Chukky Okobi's post-football career hasn't been without bumps, he admits, but the former center of the Boilermakers and his hometown Steelers is thriving now.
The Pittsburgh native is the owner and operator of a bed and breakfast, The Mansion of Maple Heights, in Pittsburgh, and has a side music career, with 412 Records. His song, Buc Town, is played during broadcasts of the Pirates games.
Okobi played at Purdue from 1996 through 2000, helping the Boilermakers' resurgence under Coach Joe Tiller. Then, he was drafted by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 2001 NFL Draft, playing six seasons in Pittsburgh.
Following, GoldandBlack.com talks to Okobi for this week's "Catching Up" feature.
GoldandBlack.com: I recently saw your Pirates video. Tell me how that came about.
Okobi: "Buc Town? I've been making songs and music since high school. I used to mess around in the locker room in college and we used to have, when I was a student, free style Fridays, when we'd battle, and being silly, having fun with it.
"I'm originally from Pittsburgh and have been a Pirates' fan my whole life. When I was a kid, I used to dig in the couches for change and all kind of money, and sometimes I might have taken a dollar or two out of my mom's purse just to get on the public bus to get down to Three Rivers to get a chance to sit in any seat in the stands to watch the Pirates. That was my thing. Now that I'm back to being a civilian, if you will, as opposed to being an athlete, I've really gotten back into baseball.
"Last year, into the summer, the Pirates were balling pretty hard and we were in first place there for a little bit. I just got inspired and was messing around with the music a little bit again, and it just caught on. They ran with it. I didn't make the video. I just made the song, messing around. I remember last year, the first one, I remember people were like 'Oh I heard your song.' And I was like 'What song?' they were like 'Yeah, they were playing it on the radio and on the television,' and I didn't even know. I have a really good relationship with a lot of the guys on the team and a lot of people in that organization, and they've shown me love."
GoldandBlack.com: So where do they play that video?
Okobi: "They play that during the broadcast of the games on television on ROOT Sports. There's three different songs: Buc Town, Buc Town remix and Buc Town 3.0, and they use all three songs during the broadcasts."
GoldandBlack.com: Have you been able to adjust well into the business world? You've tried other ventures but the ones recently have done well.
Okobi: "Yeah, the ones I had before did well too. I used to own two carwashes here in Pittsburgh with a partner and those did well but it wasn't a business that gave me the opportunity to do what I felt I'm good at, which is inspire people, galvanize people, motivate people and make visions reality.
"Car washes are pretty black and white; it's a car wash. The way I put it 'How can I make something like that attractive?' It's a car wash. It's cool and a very profitable business but for me it's just not about money; it's about my personality and me being able to do something that is enriching and self-fulfilling, as opposed to something just to make money. That was really successful and I dabbled in nightclubs for a little bit.
"But being a night club patron and being a night club owner are completely different things, so once you realize that dealing with the night life, you might as well be working at the zoo. I kind of got over that one pretty fast.
"The Mansion of Maple Heights, the bed and breakfast, that used to be my house when I played for the Steelers my last year. When I got released and went to Arizona, then released from there and came back, then went to Houston, the house was 15,000 square feet and I'm not even here. The idea came from that, and the transition from sports to being an entrepreneur, it's going well, but I wouldn't say it's easy. It's not like you just wake up one morning and say 'OK,' it's not that cut and dried.
"The biggest thing is that I learned a valuable lesson a long time again back in '97. And this will sound strange, but back in '97 in Coach (Joe) Tiller's first year, a friend of mine who also played and recently finished his career in the NFL, (Matt Light), he was playing tight end and I remember him telling me this story about how Coach Tiller asked him to move to offensive line. He didn't want to. But Coach Tiller said 'Well, you can play tight end but I don't have to play you.' So what Light did was embraced his new role and the rest is history. I think about that some times and tell that story quite often actually.
"When you're done playing professional sports, you have to find things that interest you and embrace the new chapter in life, as opposed to fighting to stay in the league or constantly looking back the rest of your life, and look at it being downhill. What I did is what I feel Matt did: he embraced his life as an offensive lineman. And it's very small thing. At the time it didn't seem like a big deal, but the message and the story translates, to embrace your new role in this world and realize the same type of success we created on the gridiron we can create in other areas of life. It's not just about playing sports all the time."
GoldandBlack.com: Have there been some bumps along the way, in the post-playing career?
Okobi: "There's been some headaches, and obstacles. It's one of those things that, just to relate it back to football, sometimes you go three-and-out and have to punt and sometimes you score a 75-yard touchdown on the first play. That's how it goes. No matter how many games you win, there's going to be tough plays. And it's been like that, some days you wonder, but never at any point did I feel like I had to get back into the game. I had my fill. There's some things in my career I wish would have went different, hell there's some things I wish would have gone different at Purdue. But it is what it is and at the end of the day I can't complain with the opportunities that God blessed me with playing at Purdue and for the Steelers and for what I'm doing now."
GoldandBlack.com: Your playing career probably didn't end the way you wanted it to, getting released by the Steelers when you thought you had a chance to start.
Okobi: "To me, I did everything I could do. Different coaches view different people in different ways. Coach (Bill) Cowher, I was his guy and Coach (Mike) Tomlin didn't see it that way. It is what it is. At the end of the day, I got an opportunity to play for the Steelers for six-plus year and how can you be mad about that?"
GoldandBlack.com: Especially playing in Pittsburgh as a native.
Okobi: "It is what it is. All in all I feel like I've succeeded."
GoldandBlack.com: What are your best memories of your playing days at Purdue?
Okobi: "I say the great single memory was the first home game I ever started, which was 1997 against Notre Dame. After we had lost to Toledo by 22 the week before I thought 'Man, we're going to go 0-11; we can't beat anybody.' But we won decisively that day and it was the craziest night of my life. That game all the way until winning six straight after that. I was talking to a friend a mine, another Purdue football alum, Emmett Zitelli, when I first came in '96, he was our team captain - he was here in Pittsburgh too - and we were at dinner the other day and he said that's the day anything changed for that entire program. Everything changed that day, and there was a lot of great games. I won the Super Bowl and we won the Big Ten, but that day everything changed, not just for that program, but everything changed for my life as an athlete. It was the defining day. Everything after that was a bonus.
"The second biggest memory, I would say it's probably Ohio State my senior year. That was pretty crazy, but that whole season to me is kind of all rolled together in my mind. Constantly coming back on people, down 18 to Michigan and come back, we won against Wisconsin in overtime, we were down to Northwestern. You won all these games and you were Big Ten champs, but people don't remember how difficult it was. It wasn't easy."
GoldandBlack.com: That month of October, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, an unbelievable string.
Okobi: "Yeah, and we had a lot of freshmen playing, and a lot of those guys ended up being NFL players. At the time it was like 'Eh, I don't know how we're going to do with all these freshmen.' But Stu Schweigert probably the one of the best DBs to ever play in Purdue history. You had guys like Landon Johnson and John Standeford who were incredible players for our program and were incredible that year too. That's what I remember. I'll go back and see damn near shrines to Stu Schweigert and I'll think 'This friggin' freshmen,' but those guys were great. I have a lot of memories of playing with Drew and Matt, Brandon, Ian and those guys for all those years, but it was also was a privilege to see the beginning, to see John Standeford before he ever had a catch, or Schweigert before he ever had an interception, things like that. Those are memories I cherish too. Seeing those guys, I feel almost a sense of pride, like an uncle seeing his nephew who made it."
GoldandBlack.com: Who was your biggest influence at Purdue.
Okobi: "Hands down, it's Coach Hope. If it weren't for Coach Hope, I don't think I would be a man. To me, after I met this guy, my whole perspective on life and relationships changed. He was like my dad, and that God put this person in my life to make sure I was going to be OK going forward. And he taught me how to be a man. He taught me about accountability, and he taught me how to coach, and when I say that it translates when you're an employer. A lot of the things I do dealing with my businesses, the record label or the bed and breakfast or whatever, I don't yell and curse as much as he does, but philosophically, a lot of the stuff is the same. There's a certain memory that I have of a time when him and I, and nothing else was there, and I can't repeat exactly what was said, but those lessons and little moments stick with me every day."
GoldandBlack.com: So it likely goes without saying that you like him in charge of the Boilermakers now.
Okobi: "Yeah, definitely. It only makes sense to continue the type of success we had during that era to have somebody that was a part of that. After he left Purdue is when things started to go not so well. Whether that's coincidence or not, I don't know. But we were in a bowl game last year, and he was there. I think the evidence is there that says that he is the guy, and it's a lot deeper than Xs and Os. People might not understand that, but he has a way to reach players on a personal level and that makes a big difference."
GoldandBlack.com: Do you keep up with some former teammates here?
Okobi: "I mentioned Emmett. I see him from time to time around here. Mark Fischer lives in Pittsburgh. I talk to Drew every once in a while, a little bit less as his status goes up and up, he's a little tougher to reach. But Drew Brees is still one of the realist people I've met, so even at his busiest he lets people know that he appreciates having them as friends in his life. I met Drew when he was a recruit, so we go way back. And Light is my brother right there, bros from another mother. I've babysat for his kids."
GoldandBlack.com: Have you been able to make it back to West Lafayette?
Okobi: "I was back there in 2011 for the spring game. I was supposed to come back this year but I was sick, had an allergic reaction to something. But I try to get back. It's always nice to go back, when things are tough at work people there remember what you did and appreciate you. It's not like the NFL where people always change teams; I'll never change teams, I'll always be with that football team and it's a beautiful thing."
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