Chargers' Russell Okung: 'I definitely looked death right in the face'
COSTA MESA, Calif. — For months, the Los Angeles Chargers didn't know if or when Russell Okung would return to football after dealing with a pulmonary embolism in June. From the sound of it, neither did Okung, who practiced Thursday for the first time since the health scare.
"Anytime you reach a situation where you face mortality, it gives you a lot of perspective," Okung said. "I'm so grateful to be alive and to be back out here with my teammates. I miss these guys a lot."
Though Okung has come out of the ordeal healthy, the situation didn't always look so promising.
"I definitely looked death right in the face," Okung said. "Had it not been for a family who cared about my wellbeing and took the extra steps to make sure that I got checked on despite my own resistance to them, I may not be here right now."
Okung said he felt shortness of breath in June and that, along with the encouragement of those around him, triggered the trip to the doctor. After receiving his diagnosis, he couldn't take part in any on-field football activity, though he remained around the Chargers and participated in meetings. Okung says he continues to receive medical treatment for the issue, but it shouldn't prevent him from returning to the field and, more importantly, living a long life.
Receiving such a serious diagnosis could affect one's desire to play football again. However, Okung says he always believed he would strap on the pads again.
"I've always been an optimist," Okung said. "Family's a priority. Today is a combination of hard conversations with my family, my loved ones, internally looking at myself to figure out if this is the best decision for me. We made that decision together as a family that it did make sense for us to continue to keep playing. I don't think anybody ever doubted my personal resilience and mobility. I'm so grateful and I'm here."
With Okung on his way back to full football activities, the Chargers can begin planning for his return to the starting lineup. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt declined to comment Wednesday on whether Okung would play this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans or how the team would shuffle the offensive line once the Pro Bowl left tackle receives the green light. For his part, Okung didn't close the door on playing this week.
"I'm talking with the coaches and the trainers and we're trying to put together the best plan for me to come back as healthy as possible," Okung said. "I think today will be pretty telling. I'm going to go out there and practice, going to have some pads on, knock a couple of the guys around, and see where I'm at."
During his absence from the football field, Okung has worked out early in the morning to maintain his stamina and overall fitness. That work doesn't necessarily condition a player for football activity, but it helps provide a better starting point for a player that hasn't experienced full contact since January.
If Okung can suit up Sunday, he would give a boost to an offensive line that, in the eyes of head coach Anthony Lynn, hasn't opened up enough running lanes for Melvin Gordon and the running backs. Okung has performed well as a run blocker in the past and has provided steady pass protection for quarterback Philip Rivers' blindside. The line has also lacked a veteran presence since starting center Mike Pouncey suffered a season-ending neck injury, an area Okung and his decade of NFL experience could help.
But all of those concerns pale in comparison to the health scare Okung endured, one he hopes will open the eyes of other athletes to seek medical attention in similar circumstances.
"When you talk about athletes and our health, it's very difficult to go to the doctor or to even want to take care of ourselves," Okung said. "I was forced into that. I think [pulmonary embolism] deep vein thrombosis is an ailment that a lot of players aren't paying attention to and it's becoming more prevalent as time's going on. I think it's something that a lot of players should start thinking about and checking themselves for."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH