Amobi Okoye was in the prime of his life and career, a strapping young football player with eye-popping power and mobility who was looking forward to another NFL season.
Suddenly and cruelly, though, the former Texans starting defensive tackle found himself in a medically-induced coma for three months after being stricken with a rare disease that caused seizures and endangered his life three years ago.
As neurologists worked to diagnose and treat an autoimmune syndrome called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis that had stricken Okoye and caused convulsions during workouts and initially prompted fears that he had suffered a heart attack, the former Texans’ first-round draft pick lost roughly 80 pounds. Okoye has a 145-day memory gap from his time in the hospital before being released Aug. 7, 2013.
Okoye temporarily lost most of his ability to speak. He had to relearn other basic human functions, including walking and eating.
Today, Okoye is a dramatic medical success story and has been cleared to play football again.
He’s a survivor who carries a big dream of resuming his NFL career.
“I’m a walking miracle,” said Okoye, a Katy resident. “It took a while to finally diagnose what was going on with me. They never actually found a cause, but they knew how to treat it. There was a lot of trial and error.
“I don’t recollect or remember anything from the time I went through the illness. I remember life before and after that period of time and I know I went through an illness and that my body was healed. It’s a blessing and it tested your faith. I’m so happy to have my health and hopefully get back playing football.”
Once a 19-year-old rookie as one of the youngest players in NFL history, Okoye is hoping to make a comeback to the NFL as he prepares to celebrate his 29th birthday in June.
Cut by the Dallas Cowboys last year after being medically cleared and then spending the 2014 season on their non-football illness list, Okoye has been preparing for another comeback.
“The illness happened and I really beat it,” Okoye said. “I’m feeling really good. My doctor has cleared me for full-contact football since August of 2014. I’m working hard to get back in the NFL. I’ve always felt a passion for working out and my recovery has gone very well. I’ve been going through my normal training regimen. I’m full-go, training hard and waiting to get that call to get back on a team. I’m still fairly young. That kind of helps.”
Okoye is back up to 300 pounds. He’s training at IX Innovations, the same workout facility where former Texans Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster is also working out at as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon.
“I’ve been enjoying training there,” Okoye said. “It helps a lot to be around the guys and push yourself. We do a lot of power and mobility exercises to simulate what you need to do on a football field. It’s a lot of football and athletic-related things working on your core and explosive stuff.”
A native of Anambra, Nigeria who moved to Huntsville, Ala., when he was 12 years old, Okoye became the youngest player to be drafted in the first round in NFL draft history in 2007 when he was selected 10th overall out of Louisville. Okoye recorded a career-high 5 ½ sacks as a rookie.
He missed just four games during his four seasons with the Texans before being cut in 2011 and being signed by the Chicago Bears. He played two seasons for the Bears before experiencing the illness in 2013 and then being signed by the Cowboys one year later.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out with the Cowboys,” Okoye said. “I’m trying to get back on now. I just want to showcase my talent and be a part of something good.”
For his career, Okoye has 177 tackles, 16 sacks and three forced fumbles.
A lot of NFL teams could use a 6-2, 300-pound defensive lineman who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds and bench pressed 225 pounds 30 times at the NFL scouting combine in 2007.
Okoye said he’s more than open to potentially rejoining the Texans should they be interested in his services.
The biggest obstacle to landing a contract is the rust factor. Okoye last played in a regular-season game four years ago with the Bears when he appeared in nine games and had a dozen tackles and one sack.
“Amobi’s not too old and he’s been working out hard,” said agent Ian Greengross, who represents Okoye along with Darin Morgan. “He wants one more chance, one more year. He’s come a long way. To see where he was in the hospital as a once perfectly healthy football player in his mid 20s, it was unbelievable. Now, he’s back at his fighting weight.
“Amobi’s always been very dedicated. He graduated from college at 19 years old. Amobi has always worked as hard, if not harder than anyone else, so it doesn’t surprise me to see this level of dedication and commitment to try to get another chance. He’s perfectly willing to come in and work out in front of people. If they decide he’s ready, then he’ll sign.”
Training diligently to regain his old size and strength, Okoye feels like he has unfinished business after making a big splash in his career initially as an AFC Defensive Rookie of the Month with four sacks in his first four games.
“Football is what I love to do,” Okoye said. “It’s a passion of mine. I’m still young and I can pursue it, so why not play? It’s my passion. It’s my love. When the time comes and a team calls, I’ll be ready. I definitely have a few more years in me to play.”
Texans beat writer, Houston Chronicle