Some of the toughest men ever to play the sport of Pro Football earned their reputations on the field for their sheer grit, determination, passion, desire and a willingness to never quit battling against their opponents — sometimes even when the odds were stacked against them.
Whether it was the bad-ass intimidation of players who were feared for their ability to hurt people or for their capability to keep on fighting after getting hurt themselves, toughness at times can be rather hard to define, but you definitely know it when you see it. It's not simply just a physical trait, but a mental attribute as well.
No matter whether it was players from the NFL's colorful 99-year history such as 1960's defensive legends Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles and Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears; or "Fearsome Foursome" defensive end Deacon Jones of the Los Angeles Rams and Jack Lambert of the Pittsburgh "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970's, each demonstrated a certain and unique aspect of toughness.
As it turns out, the New Orleans Saints have one such player on their roster at the moment: 6th year right defensive end Alex Okafor.
Okafor had been originally expected to miss the Joint Practice sessions between the Saints and the Los Angeles Chargers this week (and the upcoming game this Saturday Night) with a bruised bone in his knee and a sprained ankle that he had suffered after exiting practice just a week ago last Wednesday.
But yesterday just prior to the start of the 1st Joint Practice, Okafor surprised everyone yesterday including his own Saints teammates — when he came out on the field of the Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, wearing full pads.
As noted later in the day by NOLA.com / Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan: Okafor’s presence at practice was an eye-opener; and his presence at practice, even on a limited basis, is a very positive sign for the Saints’ defense. Duncan noted that Okafor was not wearing a brace or sleeve of any kind on either joint.
Once again, it can't be overstated just how much of an impact that Okafor's actions are an inspiration to his teammates and to the entire Saints organization as a whole; and he's actually been doing it all Summer long.
For Okafor, it's been just over 9 months ago since he ruptured his Achilles last season, in a November 19th (Week #11) contest at home in the Superdome vs. the Washington Redskins.
Prior to the injury, Okafor was well on the way to becoming a sound Free Agent investment for the Saints; with his 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks before the injury.
But team brass made it a point that despite the unfortunate circumstances that led to the injury, the 27-year old Dallas, Texas native still remained a key piece of the Saints' plans on the defensive line this coming season, even with the addition of the highly-regarded rookie and top draft pick Marcus Davenport.
Okafor signed a two-year, $10 million deal back in late March to remain in New Orleans, and it's fairly obvious that the club had high hopes that a healthy and fully-recovered Okafor will give their improved pass rush an even bigger boost, than the one that's expected to come from players such as Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and the afore-mentioned Davenport.
Though most Sports Medicine doctors give an 11 month-to-a year prognosis for full recovery, Okafor says that Saints team doctors gave him an approximated recovery time of 8 to 10 months, a timetable that gave Okafor an accomplishment to hit.
But he actually finished a bit ahead of schedule, and has been working with the 1st team defense throughout the team's recently-completed Training Camp while showing hardly any ill-effects from last year's injury, just prior to last Wednesday.
In fact: some that cover the team (including us here at Saints News Network) felt that he had one of the very best Camp performances out of all of the players that participated during the entire Summer, along with 2nd year safety Marcus Williams and rookie wide receiver and "break out" star Tre'Quan Smith.
That magical California air. pic.twitter.com/6ZFzOZQeIr
— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) August 22, 2018
Should we talk about the fact Alex Okafor magically got better in a week or are we just going with it?
— AllSaintsConsidered.com (@AllSaintsBlog) August 22, 2018
For Saints head coach Sean Payton, Okafor's unexpected appearance turned out to be a welcome sight.
"He'll be back here fairly soon," Payton said to reporters in his post-practice news conference. "Fortunately his injury last week wasn't anything significant."
Luckily though with Okafor's injury not being as bad as it had originally been believed, the team can now breathe a sigh of relief for its pass rush; with the first regular season game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome now just 17 more days away.
And even better: Okafor's presence fired up his fellow defensive teammates, by demonstrating his remarkable resiliency and willingness to compete while not at 100 percent.