University of Missouri

The conversation that helped keep Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam from going pro

In 1994, A.J. Ofodile, then a star tight end at Missouri, faced a daunting life decision: turn professional or return to MU for another season.

Ofodile opted to become the first player to leave Mizzou early for the NFL, despite being just 20 years old. And even after a six-year NFL career, he regrets the decision.

So when MU tight end Albert Okwuegbunam faced the same choice at the same age and the same school, Ofodile wanted to talk.

The conversation came in January, and the younger tight end was surprised how different Ofodile’s opinion was from all the others he sought.

“He was the first guy I had a chance to talk to that had a first-hand experience,” Okwuegbunam told The Star. “It was really good. I got to hear some things he regretted, some things he liked about it. He elaborated on every single detail that I asked him to.”

Ofodile, who coached MU’s wideouts in 2018 before switching to tight ends, helped sway Okwuegbunam to return for his redshirt junior season. Now, one former Missouri tight end will try and elevate his pupil into one of the top prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Okwuegbunam’s new position coach wasn’t the only person he listened to when debating whether to return for another season. The 6-foot-5 junior said he got opinions all over Columbia, regardless of if he asked for them.

“It’s selfish, but I hope you stay,” he often heard.

Okwuegbunam has battled a shoulder injury since MU’s upset win over No. 13 Florida on Nov. 3, which also played a factor in his reasoning. He missed the last four games of the season and was limited throughout spring practices while he rehabbed. Neither he nor Missouri have publicly commented on the specifics of his injury.

Mizzou coach Barry Odom said Okwuegbunam’s draft decision would have been harder had he been healthy last season. His size, pass-catching ability and speed — he claims to run a 4.50-second 40-yard dash, elite for the position — would have had scouts salivating. But the injury and depth of the position in this year’s draft posed major hurdles. Now, if all goes well, Okwuegbunam could be the top tight end in next year’s draft. At MU’s recent pro day, football super-agents Jimmy Sexton and Tom Condon of CAA both went out of their way to introduce themselves to Okwuegbunam, in hopes of representing him next year.

Okwuegbunam said early in the process he was torn over what to do. His injury gave him reservations on both sides: Concerns about his shoulder negatively affected his draft stock, but returning meant risking further injury. He wanted to finish his career with his teammates, but seeing TV pundits discuss the draft stock of some of them, such as seniors Drew Lock and Emanuel Hall, made him wonder.

When talking to his father, Albert Sr., the conversation mainly revolved around finishing his degree. A health science major, Okwuegbunam comes from a family that puts a high value on his schooling. His father emigrated from Nigeria in order to attend the University of Illinois.

“My motivation coming to the United States was for education,” the elder Okwuegbunam said. “Education has been important to me. He loves football, but education is important, too.”

In Ofodile, Okwuegbunam found a voice that wouldn’t sway him to either side but would provide context to all his questions or concerns. Ofodile said he was simply hoping to share his experiences with Okwuegbunam.

When he was taken by the Buffalo Bills in the fifth round of the 1994 NFL Draft, Ofodile found himself on one of the oldest teams in the NFL. It was his first sign that the NFL isn’t everything college players imagine it to be. It wasn’t quite as fun.

“It was like playing with your uncles,” Ofodile said of his time in Buffalo.

AJ Ofodile MU.jpg
Before a six-year NFL career and a coaching stint in high school and college, A.J. Ofodile was an all-Big 8 tight end at Missouri in the 1990s. Missouri Athletics Missouri Athletics

Ofodile understands that a six-year NFL career is nothing to be ashamed of. But even after a successful career as a high school coach once he finished playing, Ofodile still wishes he never left MU when he did.

“There was so much more on the table for me,” he said. “If I could do it all over again I would have redshirted and played five years. I would have been 22 getting drafted, maybe 23. What I was physically and mentally three years later, was completely different. I don’t regret a lot, but this is one of them. In football, older is better.”

Ultimately, Okwuegbunam decided to stay after realizing he wanted to finish what he started. He’d have another year to work on his blocking and expand his route-running. The commitment of Kelly Bryant made Okwuegbunam envision playing with a dual-threat quarterback. MU will tailor its offense more toward the run, which should benefit Okwuegbunam’s blocking, currently an area of concern for scouts.

Okwuegbunam said it didn’t take long into spring practice to realize he made the right decision. Bryant is as good as advertised, he said, and MU has the chance to challenge for the SEC East title, something it has yet to do under Odom.

“You don’t really see his full potential until the bullets are flying,” Okwuegbunam said.

Like Lock in 2018, Okwuegbunam attended the NFL Combine in March as part of the NCAA’s new symposium for returning pro prospects, then returned to Columbia for MU spring football practices.

As Okwuegbunam jogged off the field after one of those practices, he said he will not have second thoughts while watching Lock and Hall get taken early in next week’s NFL Draft but added that, had he opted to go pro, he would’ve accepted the challenge of adulthood with “full force.”

When asked how he feels about practicing in the cold and heading to class, when he could have been in California preparing for the NFL, Okwuegbunam brushed off the question. He prefers talking about coming back, not what-ifs.

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.