it and adapted. It wasn't really a big deal."
What was a big deal?
"Running out of the tunnel into the stadium for the first time. That was magical, coming through with my teammates and hearing the whole crowd just roar. I won't ever forget that."
Notre Dame is known for its aura: even the sound of her name is enough to evoke a sense of being on hallowed ground, and Okwara has a soft spot for sacred space.
The senior spent the first three weeks of his recent summer vacation in Greece with a dozen other Notre Dame students as part of an academic exploration of Corinth.
"I've always been interested in ancient civilizations so I took an elective course on Rome, Greece and Egypt," he says. "Then this opportunity came along to travel over there with Professor [Robin] Rhodes and I knew I wanted to go. Seeing all those places in person that we had learned about in class was just surreal. Professor Rhodes has been living and traveling over there his whole life and it was amazing to hear all his stories and the details of all the places we visited. After listening to him, I could talk to you about something like a certain piece of clay for a couple hours," he laughs.
Okwara hasn't lost his marbles, but Greece has.
"While we were over there, I did a presentation on the Elgin Marbles, parts of the Acropolis that were confiscated by the British and put in the British Museum. Greece is still fighting to recover them and restore their archaeological sites. It was really cool to learn about that.
"Each day, we'd all have different assignments for something we would end up presenting about to the group, so the trip was really interactive and required a lot more involvement than just sight-seeing," Okwara says. "When the football team went to Ireland a few years ago, we visited a castle and had a bus tour around the area where we were staying, but that was about it. The Greece trip was a lot different."
It wasn't exactly the height of luxury or comfort. "I think we all expected it to be like staying at a Santorini resort, but our hotel was very small and old; it was a bit of a shock but we all adjusted and ended up loving it by the end," he recalls with a smile.
Having learned a few words and phrases in Greek allowed Okwara and his fellow travelers to interact at least on an elementary level with the locals, in markets and restaurants and shops. "No one speaks English in Corinth!" he says with mock exasperation. "We were really fortunate to be with Professor Rhodes, who helped us immerse ourselves more in the culture."
One of the most memorable experiences for Okwara was climbing a mountain called Acro-Corinth, which is a natural fortification that had been the site of many ancient battles.
"There's a road that goes around up to the top but we walked it on foot. It was about a three-hour hike up and we spent the day learning about the historical events that had happened there," he relates.
"There were snakes all over the ground as we were hiking so we'd all be alerting each other, `Watch out, a snake just went through my legs!' and the girls were freaking out... it got really serious really fast, just crazy. And these street dogs were following us up from the town...
"Later in the trip we climbed it again but we went around a different way. Several of the people in our group actually climbed the sheer face of the rock. I decided I was not doing that because I have a season to play! There were snakes crawling through the cracks of the wall, right by their hands and faces... I was really glad I did not do that, it was insane! I'm not afraid of snakes but a lot of them were poisonous and even the non-poisonous ones would still try to bite people. I just didn't want to mess with any of that."
Growing up in Africa, his travel experiences had been limited.
"We'd go to Isiekenesi, which is my family's tribal village, and visit relatives, but that was about it."
Finding Isiekenesi on a map is even more difficult than trying to pronounce it correctly. Like our country, Nigeria is divided into states. The village is in Anambra, a southern state roughly four times the size of St. Joseph County (IN.) with a population of 4.2 million people. Poverty and illiteracy are widespread.
"I'm Igbo," he says of his ancestral heritage, "and there's several other guys on the football team who are also Igbo, which is pretty cool.
"My parents wanted us to have really great educational opportunities," says Okwara of his family's transcontinental relocation. "We had relatives in Charlotte (N.C.) so it was a good choice."
So was football.
Second of three sons, Okwara followed in his older brother's footsteps and tried out for the school team as a seventh grader.
"I knew nothing about the sport," he admits, laughing at himself, "but Steve Smith from the Carolina Panthers was my hero so I wanted to be a wide receiver like he was. They put me at linebacker and I had no idea what I was supposed to do; I was basically just a body."
His father actually made him quit the team midway through that first season, "because he wanted me to play basketball instead. So I joined this local YMCA team... I wasn't any good and I didn't like it at all. The next year when I tried out for the football team again at my school, I didn't make it. But at least I didn't have to do basketball again!" he jokes.
At only 13 years old, Okwara began high school and made the JV football squad -- "but everybody who tries out makes it, and I think I was on the field for one play during that whole season."
As a sophomore starter on the junior varsity team, he had a defining moment that would end up being a game-changer long after that season.
"We were doing practice drills one day," he remembers, "when Prince Shembo told my older brother he should go against me in the tackle. My brother started talking trash, he was sure he was going to destroy me, but I ended up knocking him out. That was my turning point: I started being known from that time on as a legitimate football player, and Coach Hastings really started pushing me from then on."
That was not the last time a Shembo would play a significant role in influencing Okwara's future. The night before Romeo was set to commit to North Carolina for college football, Prince's dad stopped by the Okwara home with a suggestion.
"He told me and my dad that we should go visit Notre Dame," Okwara says. "So we came up here. I knew immediately: I loved the campus, I loved the people, my dad started buying swag right away, and I committed the next day."
Okwara had had every intention of staying in-state with his friends. "But Notre Dame was the best decision of my life, and all because Mr. Shembo came to my house that night."
Any other surprises?
"I play the guitar and ukulele," he volunteers, somewhat sheepishly. "Corey Robinson actually plays tons of instruments: he's really musical. He and I went to Hawaii for spring break and I bought a ukulele. We jam out. I let him do all the singing, though. Nobody wants me to do that!"
It should come as no surprise that Romeo Okwara is well-positioned for success, on the field and off.