Martin is a small town tucked in the northwest corner of Tennessee. A town of just under 11,000 people and home to Tennessee’s annual soybean festival, it’s also home to University of Tennessee-Martin, an FCS school that plays football in the Ohio Valley Conference.
What Martin is not typically home to is a No. 4 overall player in a recruiting class. But two years after earning that distinction, that was the case for Eyabi Okie.
Except he was not home. He was lost.
Now a graduate edge rusher at Michigan, Okie originally committed to Alabama in 2017 as the crown jewel of the Crimson Tide’s recruiting class. But when he got there, he struggled to meet deadlines, missing practice and showing up late to class which eventually led to his dismissal from the program following his freshman season in 2018.
But when he transferred to the University of Houston, he battled those same issues and was kicked out in February 2020.
“I started football very, very late in my career and became a five-star really late,” Okie said on Oct. 4. “A lot of the little maturity things that some of the five-stars that were ranked with me, they already knew how to take on, I didn’t know how to do it. It was just me by myself.”
Okie struggled to keep up with the demands that accompanied being a college football player of his stature. So, after being dismissed from two programs, Okie entered the transfer portal once again in search of a lifeline. Interest from Division I schools was nearly non-existent, but one coach was willing to give him a chance.
“First and foremost, his stature piques your interests,” UT-Martin coach Jayson Simpson told The Daily. “When you meet Eyabi, he’s got a great smile and a great personality and you hear his story. So I think the reason (we took a chance) is no different than the reason probably why Bama took him and Houston took him.”
Okie joined the Skyhawks program but had to sit out his first season due to the pre-transfer portal eligibility rules. Since he couldn’t make an impact on the field, Okie began to put the pieces of being a student-athlete back together by making strides off the field.
Most FCS rosters feature an eclectic mix of football players. There are freshmen from the area looking to garner some attention after being overlooked in high school. Other players transfer in from different FCS programs or mid-major schools at the DI level. No one on the UT-Martin roster, though, could match the talent and recruitment hype that Okie once possessed.
But Okie, regardless of his background, never looked down on his teammates or the situation he was in. He embraced it.
“He took a lot of pride in being friends with everybody,” Simpson said. “Whether it be the country kids, the inner city kids, the different religions, it didn’t matter. I give Eyabi credit for that. He liked learning things about people.”
When a player excelled in a game, Okie went out of his way to praise them. When someone showed him the type of music they liked, Okie listened along with them. It was all of the little things that allowed Okie to win over the locker room, and in return, his teammates responded by helping him on his personal journey.
In particular, Okie connected with linebacker Rob Hicks. Hicks was also looking to revitalize his career after getting buried on the depth chart at Louisville. The pair had played together in the Under Armour All-American Bowl in high school and served as anchors for the Skyhawks’ defense.
“Rob was just like, ‘Bro, listen, you don’t need to be here,’ ” Okie said. “Like Rob was the first one that threw that in my ear. Like, ‘Hey, bro, listen, you’re way better than this.’ And he just kept on being strong on me and a real positive influence in my ear.”
Throughout the 2021 season, Okie worked to live up to Hicks’ advice. He re-established his role as a force on the field, accumulating 36 total tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks, and earned a spot on the OVC newcomer team at the end of the year.
When the season finished, Okie turned his attention to a different promise — one he made to his grandmother. With his grandma’s health declining, he was motivated to graduate and continue persevering toward his NFL ambitions.
“Life’s all about adversity,” Okie said. “It’s not about how you start the race but how you finish it. Of course everyone’s gonna be held accountable for their actions, but it’s also going to show that within the time period, what have I accomplished? Did I stop, did I give up, did I take the easy route out or do I stick it through, graduate and redirect my narrative.
“And that’s exactly what I did.”
On Aug. 15th, Okie entered the transfer portal for the third time in his career, ready to make the jump back to the Power 5 level. It didn’t take long for the programs that had once salivated over his abilities in high school to reach back out. Michigan, who Okie claimed had finished second in his recruitment behind Alabama five years earlier, was among the suitors.
Just three days later, and just two-and-a-half weeks before the season began, Okie enrolled at Michigan — something unprecedented on multiple levels.
It was unusual for any program to take on a player that late into the offseason, and even more uncharacteristic for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who tends to transfer in only a couple players each year, to do so.
But Okie saw an obvious match.
“Michigan had reached out and I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m coming home, (I’m) definitely gonna come home,’ ” Okie said. “It was just a perfect fit.”
Okie faced an uphill battle, tasked with learning a new defensive scheme and fighting for playing time against more established players on the Wolverines’ depth chart. But using the same humility Okie carried throughout his career, he didn’t run from the adversity. He got to know his new teammates and quickly built chemistry with his defensive linemates.
“He’s home now,” senior defensive lineman Mazi Smith said. “He found his home. He’s just like one of the guys. When you’ve got one of your hardest workers and best players bringing the team together and being unselfish that makes everybody play harder.”
Okie’s collegiate career has been a winding road and his final stop at Michigan is something he could’ve never imagined back in 2017. Over the last four years he’s wandered, unsure of his future, unable to stabilize his career.
But in Martin, he began to grow from his mistakes and prove his talent hadn’t evaded him despite the missteps. Now in Ann Arbor, he’s putting all his abilities on display once again, this time without off-field struggles overshadowing his every move.
This time it’s different. This time he’s home.