When the Detroit Lions face the Panthers in Carolina on Saturday, they'll be continuing their push to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2016 season. As significant as that is for the franchise, the game's location -- Charlotte, North Carolina -- has extra meaning for Lions edge rushers Romeo Okwara and Julian Okwara.
It's the place to which the brothers immigrated from Nigeria in 2005. It's where they first fell in love with and were inspired to play American football, attending Ardrey Kell High School.
"Obviously, it's a big game for us," Romeo said in a phone interview earlier this week. "It will be cool to play in front of our family on Christmas Eve. This game has a lot on the line, so we're looking forward to it."
Both brothers went on to play at the University of Notre Dame, then finally made their way to the NFL. Romeo, now 27, spent two seasons with the Giants after signing with that team as an undrafted free agent in 2016, then was claimed off waivers by the Lions, with whom he blossomed, racking up 19 sacks from 2018 to 2020. In the 2020 NFL Draft, Detroit added Julian, now 24, as a third-round pick.
Romeo signed a three-year, $39 million deal to stay with the Lions in 2021, but an Achilles injury sidelined him in Week 4 of that season. He missed the rest of 2021 and didn't make his 2022 debut until Week 14, though he ramped up his production quickly in a Week 15 road win over the Jets, when he recorded two sacks. Unfortunately for Julian, he landed on injured reserve just as Romeo returned, thanks to an elbow injury suffered in Detroit's Thanksgiving Day loss to Buffalo.
The Lions last played in Charlotte during the COVID pandemic-altered 2020 season. Julian wasn't active for the contest, Detroit's sixth loss in what would end up as a 5-11 campaign, but Romeo described it as "a weird environment." He is happy to get a real homecoming in a game with playoff implications this time around.
Romeo recalled the great atmosphere and excitement from his first live NFL experience, watching the Panthers' first preseason game of the 2011 season -- more widely known as the game when No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton took his first competitive snaps in a Panthers uniform. Julian's first Panthers game came later, during his college years. But prior to watching games in person, the Okwaras regularly watched Panther legends Steve Smith Sr. and Julius Peppers play on Sundays, pointing out that their undeniable talent, leadership and moxie is what made them great.
"Watching those guys, I loved how much energy they brought to the game, especially with Steve," Julian recalled. "He was one of those guys who would come after you over and over again."
Currently in ninth place in the NFC, with three games (at Carolina, vs. Chicago, at Green Bay) remaining on the schedule, the 7-7 Lions have produced one of the biggest turnarounds of the 2022 NFL season. Having won six of their last seven games, they are aiming to become the first team since the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals to make the postseason after a 1-6 start.
The brothers credit the success to one thing: the team's mindset.
"Guys come in ready to work and try to get better every single day," Romeo said. "Everyone has taken on their role and is trusting the guy next to them. We have confidence in each other to do our jobs, and that's translating to the field."
Julian added: "Guys are locked in. In other years, you would go around the locker room and people would start talking about their offseason plans. We haven't heard a peep about that.
"We have a lot of rookies and second-year guys making huge plays. Even veterans who've been here before my time, they're starting to see that hard work pay off."