Everything was up in the air during the 2020 college football season, and that was particularly true for Maryland tight end Chig Okonkwo.
Prior to 2020, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Okonkwo had carved out a role in Maryland’s offense and looked to be an up-and-coming tight end. As a freshman in 2018, Okonkwo appeared in 11 games and finished the season with five receptions for 61 yards and one receiving touchdown. He also ran three times for 72 yards and three touchdowns. As a sophomore in 2019, Okonkwo appeared in 12 games and finished the season with 19 receptions for 201 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Okonkwo’s prospects seemed promising for the 2020 season. However, he received terrible news regarding his health well before the season. Okonkwo felt pain in his chest and was admitted to a hospital in March 2020, according to The Washington Post. He was diagnosed with myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle typically caused by a viral infection.
“When I was first diagnosed with it, I thought I could get back by the  season,” Okonkwo said on Glenn Clark Radio Sept. 8. “The second meeting I had [with the doctors], it was weird. Before they even told me, I knew they were going to tell me that I wasn’t going to play this season because I could just feel it in my body. I could tell I was not ready.”
Okonkwo tested negative for the coronavirus, but his doctors believe his tests were false negatives and that his illness was caused by the virus, according to The Post. As time wore on, Okonkwo wondered if he would ever suit up and play again.
“It was really scary, man, just sitting there and waking up every day feeling pain in my chest,” Okonkwo said. “I was like, ‘Is this ever going to go away? Do I ever have the opportunity to play again? And if I do play again, will my heart be strong enough?'”
However, after months of rest, Okonkwo was cleared for workouts and took part in Maryland’s offseason prior to the 2021 season. He started to build chemistry with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and the rest of the team.
“During camp we all came together and became a really tight team,” Okonkwo said. “This is the closest I’ve seen this team been since I’ve been here.”
Tagovailoa and Okonkwo’s chemistry came into play during the first game of the 2021 season against West Virginia Sept. 4. Tagovailoa completed an 18-yard pass to the senior tight end for the Terps’ second touchdown of the day. When Okonkwo scored, he was filled with emotion.
“Getting a chance to score a touchdown again, when I was in the end zone, I’m just shaking my head,” Okonkwo said. “I’m just like, ‘Wow, I never thought that this would be possible again. Here I am.'”
Maryland came through as a team as well. The Terps scored 17 first-quarter points but were largely kept in check in the second and third quarters. That changed after Maryland’s defense forced (and recovered) a fumble from West Virginia running back Leddie Brown at the end of the third quarter.
That got the Terps rolling. After the fumble, Maryland drove down the field and kicked a field goal to take a 23-21 lead. During West Virginia’s next possession, Terps cornerback Jakorian Bennett intercepted West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege in the end zone. Maryland’s offense put the game away on the ensuing drive with a long touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett.
“Great team football — offense not doing its thing, defense comes up and offense comes back and finishes the game,” Okonkwo said.
Okonkwo finished the West Virginia game with three receptions for 20 yards and one receiving touchdown. Against Howard Sept. 11, he scored another touchdown on a 2-yard pass early in the second quarter.
In two games, Okonkwo has four receptions for 22 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Overall, Okonkwo has appeared in 25 games as a Terp, posting 284 total yards and eight touchdowns.
Okonkwo is now ready to help Maryland take the next step as a football program.
“We’re just a band of brothers that never turn on each other and just keep fighting.” Okonkwo said.
Maryland will bring that brotherhood mentality on the road this week when it faces Illinois Sept. 17.
For more from Okonkwo, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics