EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Giants defensive end Romeo Okwara rarely leaves home without his camera. One of them, at least.
He owns a slick Canon, a Leica manual rangefinder and, as of Christmas, a Polaroid. He does not recall what sparked his interest in photography, or when it started, only that he enjoys capturing a sliver in time — streetscapes, vistas, people — and securing it forever.
In virtually the click of a camera shutter, Okwara has gone from not being picked in the N.F.L. draft to starting for one of the league’s stingiest defenses. Okwara, 21, was thrust into a starting role for the playoff-bound Giants after Jason Pierre-Paul underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia. In his first start, a 10-7 Week 14 victory over Dallas just over seven months after he went undrafted, Okwara recorded a sack and a team-high eight tackles.
“If you are going to play in this league, you have to have a little bit of something inside you, a little bit of grit that says: ‘It is not too big for me. I can play in the N.F.L.,’” said Steve Spagnuolo, the Giants’ defensive coordinator. “And I think Romeo has a little bit of that.”
In his spare time, such as it is, Okwara indulges his creative side. He explores New York, where he has wanted to live ever since visiting three years ago as a sophomore at Notre Dame. He had been enchanted by the city’s vibrancy during the winter holidays, when the Fighting Irish played in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Okwara wanders Lower Manhattan, walking the same streets frequented by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the late artist whose photo graces Okwara’s Twitter profile and whose nom de guerre from his graffiti-spraying youth, Samo, Okwara bestowed to his French bulldog puppy. He heads to Brooklyn searching for authentic cuisine of his native Nigeria. He visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, admiring the art from Egypt and elsewhere in Africa. He attends Broadway shows such as “Hamilton.”
“It keeps your mind open,” Okwara said. “Being at practice all day, going through a hard day, you’re not confined to your home. There are things around you that you can go and see.”
Befitting someone named for the singer Lenny Kravitz’s stage name Romeo Blue, Okwara has a deep appreciation for music. His father, Julius, urged him to learn an instrument, so he studied piano as a child in Nigeria and later learned guitar and ukulele. Before games he centers himself by listening to jazz or blues, then revs up with hip-hop or classic rock.
His coach at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, N.C., Adam Hastings, shared the story of the time that he drove Okwara to a showcase for high school players. Given control of the radio in Hastings’s truck, Okwara turned to a country music station.
“I’m just trying to learn about it,” Hastings said Okwara had told him.
Okwara’s curiosity intensified at Notre Dame, where he focused on business — he was an accounting major — but also took courses in art history. One of them culminated in a summer program in Greece, where for three weeks he and his classmates studied ancient art and architecture.
Okwara’s parents stressed the importance of education to their four children, so much so that during the recruiting process he would not even entertain interest from colleges whose academic reputations did not meet his standards.
It was that desire for better secondary educational opportunities for their children that compelled the Okwaras, in stages, to move to Charlotte, where they had family. Okwara was 10 and in the sixth grade when he and his younger brother, Julian, now a freshman defensive lineman at Notre Dame, came over.
It was cold the night he arrived, and when he got off the plane, he saw his breath for the first time.
Okwara played soccer in Nigeria — he was a goalie — but started playing football because his older brother, Jimel, did. He was cut in eighth grade, then as a freshman he sat on the junior varsity bench.
“Everyone makes the team,” he said, laughing.
Before Okwara started growing into his body as a junior — he gained about 70 pounds during high school — Hastings would jokingly refer to him as Bambi.
“It was all very awkward for him — not knowing where to go, what goes on where, how to do things,” Hastings said. “But when that light bulb went off, he did it all better than everyone else had been doing it.”
At Notre Dame, Okwara switched positions as a junior, moving to defensive end from outside linebacker when a new coordinator changed the scheme. It took him another season, and a different position coach, to begin tapping his potential.
The new defensive-line coach, Keith Gilmore, watched film of Okwara to assess his strengths — intangibles, reach, strength — and identified a weakness.
“He needed to find what he was really good at,” Gilmore said in a telephone interview.
What Okwara had, Gilmore recognized, was power. Instead of trying to run around blockers, Okwara needed to use his long arms and bull his way through. They watched film of two N.F.L. players whom Gilmore had coached in college and considered good models for Okwara: Whitney Mercilus and Connor Barwin, versatile athletes capable of pass-rushing as well as dropping into coverage.
The play that validated Okwara’s evolution occurred against Wake Forest. Gilmore had been wanting him to leave his feet to make a play, and in the second quarter Okwara hurdled a running back to smother the quarterback for one of his three sacks in the game.
Okwara finished the season with eight sacks and 12 ½ tackles for a loss. But when N.F.L. scouts visited Notre Dame’s campus, they instead asked Gilmore detailed questions about another defensive lineman, Sheldon Day, whom Jacksonville would select in the fourth round.
Okwara said that he had expected to be drafted, and that the longer he waited during the draft, the more his frustration mounted. After his name went uncalled for three days, he garnered interest from about 25 teams as a free agent, he said.
Okwara chose the Giants in part because of a strong lineage of defensive ends, from Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck, Okwara’s fellow Notre Dame alumnus, to the team’s current pass-rushing stars, Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon.
Okwara learned that Pierre-Paul needed surgery only through an Instagram post. Because he had replaced Pierre-Paul in the previous game, a loss at Pittsburgh, Okwara figured that he might be in the starting lineup. Not that he ever relayed the thought to his brother Jimel, who had to draw the news out of the ever-reserved Okwara.
“The only way you’ll know what he can do,” Jimel said in a telephone interview, “is to watch him on the field, because he’s not going to brag about himself.”
Okwara has already provided a glimpse of the player he could be. Now he must capture his moment.
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