When Eyabi Okie takes the field, his motivation is never hard to find.
The motivation doesn’t come from his teammates firing him up before the game. It doesn’t come from the coaching staff scheming up plays and working with him in the weight room. It doesn’t even come from the fans cheering him on at the Big House or the NFL scouts speckled throughout the pressbox.
His motivation is actually tucked right below his wrist.
Now a graduate defensive end, Okie took a long, winding road to Michigan. His grandmother, whose picture he keeps in a bracelet he always wears, was instrumental in getting him there.
“No one wants to see their (kid) go through certain ups and downs, especially when they have such a promising career,” Okie said. “My grandma, she never turned her back on me and really helped me stay grounded. It gets me kind of emotional because she’s not here, but she’s the reason I made a whole 360.
“When you sit right there and you see a woman that’s like, ‘Hey, if you’re gonna do anything, do it for me,’ I was completely bought in at that point.”
Okie’s talent has never been doubted, as he ranked as the number four overall recruit in the 2017 class; but questions about whether that talent could translate into a stable football career have followed him since he left high school.
There aren’t many names listed above Okie’s in the 247 sports composite, but there are definitely some recognizable ones — including NFL quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Both enjoyed illustrious college football careers, and were the No. 1 and 11 overall picks in the 2021 draft, respectively.
At that same time, Okie couldn’t have been further from the NFL draft podium. He was finishing up his first season at the University of Tennessee Martin, an FCS school that marked Okie’s third program in as many years.
“I started football very, very late in my career and became a five-star really late,” Okie said. “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.”
In late December of 2017, Okie committed to play for Alabama, rolling with the Tide over offers from Maryland, Penn State, Michigan and others. But Okie struggled to keep up with the maturity required to be a high-profile college athlete.
He reportedly dealt with a variety of issues including skipping class, tardiness to practice and clashing with teammates and was dismissed from Alabama after the 2018 season. He subsequently transferred to Houston, sitting out all of the 2019 season due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. But with the Cougars, off-field problems persisted and Okie was kicked off the team in February 2020.
Okie’s career was bottoming out, but with every pitfall, he still saw opportunities for growth.
“I’m one of those people that, I put my hand on the stove, but I learn from it,” Okie said. “Every ‘L’ wasn’t an ‘L,’ it was a lesson. I learned from all my mistakes.”
His odyssey made its next stop at UT Martin, an FCS school in the middle of nowhere. It was hardly a place Okie envisioned himself at when he put on an Alabama hat three years prior. But, with his career prospects fading, he was determined for it to not be his last.
And, ultimately, what flipped the switch was his grandma.
“My grandma was one of the strongest people I know,” Okie said. “When she really started getting sick, and I really started seeing her health (decline), I’m just like ‘Whoa, her time is really limited. I have to really maximize every single thing that she says to me, every single thing that I do.’ ”
After racking up some solid stats with the Skyhawks and being named to the All-Ohio Valley Conference Third team, Okie shifted focus to the next goal laid out by his grandma: graduating.
He finished up his credits in July and entered the transfer portal for the third time. But this time, he wasn’t wasn’t wandering, hoping someone would give him another chance. He was back in an assertive position.
Okie stayed patient, waiting for the offers to trickle in. And, eventually, some of the schools that had originally offered him in 2017 began to reach out.
On Aug. 18, Okie enrolled at Michigan. Despite the uphill battle of joining a program two weeks before the start of the season, Okie has already carved out a role for himself. In his first play from scrimmage against Colorado State, he recorded a sack. He’s only continued his ascent from there, most recently recording a sack and three tackles against Iowa.
And whenever Okie makes a play, the bracelet is right there with him, underneath his glove.
“Every single time I am having a bad day or if things might not be going my way, I look at (the bracelet) and my grandma is right here,” Okie said. “How would I react? I do exactly how my grandma would do it.”
Okie is a college football nomad, a player who’s dealt with adversity at every turn.
But it seems he has finally found a home, and it’s in large part thanks to the person he’s become — a person modeled by the one on his wrist.