Okwara Carving Distinct Irish LegacyBy Denise Skwarcan
Anyone who has older siblings knows it can sometimes be tough growing up in their shadow. Hand-me-down clothes. Comparisons from teachers, coaches and neighborhood parents. Being referred to as so-and-so’s little brother or sister.
Just ask Romeo’s little brother, better known as Notre Dame senior defensive end Julian Okwara.
People who knew the brothers well knew that they were pretty opposite from each other and that Julian was the more talkative one. Okwara even tried to get his high school football coach to move him to receiver since he and Romeo played the same position on defense. But, to no avail.
“I did get compared to him. … I was Romeo’s little brother playing the same position,” noted Julian, who took it in stride when this author accidentally, absentmindedly – and apologetically – called him Romeo at one point. “I never really took it as anything. I might tell people to stop calling me Romeo or stop comparing me to him just because I’m my own person. I wanted to create my own legacy in whatever I did.”
The younger Okwara brother did come to Notre Dame to play football and both have been successful anchoring the same position on the field — both Romeo and Julian are tied for seventh all-time with eight sacks in a single season. But this past August their Irish careers became a little bit more distinguishable when Julian was named a captain for the upcoming season, an honor Romeo never held.
“It was awesome,” Julian noted. “I (credit) my teammates because without them obviously I wouldn’t be in this position. I take pride in being that guy who does the right thing and works hard. I try to be the hardest-working guy in the room no matter where it is. But I also want to help with the younger guys, helping them to transition and even the older guys if they need someone to talk to … just doing whatever my teammates need me to do. I mean, look at the past captains for Notre Dame. It’s just an honor.”
Okwara has had plenty of experience making adjustments and weathering transitions, so he’s probably a natural leader when it comes to helping others in the same way.
Born in London while his mother was there visiting family, Okwara then spent the first eight years of his life in Lagos, Nigeria. The last four of those years were predominantly just with Romeo and his father while his mom had moved to North Carolina with his oldest brother and younger sister in preparation of the entire family eventually moving to Charlotte. Okwara doesn’t remember a whole lot about his time in Nigeria, where the siblings were raised speaking English, the official language there, or the move to the United States, but he does recall that things went pretty smoothly.
“I was a kid. I was just hanging out and not doing anything spectacular,” Okwara chuckled. “I was just kind of hanging out with my brother and going to school. Once we moved, my older brother was already here and I was able to talk to him and some of my cousins (who already lived here), which made it easy to be around people I already knew. So it was a pretty smooth transition and I was young. I mostly grew up here, and I adjusted pretty quick.”
A wide variety of sports occupied Okwara’s time, including tennis, basketball, soccer and jiu jitsu. He didn’t start playing football until the eighth grade and didn’t really fully grasp the concept of it until a few years later.
“I really didn’t understand the game until going into my 11th grade season in high school,” Okwara said. “So I just kind of played whatever and did whatever. I liked the physicality. It just seemed more interesting than the other sports I played and all my friends played it. Eventually I ended up falling in love with it.”
As a senior at Ardrey-Kell High School in 2015, Okwara registered 84 tackles, 70 of them being solo stops, 11 tackles for loss, nine sacks and eight quarterback hurries in 12 games in addition to four forced fumbles and one blocked field goal. The Irish coaching staff knew of Okwara because of Romeo but didn’t initially pursue him during the recruiting process until Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston traveled to Charlotte to see another player. That’s when the Irish stood up and took notice of Julian.
By then, scholarship offers had started to roll in from programs like Clemson, Georgia and Michigan, among others, but Okwara became sold on the Irish for a variety of reasons.
“Obviously my brother came here and he helped swing me a little bit,” Okwara explained. “But then just taking my visit up here … everything just seemed right. I was familiar with the coaching staff, they came to my house pretty often and my family loved Notre Dame. Plus I wanted a business degree and Notre Dame was the best school to pursue that. So you hear about things and then you come up here and it’s like, ‘Yeah this is the place I want to be at.’”
Romeo wrapped up his final year at Notre Dame in 2015 and eventually moved onto the NFL before Julian arrived as a freshman the next season. Despite being one of nine true freshman who played in at least eight games (and Okwara logged time in 11 games), the move to South Bend was not without its difficult moments.
“I played a little bit on special teams but there were times like I felt I could play more,” Okwara noted. “In high school you’re ‘the guy’ and then you come out here and everyone’s just as good or probably better. I think every freshman has that one moment where you think, ‘I wish I was playing more. I should be playing more. Am I being used in the right way?’
“But looking back on it now I’m sure it was better off because there were guys better than me, especially when you look at it through somebody else’s eyes, and eventually you figure out your place in the program. It was a tough transition in a way and there are times when you want to go somewhere else. But I stayed levelheaded and ever since freshman year things have worked out for me. I started getting used to my body and playing well and getting more playing time.”
As a sophomore, Okwara recorded his first career sack en route to a breakout junior campaign in which he earned a starting spot for all but the first game of the season. He led the team in tackles for loss with 12.5 and tied for first in sacks with the aforementioned eight. His goal for 2019 is 18.5 sacks which would shatter the existing single-season record set by Justin Tuck in 2003 with 13.5. But that’s Okwara’s personal goal, and through the first two games of the season he hadn’t recorded a sack yet. Which isn’t bothersome to him because, over time, Okwara has come to see the big picture as someone who encompasses the qualities of a true captain.
“I’ve been able to see that not one man is bigger than the other 10 guys on the field or anyone on the team really,” Okwara said. “I understand that (now) because I’ve been able to mature and grow up.
“(The 18.5 sacks) is my personal goal, and I don’t really chase that when I’m playing a game. Whatever happens happens, and I’m not going to be despondent if it doesn’t happen. When I’m playing the game I’m doing what I’m told to do and if I’m put in a position to make a play — great. I’m happy for any of the guys that make those plays. As long as we win I’m happy with whoever makes the plays.”
This past summer Okwara, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Nigeria, revisited his past when he returned to the African country for the first time since leaving in 2006 for a four-day trip. And, with his days at Notre Dame quickly coming to an end, he occasionally allows himself to glance at a future that hopefully involves playing at the next level. But, for the most part, Okwara is focused on the present.
“I have (thought about this being my last season) but I’m just trying to enjoy everything, especially with my teammates, and slow things down as much as I can,” Okwara noted. “I’m not really focused on (the NFL or another career). Right now it’s all about this season and playing for a national championship.”