Clayton County

GABRIEL STOVALL: Why I won’t be shocked of Riverdale’s Chidi Okonya pledges next four years to Duke football

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Gabriel Stovall

Gabriel Stovall

On Sunday night, Riverdale defensive end Chidi Okonya did as many high school football studs do these days when they’ve reached a major milestone in their college recruitment.

They go and tell Twitter about it.

According to Okonya’s Twitter feed, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound 4-star prospect came to a decision that Tennessee — the place where he verbally committed back in May after Riverdale’s spring football game — was no longer the place for him.

“After careful consideration, I am de-committing myself from the University of Tennesse,” Okonya said via Twitter. “I thank the Vol Nation and staff for their support.”

Apparently Okonya was the second high school senior to back out of a pledge to Vol Nation on Sunday.

Riverdale football coach Terry Herrod let me know this morning via text message that his defensive star would be headed to an official visit at Duke this weekend.

When I asked him about any potential factors that led to Okonya’s de-commitment, Herrod simply said he “Just wanted to re-evaluate his decision and visit other schools.”

So, I know what some of you may be thinking. That’s just a surface level answer. There’s gotta be more to the story. What else happened that we haven’t heard about, right?

‘Tis the season for unstable high school athletes playing musical chairs with their college commitments. When the music stops on Wednesday February 4, it’s anyone’s guess where the athletes will land.

And I get it, because we live in an era where the prima donna gene is trickling steadily down from the professional ranks into the college and high school game.

Over the last 10 years or so, National Signing Day has attracted enough fanfare and media attention — not to mention the uprising of an ever-increasing gaggle of experts who would have you believe they know all there is to know about evaluating the talents of thousands of high school kids — to almost make the first Wednesday of February sort of an NFL Draft Lite.

And with that, you have kids sporting wildly varying levels of maturity who will gladly ingratiate adults who desire to see them act the part of the superhero athlete swooping in to save the day of said adult’s college alma mater or favorite team. Hence the often entertaining and sometimes ridiculous commitment ceremonies, commitment waffling and just plain old indecisiveness that often comes with this time of year.

And perhaps there are some extenuating circumstances beneath the surface that played into Okonya’s decision to give Duke and others a look. But I can almost guarantee you that there is nothing surface level or shallow about Okonya’s intentions to open up his recruitment.

Why? Because if you ask me, I’ll say Chidi Okonya is different.

I know that because, unlike many of the prognosticators, gurus and fans who base their knowledge of a kid on measurables, I’ve had a chance to peak a little bit more into the psyche of the Riverdale star. I’ve had a chance to hear how he thinks. How he processes what’s around him.

I’ve heard first hand how much importance he places on decision making — the kind of decision making that will have long lasting ramifications in the young man’s life.

So when I see him preface a decision to de-commit by saying things like, “After careful consideration,” I am inclined to believe that it isn’t just athlete-speak. It isn’t just his way of trying to set himself up for some big folderol-filled announcement.

A couple of months ago, I had the chance to talk in depth with Okonya for almost an hour. It was, at first, just casual, off the record stuff, until I realized the sharpness of this kid. Then, I had to ask him if I could record some of his musings for an article to be written at a later date.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t think this would be that article…on this date, or in these circumstances. I felt Okonya’s commitment was solid at the time last May. But now in the wake of what others may deem youthful indecision, I realize there’s something even more solid about the kid.

He’s a guy who comes from a solid family and a young player who speaks with a maturity that belies his 17 years.

When I talked with Okonya, it was shortly after a moment where he made a tweet on Twitter, admonishing his peers to be careful about the stuff they put on social media. He warned that it could come back to haunt them at the worst time, and although it may not seem fair, that’s the business of things.

“Some schools watch social media for hours,” Okonya said. “I mean they spend months and weeks looking at who you are and what you’re about. When I got my offer from Oregon, they let me know they didn’t even think about offering me until they saw a sample of who I was from my Twitter page. A lot of guys don’t know that it’s like that. It’s something they have to learn.”

I found it interesting that he frequently used the word “business” as a synonym to big time college football. That’s often something a lot of athletes don’t fully realize until they’re a couple of years in. But Okonya seems to get it.

“When I started getting recruited heavily, it definitely opened up a new door and a new world for me,” he said. I just realized playing college football is so much more. It’s big business. Recruiting is business. Playing is business. Being a good athlete for that school is all a business. There’s a lot of power given to you, but you have a lot of responsibility at the same time.”

But all of this really becomes interesting, in the midst of Okonya reconsidering his college choice, when you realize the school responsible for opening up that new world to him.

It’s the same school that will receive him on its campus for an unexpected recruiting visit this weekend that probably wasn’t on the radar just two days ago.

“My first offer was from Duke and it came around my sophomore year,” Okonya said. “And I realized that the only reason it came so fast is because of my grades.  Since Duke was the first school to offer, you could tell right off the bat the real thing that caught their attention. Schools like that, they’re not gonna pay you any attention if your grades aren’t right. You could be top five or whatever, it doesn’t matter unless your grades are straight.

“So I was pretty glad that was my first offer. I think it spoke volumes for the work I began doing as a younger player.”

How ironic it would be if, on National Signing Day, Okonya is inking that scholarship offer — not as a part of that much ballyhooed recruiting class of a resurging SEC power, but to an academic giant that showed the same — if not more — interest in his numbers on his report card than the ones on his scouting report.

Okonya made it clear, even after he gave his verbal to Tennessee, that it wasn’t all about football for him.

“I can be a good player and get that NFL attention at almost any school in the country,” Okonya said back in May. “If you’re good, NFL scouts know how to find you. That’s why I want to make my decision really about academics.”

So perhaps there is no shady undercurrent, or no off color treatment or a Tennessee purging of the recruiting list, or a fear of competition for playing time with other highly touted incoming prospects to speak of as the “real” reason for Okonya’s re-evaluation.

Maybe…just maybe, he’s simply making the ultimate business decision for himself. Perhaps Okonya is just showing himself to be one of a seemingly dying breed of blue chip athletes who truly takes the “student” part in student-athlete to heart.

For that reason, I have no doubt that whatever Okonya’s decision will be, it will be the right choice for the right reasons. And that’s pretty refreshing.

Gabriel Stovall is the editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. He can be reached at gstovall@thecrescentbuzz.com, or you can follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1. Follow our page also @crescent_buzz.

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