ALLEN PARK, Mich. – In NFL free agency, when so many decisions are dictated by money and football above all, Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara looked at something more valuable to him.
Specifically his brother, Julian, who was drafted by the Lions last season.
Yes, Okwara got paid well by Detroit to re-sign with the team -- three years, $39 million -- but his choice to stay with the Lions had more to do with being able to line up in the same defense as his brother more than almost anything else.
“It’s huge,” Romeo Okwara said. “We obviously, we went through last year but he went through most of last year injured, so we didn’t really get that time to really be on the field together and obviously through college, we weren’t there at the same time, we were separated for a little while.
“Being able to share that time, especially with my brother on the same team, is unbelievable and priceless. So that was very important.”
Romeo Okwara was able to make this happen because of his play in 2020, when he had a career-high 10 sacks and became a pass-rusher other teams might chase if he reached free agency. He barely let it get that far, agreeing to a new deal less than an hour after other teams could officially reach out and talk with him.
He just wasn’t really all that interested in what he might hear elsewhere, although he did figure there would be interest from others in his services. Instead he stayed in Detroit, where his contract and Julian’s contract will both end after the 2023 season.
They had followed somewhat similar paths. Both played high school football in North Carolina. Both went to Notre Dame, where Romeo departed months before Julian arrived on campus. Romeo went undrafted, signed with the New York Giants and landed in Detroit after the Giants released him in roster cutdowns before the 2018 regular season. Two years later, Julian was a potential high draft pick before a leg injury ended his season and helped push him into the third round, where Detroit took him, too.
By then, Romeo was established in the league. And he said when the Lions took Julian last spring, thoughts of staying in Detroit long-term came into even larger focus.
“That was definitely my vision,” Romeo Okwara said. “…That was definitely something that I wanted to get done, be able to spend the time helping him develop and, I guess, develop this defense together.”
The development began before Julian even stepped on the field for Detroit. After he was drafted last year, Julian joined Romeo and family friend James Onuwalu in Southern California for workouts. That pushed Romeo even more. He wanted to set a good example for his brother.
Wanted to be a teacher for him to help smooth his NFL transition. They play the same position, too, so it was more than just learning the league. It was learning how to play the same spot in the league, too.
“That’s one of the most unique things, I can’t even imagine,” Onuwalu told ESPN last year. “I’m super close with my brother as well and to be able to compete at the highest level with your brother is a dream, right?
“Rome has always been a great big brother. More so it’s just been setting an example. … Rome has always worked hard but now that Julian was really watching him day-to-day, like, Rome was just so locked in and really set that example for Julian.”
Romeo began setting that last year with his breakout season while the two lived close to one another and crossed over in football together for the first time. They ate dinner together most nights, talking about football and just life, the first time they could do that regularly in years.
It was something that meant a lot to Romeo, something he deemed very special. Something he wanted to continue even though he had an option to leave. Something he knew playing elsewhere couldn’t replace.
NFL careers are rare. They are fleeting and can end instantaneously. But playing with his brother, lining up alongside of him is something he’ll be able to take with him well beyond his days in pro football.
“At the end of the day for me, it was a pretty simple decision,” Romeo said. “Being able to play with my brother and, I guess, continue that. What we wanted, a vision we have and want to get done in the city of Detroit.
“That was very important to me so it was kind of a no-brainer for me and was able to get something done pretty quickly.”