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Man of the Hour, and of the Year
When it came time to select the Seahawks’ Man of the Year, there were a lot of candidates, but only one obvious choice: Russell Okung.
It’s fitting that the team’s left tackle would be honored this year, because Okung’s third season has been his best and he’s also doing even more in the community through his Russell Okung UP Foundation than in his first two years. It’s also apropos, since being selected as the Seahawks’ 2012 Walter Payton/NFL Man of the Year means so much to Okung that he set winning the honor as a goal after being the sixth player selected in the 2010 NFL Draft.
“It’s amazing to be recognized,” said Okung, who will be presented his trophy during a ceremony before tonight’s game against the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field. “Even to just be in the same sentence with some of the other guys who have won it in the past, it’s surreal. I really couldn’t believe it when they told me I had been selected.”
Okung joins a Who’s Who of Seahawks players that have shined on the field and been guiding lights off the field, including multiple winners Eugene Robinson (four times), Mike Tice (three times) and Jon Kitna (twice); Ring of Honor members Jim Zorn, Dave Brown and Jacob Green; other 35th Anniversary team selections Norm Johnson, Brian Blades, Rick Tuten, Matt Hasselbeck, Mack Strong, Shaun Alexander, Marcus Trufant, Bobby Engram and John Carlson; and Hall of Famer Steve Largent, the only Seahawks to also win the national award (1988).
“It really stands for what the title is – a guy who does things on the field and more so off the field,” Okung said. “You’re putting in your time. You’re dedicating your resources to it. So anybody who has won the award in the past, I know what it means. It’s a high accolade.”
As active as Okung is on the field and in the community, he shies away from interviews – especially when the primary subject is himself. No worries. There are others who can address the progress he has made at the pivotal left tackle position as the Seahawks continue to make their run to the playoffs in tonight’s nationally televised game against the NFC West-leading 49ers.
“Russell is playing his best football as a pro,” said Tom Cable, the team’s offensive line coach and assistant head coach. “Just with the level of consistency that he’s playing at, I would really like to see if there’s a better left tackle in football right now.”
When that statement was greeted by a wide-eyed response, Cable smiled and added, “That’s a tall statement, but the truth is on the film. Russell is playing at a level where he can dominate guys – protecting the quarterback’s blindside; we can run the football, really, whenever we want to.”
The numbers to support that tall statement also are on the stat sheet. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked five times in a recent three-game stretch after going down 19 times in the first 10 games, despite putting the ball up a season-high 37 times against the Chicago Bears in Week 13 and 27 times the week before against the Dolphins in Miami. Leading rusher Marshawn Lynch already has compiled a career-high yardage total, and the majority of those yards have come while running to the Okung-manned left side.
“That’s because of where Russell is at,” Cable said. “He works at it now, the right way. He puts it together, the right way – in terms of study and preparation. So he’s deserving of those tall words.”
Who helped the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Okung grow into the player and person he is? Now that he is willing to discuss.
Not surprising, the list it topped by Dorothy Akabio, who raised him as a single parent in Houston.
“Obviously my mother has helped me be the man I am today,” Okung said. “She helped shape my environment while I was growing up, definitely. That played a huge part in who I am today. She was a single parent and just had determination every day. Her willing to get up, even when things are against her and she’s facing challenges, always has been inspiring.”
When Okung left George Bush High School for Oklahoma State University, he found a man who nurtured his mind, his body and his soul in Joe Cudman. He was Okung’s strength and conditioning coach as well as his pastor.
“He’s been very influential in my life,” Okung said. “He’s a man of high integrity. I learned so much from him.”
Once Okung got to Seattle, it was the arrival of Cable the following year that helped everything fall into place for him and the rest of the linemen – fellow starters Max Unger, Breno Giacomini, Paul McQuistan, John Moffitt and the now-injured James Carpenter; as well as backups Frank Omiyale, Lemuel Jeanpierre, J.R. Sweezy, Rishaw Johnson and Mike Person.
“Football-wise, I’ve got to give it up for Tom and the room,” Okung said, referring to the offensive linemen’s meeting room at Virginia Mason Athletic Center. “Tom and the room, they’ve been very instrumental in just me growing as a football player.”
And it has been a process, as Okung was limited to 10 games as a rookie and 12 last season because of injuries. He’ll be playing in his 15th game of the season tonight, and playing at a much higher level than in his previous two seasons.
“Tom expects so much from you, and the other guys in the room expect so much from you,” Okung said. “So when it’s your turn to have the one-on-one block or that man block, you do it not just for yourself but for the room as well.”
Just as Okung has continued to do things for others off the field. It’s a combination that made him an easy choice for the Seahawks’ Man of the Year.