ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Jeff Okudah walked into the Blockbuster in Parsippany, New Jersey, looking for a video game to rent. A third grader, Okudah loved sports games and when he saw a copy of Madden NFL 07 on the shelf with Shaun Alexander on the cover, he decided to pick it up.
Had he grabbed a different game that day, he might not be where he is now — the No. 3 overall draft pick and a rookie cornerback with the Detroit Lions. He might not even be playing football at all.
“I had never watched football before,” Okudah said. ” … My thing at the time was more winning and losing. I loved games that I could win. So playing it, I was losing at first to the computer and I didn’t understand the rules. But the competitor in me just wanted to keep getting better at the game.”
He rented it as often as he could, five days at a time, throughout the spring and summer. Then one day he turned to his father and told him he wanted to play football in real life, too. It never would have happened had he not grabbed that game off the shelf.
Soon after, he was hooked — both to Madden and to playing football. At first, because his parents wanted him to concentrate on schoolwork, he would be allowed to play on the family room television only on weekends. He would try to squeeze games in whenever his parents or sister didn’t use the television.
When he did play, it would be for hours, learning the nuances of the game he was playing on the field and on the sticks. Madden NFL became a yearly request from him … in February, months before the next year’s version would come out.
“What happened was, my birthday was in February,” Okudah said. “So for five or six years, maybe even longer than that, every time it’s my birthday I would just ask my dad, ‘Can I get the Madden when it comes out in August?’
“So I would have to wait six months to redeem my own birthday present.”
There was strategy involved. He knew if he got in trouble or there was an issue, his parents would still buy him the game because it was his birthday gift half-a-year late.
Everything about football felt comfortable to him in real and Madden life. He loved the competitiveness. If he lost to a friend, he would become annoyed and immediately request a rematch. When he first got the game, he used the Seattle Seahawks. Then in later years he used the New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles when they had Michael Vick and Dallas Cowboys when they had Terrell Owens and Tony Romo.
Madden taught him about defensive coverages, offensive concepts and even the history of the game once Madden Ultimate Team debuted in 2010. He would wake up at 6 a.m. before school and scour the auction blocks in the game to buy player cards.
“I tell people all the time I learned the rules from Madden,” Okudah said. “Just me knowing about players, like old players back in the day, is literally through Madden. Because I played so much Madden, I started getting up to watch SportsCenter and all those highlights.
“It’s pretty cool how it played out that way. Because who knows if I had grabbed a baseball game, I might have never been introduced to football.” Lions CB Jeff Okudah on Madden’s impact on him
“That’s really how I got a knowledge of the game.”
In high school, the connection of real life and Madden life helped him understand offensive concepts and apply them to both worlds. In college, playing cornerback at Ohio State, he already knew what the coverages were supposed to do in real life. He then applied that knowledge to be able to mix up his coverages more often in Madden — and pick up a nuance here and there that could help him on the field.
For years, he primarily focused on and cared about offense — using a defensive lineman when his team ended up on defense to stop the run and pressure the quarterback.
“This past offseason, I started using the cornerback more,” Okudah said. “It’s a little bit harder. At the time, I was too young to know about user-ing and all that stuff. So I was on the D-Line just trying to run around, but I was more so focused on getting back to offense.
“I was trying to score touchdowns.”
Now in the NFL, he’ll be attempting to prevent them. But he’ll still be playing Madden along the way. It relaxes him, and now that he’s out of college it provides him a way to connect with his former teammates at Ohio State.
It was at Ohio State where he first thought about being in the video game himself. He allowed that possibility to creep into his head last year. He played well for the Buckeyes and declared for the NFL draft. When he arrived at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, one of the things he did was have his head scanned by EA Sports so his face would end up in the game. He saw himself in different helmets.
Drafted by the Lions, he’s now focusing not only on playing in the NFL but also on what he looks like in the video game. He’s curious to see whether the developers “get my swag right on the field,” and will be paying attention to the movements they have for him, to see whether they are realistic.
It’ll be a surreal moment for a kid who potentially wouldn’t be in the NFL at all if he hadn’t grabbed the game off a shelf.
“It’s pretty cool how it played out that way,” Okudah said. “Because who knows if I had grabbed a baseball game, I might have never been introduced to football.”