She realized what football meant to her son when he was in high school and she had traveled to Italy. She called Chigoziem on FaceTime, and he answered while wearing his helmet in the house. She asked why, and he said he was just so excited for the upcoming football season. That passion intersected with potential. Okonkwo developed into a three-star recruit out of Powder Springs, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, and received scholarship offers from Power Five programs, ultimately deciding to go to Maryland.
After a few seasons in College Park, Okonkwo emerged as a go-to tight end, poised to thrive as a starter in 2020. But then that slipped away because of a heart issue. He couldn’t play at all last season and wasn’t sure whether he would play again.
“I had those thoughts. I was like, ‘Dang, what if the last time I played football was the last time I could play football?’ ” Okonkwo said. “And those are kind of scary. But I knew I was going to come back.”
Okonkwo felt pain in his chest in March 2020 and needed to stay at a hospital overnight. Doctors diagnosed him with myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle that can be caused by viral infections. Okonkwo didn’t test positive for the coronavirus around that time, just as the pandemic had begun upending life in the United States, but he said doctors believe his test was a false negative and that his heart issue was a complication of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Okonkwo initially didn’t tell his mom about the diagnosis. She said she found out from the hospital paperwork that arrived at her house a few weeks later.
“I guess he's just trying to protect me from everything that has happened to us,” Okonkwo’s mom said, adding that her son must have asked the doctors not to tell her, “because he knows I would just freak out.”
When Okonkwo was in high school, his dad suffered a fatal heart attack just after sitting down to eat at a Mexican restaurant. On that Sunday after church, “we never came back together again,” Okonkwo’s mom said, and it’s still difficult for the family. That history prompted caution in Okonkwo’s return to play, but his mom felt reassured by positive reports from the doctors.
Okonkwo could tell his body didn’t feel back to normal and he probably wasn’t ready to return to football. His next checkup confirmed he needed to miss the entire season. After the first hospital visit last spring, Okonkwo continued to work out because he said he didn’t realize the severity of the issue. When he started feeling chest pain again and returned for the checkup, doctors instructed him not to take part in any physical activity for the next six months because there was still scar tissue on his heart.
Okonkwo couldn’t do anything that would make his heart rate increase, and he stayed away from the football facility to mitigate the risk of catching the virus again. (During the season, the Terps had to cancel back-to-back games because of a coronavirus outbreak that infected at least 30 players and staff members.) Okonkwo stayed in his College Park apartment, focusing on schoolwork, which led to what he called “probably my best semester I’ve ever had here in terms of grades.”
By October, after six months of a laid-back lifestyle, Okonkwo began to feel better. Cardiac screening showed his heart had healed. Before then, Okonkwo had been separated from the team, but once doctors cleared him for a gradual return, he started to work out in the football facility and attended a few games. This spring, he can finally practice again.
Without Okonkwo last season, the Terps didn’t have a standout pass-catching tight end. That’s the position that offensive coordinator Dan Enos said would look the most different this season, thanks to Okonkwo’s return and the addition of a few talented freshmen, including Weston Wolff and CJ Dippre, who joined the team as early enrollees. Head coach Michael Locksley’s scheme has generally relied on tight ends as receiving threats, and this year they will offer another dimension to an offense that returns its starting quarterback and all of its top wide receivers.
“Now that I’m back, we’re definitely adding that element back in the offense,” Okonkwo said of his position group. “If you guys could see practices, then you’ll see, yeah, tight ends are definitely back.”
As a sophomore in 2019, Okonkwo had 201 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns, and in his senior year his role could grow significantly. He’ll join his team for the spring game April 24, then officially return to the playing field in the fall, perhaps with even more appreciation for the game. His mom flies to Maryland for at least a few home games each season, and when she sees her son playing again, she said she’ll feel the same emotions as before: “Joy, so much joy, happiness, pride.”
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