Former Mesabi Range Sam Okuayinonu reflects on his journey from Minnesota to the NFL

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Can you imagine going from Virginia Minnesota to the Tennessee Titans, well that’s an amazing journey for Outside Linebacker Sam Okuayinonu.

“Before I got here, I was attending another junior college up in Mississippi called Coahoma, and basically it told me I wasn’t good enough to play for them. I kind of took my reel from there, sent it everywhere, and the coach reached out to me and said I could be a difference maker here, and he believed in me. That confidence that he gave me, it was just like coming from somewhere where they didn’t believe in you to going somewhere where you could walk in the door,” said Okuayinonu.

He exploded on a football field for Minnesota North College Mesabi Range, putting up numbers and earning himself a DI football scholarship to the University of Maryland.

“I was just hungry! I remember every week, I’ll look at the national stats to see if I still stayed at the top of the ranking. There’s this guy from Ole Miss and we would go back and forth to see who would be at the top. Every game I looked and stats to see what he did and if I had to beat him.”

In 2018, Sam was named the Minnesota College Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year; and was rated the sixth-best junior college student-athlete (JUCO) strong-side defensive end in the nation. He then went on to Maryland and then to the NFL, but it really started right here in Virginia Minnesota.

“It was great, man. This is crazy coming from here and making it to the NFL because I tell kids all the time, like, no matter where you go or who you are, where you start, it’s all about your passion in the game, and you know where you want to end up and what you’re going to do to get to where you want to end up.”

Sam credits his coaches at Mesabi Range College for giving him his second chance at football.

“All of them really! This was like a big it was a big thing coming out here. The confidence booster, like we believe in you. It was like especially Coach Quan because he talked to my momma; so he already knew what my mindset was coming here like this. My last chance, like I got to make it out.”

Head Coach Tom Inforzato of Mesabi Range added, “He and I connected and we figured out this would be a good fit for both of us. I don’t think it was a bad decision for him to come here because he got a great start and up going to Maryland and then of course now with the Tennessee Titans pretty exciting for us and him.”

And perhaps a lesson for all of us about unexpected paths.

“I am happy I took the JUCO route. It works out a lot for other guys because no guy, like I said earlier, senior year, I started playing football. I didn’t really have the grades or the skill level to go to Division One. So, coming to a JUCO out was like the perfect route for me.”