Sunday, May 26, 2024

Family of ‘Big Maple’ Okpoko ‘erupts’ after he’s drafted by Ottawa

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A cousin of former Bears lineman Israel Idonije, Okpoko looks to become a lawyer when his football days are done

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When the Ottawa Redblacks made Daniel “Big Maple” Okpoko their second-round (11th overall) pick in Tuesday’s CFL draft, they set off separate celebrations approximately 3,330 km apart.

One in the Redblacks’ “war room” at TD Place, one at the home of Okpoko’s mom in Calgary.

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“It was kind of crazy for us because we were just watching (the draft on TSN) and we didn’t know where we were going to go,” Okpoko said over the phone the next day in describing that scene with family members. “The whole room was just tense and everybody was on edge the whole time we were watching. We just didn’t know what was going to happen. And then the announcement came on the screen and we just erupted.

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“When (Redblacks) coach (Bob) Dyce called me after, everyone here was all still excited. I had to calm them down so I could hear. When I mentioned the family, the whole room erupted again.

“It was definitely a good feeling. Definitely.”

Similar joy was evident at the Redblacks’ home.

After taking towering wide receiver Nick Mardner in the first round, the Ottawa brain trust didn’t think Okpoko would still be available when it was their turn again.

Teams say stuff like that all the time, but judging by the way the usually straight-faced GM Shawn Burke and Dyce lit up when talking about nabbing the 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive tackle coming off five years with Division I San Diego State Aztecs, the words felt sincere.

“These drafts are funny, right, because you always say you have what you see and what you like,” said Dyce. “I can tell you we’re all very happy that Daniel Okpoko was there. He’s extremely talented. He’s going to continue to grow. You look at his senior year at San Diego State and he really played with a purpose. At the same time as being very high on our draft board, he fits a spot on our roster.”

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Okpoko also inherits a strong mentor in respected veteran Cleyon Laing.

“We all know Cleyon is an elite Canadian tackle, but bringing Daniel into the mix really helps us,” said Dyce. “He’s going to be in the rotation with our interior guys, and that helps our roster. Super excited that Daniel is going to be a Redblack and he’s super excited. As I told him as his family was yelling on the phone, I said we were the same way in the in the war room because we were all very excited to have him join us.”

Okpoko’s cousin is Israel Idonije, a solid defensive end who spent most of his 10-year (2004-2014) NFL career with the Chicago Bears. Despite the strong bloodlines, his parents didn’t want him to play football when the family moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to Saskatoon when he was 11 years old.

“I was very, very skinny,” said Okpoko. “My parents didn’t want me to get hurt. They were just protective. They saw how big my cousin was and they said, ‘You’re not that big yet, so you can’t play.’ ”

With a strenuous workout regime, Okpoko thickened up. The soccer ball he kicked around previously was booted to the side. By high school, his parents no longer objected to him donning a helmet and pads.

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“It was love at first sight for the game,” said Okpoko. “It was instant. I was playing at recess, but when I finally got the opportunity to play competitively, I just knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Okpoko wanted to be on defence like his cousin, but he didn’t want to play the same position. So he started out as a linebacker.

“I started to grow taller and then it was kind of like, ‘You’re bigger than everybody else, why don’t you go to the D-line?’ That’s when I made the switch.”

As his high school days wound down, Okpoko continued to chase his dream. He went to Recruit Ready in Winnipeg and another camp in Regina to showcase his skills.

The offers from U.S. colleges began to roll in.

“I had the opportunity to go to San Diego and made a connection with the coach over there,” he said in reference to Brady Hoke, the Aztecs’ head coach whose focus was on the defensive side. “It was definitely everything I hoped for. It was a good learning experience. I was able to work with one of the greatest minds in football, and it was just amazing to learn from him and grow as a football player.”

And it’s where the large Canadian earned his nickname.

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“In my freshman year, I think I came in at 230-something, and then in my second year I was up to like 260,” he remembered. “One of the coaches said, ‘Wow, you’re really putting on weight … we should start calling you Big Maple.’ Some players heard it and then it just picked up from there and just never stopped.”

Neither did his development. In his final year with the Aztecs, Okpoko started all 12 games and registered 23 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three pass breakups and five quarterback hurries.

He also earned a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. When his playing days are over, he plans on becoming a lawyer.

But for now, his full attention is squarely on the field. Of course he’d like to follow in the footsteps of Cousin Israel and get to the NFL — what person doesn’t want to reach the top of his profession? — but his focus is on the here and now.

“I’ve got a lot of goals for my rookie year … I plan on eventually winning rookie of the year … it’s definitely something I’ve got my eyes on,” said Okpoko. “I plan on coming there and putting up numbers, just being the best version of myself I can be, and definitely having a long and successful career out there. I’m just looking forward to it.”

SHORT TOSSES: Hours after the draft, the Redblacks made a trade with the Edmonton Elks, acquiring long snapper Peter Adjey in exchange for a third-round selection in 2025. The 24-year-old Queen’s University product is a 6-foot-3, 230-pound Toronto native who suited up in all 36 games for the Elks since they selected him in the third round of the 2022 draft.

dbrennan@postmedia.com

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