Meet The NFL’s Resident Deadhead, Romeo Okwara

The 24-year-old first heard about the Dead from one of his professors at Notre Dame

Updated March 16, 2021 6:01 am
Meet the NFL's Resident Deadhead Romeo Okwara
Romeo Okwara of the Detroit Lions reacts on the sideline. (Tim Warner/Getty)
Getty Images

After the NFL’s legal tampering period began on Monday in advance of the official start of 2021 free agency later this week, Romeo Okwara agreed to a three-year contract extension with the Detroit Lion that is worth $39 million and includes $25 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN. A five-year NFL veteran who was born in Nigeria and playing in college at Notre Dame, the 25-year-old has started 28 games with 20 sacks, five forced fumbles, four passes defended and a fumble recovery during his career.

One of the NFL’s best young defensive lineman, Okwara set himself up for a big payday after recording 10 sacks in 2020 following a disappointing 2019 season. But he’s not only a football player. Below, you’ll find our chat with Okwara from 2019, where he talked about his passion for the Grateful Dead and a photo project he worked on with Brooklyn firefighting crew Rescue 2 while he was a member of the New York Giants.

In 1985 when longtime Deadhead Bill Walton was a member of the Boston Celtics, some members of the Grateful Dead came to the Boston Garden to watch him practice with his teammates. Afterward, when the Dead played the Worcester Centrum, Walton and his teammates returned the favor and went to the show in a caravan of limos after meeting at Larry Bird’s house, except for Danny Ainge, whose wife wouldn’t let him go. Asked about the show years later, Bird called guitarist Jerry Garcia “the Michael Jordan of musicians.” 

Though he was born too late to catch Garcia, Detroit Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara is the latest link in the unbroken chain between pro athletes and the Dead.

Now in his fourth year in the league, the 24-year-old first heard about the Dead when one of his business professors at Notre Dame came into class “freaking out” about the announcement of the “Fare Thee Well” tour (the last run to feature original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann all playing together).

“I’d never heard of them at the time,” Okwara tells InsideHook. “He’s talking about how he’s a Deadhead and he went to all these shows when he was younger and they’re having this last tour and it’s a big deal. It’s holding up the class.”

Curious, the Charlotte native gave the band a listen after class and liked what he heard enough to go check them out a few years later at an Alpine Valley show.

“I had to experience what everyone was talking about and I think I felt that same feeling,” Okwara says. “I think the scene was unlike any other musical experience you could have. Just showing up to a parking lot and seeing all these characters all having a good time together. Everyone was just so happy and just very welcoming. I enjoyed the community aspect — everyone was free and open and very accepting of each other and the music was beautiful. I went and just danced all night.”

Since Alpine Valley, Okwara has gone to about 15 shows and amassed a pretty decent collection of tie-dye Dead shirts in his closet. Last summer alone he hit up shows in Chicago, New York and Boulder, and got to spend time backstage with members of the band, including John Mayer and Weir.

While it’s difficult for him to go to shows during the NFL season, Okwara stays connected with the Dead by listening to them before games and posting about them on social media.

“I’m always bumping to it in my headphones wherever I am,” Okwara says. “I get pumped up when I listen. I don’t need to get in ‘go kill someone’ mode. It’s mainly just the energy and the feeling of being alive I would say, which the music certainly brings out of me.”

Annoying question about a band that’s played more than 2,000 songs live over more than five decades of touring, but does he have a favorite song?

“There are a lot of songs I could say,” Okwara says. “For my favorite, I would say probably ‘Help On The Way’ [then] ‘Slipknot.’ I mean, I kind of love a lot of them, but I would say those are probably the main ones.”

But don’t expect to hear the Dead playing in the Lions’ locker room. “I did probably once, but I don’t think I ever had anyone notice,” Okwara says. “I’m definitely friends with a couple of teammates that listen to the Grateful Dead, but I don’t think I know any others that have been to shows.”

And being into the Dead isn’t the only interest Okwara has that sets him apart from many of his counterparts in the NFL.

NFL player Romeo Okwara also has photography skills
Romeo Okwara’s photography skills in action. (Michael Rothstein)

Okwara, who broke into the the league with the New York Giants after signing with the club as an undrafted free agent in 2016, is an aspiring photographer who currently has his first-ever exhibit on display at the Leica Store SoHo in New York City.

Titled “Rescue 2: Before The Call” and on display through November 3, the gallery showcases images of the firemen and women of the Rescue Company 2 Firehouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Okwara first got interested in photography when he was a senior at Notre Dame while taking photos and videos of friends but began taking it more seriously during his first season with the Giants.

“When I got to New York my rookie year, I bought a Leica M6 and some film and everything kind of changed from there,” he says. “I kind of saw photography in a different light. It became more artistic and I started focusing a lot more on different skills within photography and it became fun capturing pictures that way. I like taking pictures of people. I connected and interacted with people whether it was on the street or just trying to take a portrait of them. I think people are generally my favorite subject.”

NFL player Romeo Okwara also has photography skills
An image from “Rescue 2: Before The Call.” (Romeo Okwara)

The genesis of “Rescue 2: Before The Call” came about when a couple of the firefighters from Rescue 2 visited the Giants and talked to the team about the history of the firehouse and their role as a rescue team covering all of Brooklyn.

Intrigued, Okwara visited Rescue 2’s firehouse during an off-day and hung out with the squad for an afternoon in Bed-Stuy.

“Just being in the building, there was definitely something special I sensed while I was there,” Okwara says. “After hearing different stories about the history, seeing the different pictures on the wall and seeing how humble this building had been in the early 1900s, I really wanted to just document the building for them and capture it. Especially since they were moving to a new building and didn’t know what was going to happen to the old one. I wanted to create something to kind of hold that space visually for them with pictures.”

Returning to the firehouse a second time, Okwara was able to photograph what he felt was “the moments before the call.”

NFL player Romeo Okwara also has photography skills
An image from “Rescue 2: Before The Call.” (Romeo Okwara)

The team at Rescue 2 were great subjects for Okwara to capture for his first-ever exhibit, but there’s one subject who alludes him and always will: Garcia.

“Wish I could go back in time to ’95 but I was just out of the womb,” he says.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!