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April 15, 2013
Earl Okine's five years at Florida were as trying as his upbringing was unique. The son of African immigrants, Okine grew up in the shadows of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium while his father worked toward the fabled "American Dream." His time as a Gator was a test of character and resilience, from spectating early to fighting through an injury his senior year that was barely discussed publicly. Parting Shots caught up with Okine to reflect on his time at UF.
ITG: When did your parents move to the United States?
Okine: "My parents moved to America in I think 1989 or 1988. Before I was born, they moved here. My brother was born over there (in Ghana), so me and my younger sister were both born over here."
ITG: Did you notice any differences between you and other kids growing up with parents who were from another country?
Okine: "Yeah, growing up my parents are very religious. I just noticed I couldn't do a lot of things that my peers were doing. After school, I wasn't really allowed to hang out with kids and stuff like that. I know there are different parenting styles."
ITG: Did your father have his job at UF when he first moved to Gainesville?
Okine: "No, actually not. My dad was actually still in school when he moved over here. It was a blessing in disguise to watch him struggle and to actually watch him succeed and become a pharmacist after many years of school. ... His success story kind of reminds me of my own, people not believing in you after a while and then proving to the naysayers. Especially with how my career at Florida went early on, I feel like if I didn't have a father like that, I wouldn't be in the position that I am in now. I wouldn't have a chance to play at the next level. I feel I would have given up."
ITG: Growing up in Gainesville, what were your early thoughts about UF?
Okine: "I just thought it was a great institution. It's where my father graduated from and everything like that. It was a blessing and a privilege to be able to play football there."
ITG: You get to Florida and things don't go your way early. Was it more frustrating because you're a local guy and all your friends and family were around to see it?
Okine: "Definitely. But again, with parenting and with all the motivation from my parents and my family, all of that helped."
ITG: Is there a specific time that stands out as the darkest of those early years?
Okine: "Definitely right before coach (Urban) Meyer left and when coach (Will) Muschamp came. He didn't know if I could play. I hadn't played much before then. In my head, I knew I was going to work hard, but in college football nobody really cares about what you think. I just wanted to prove myself. Kids that came in after me, like freshmen would be treated better than me because the coach that just came in didn't know anything about me. That was the hardest part."
ITG: What was your relationship with Meyer like?
Okine: "I just started buying in the year before he left. I respect him as a coach. He taught me that winning is everything. It wasn't a bad relationship. He just didn't see much production out of me."
ITG: What was it like to be a Gator around the time Meyer left in 2010?
Okine: "I don't even like going back and thinking about it. There were a lot of negative times. I'll be completely honest. There were a lot of times where I questioned my decision to stay at the University of Florida. As I said before, it was similar to what my dad went through. People doubted him a lot. I just knew I had to fight and prove to everybody that I could play and that I'm a good player."
ITG: You mentioned being concerned when Muschamp came in. What were your initial thoughts of him as a coach?
Okine: "Very hard-nosed. He's a younger coach, but he has the respect of an older coach that has been around for a long time. It was exciting meeting him."
ITG: Muschamp seems like a guy you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of. Did he tear into you much on the practice fields?
Okine: "Honestly, he just taught me how to be a tough person. I respect him. We might not have the best relationship, but I respect him as a coach. He turned me into a very different football player mentally and definitely physically. I can't say anything negative about him because he helped my career."
ITG: How thin is the line between taking his tirades constructively and letting them get to you mentally?
Okine: "At first, it was hard because I'd never been coached like that. You've just got to take it in stride and know this is not going to last forever. He's doing it for the benefit of the individual and the team."
ITG: From the surface, you have the measurables and the ability. Why didn't it work out for you for so long as a player at Florida?
Okine: "It was difficult for me. I'm not going to sit here and say it was any coach's fault. I used to try in my head to blame coach Meyer, but in the beginning of my career, I really didn't understand what it meant to work hard, to grind, to do all that. I'm glad it took a while but it finally happened for me. Unfortunately, it took some time to convince other people. It didn't take long to convince my teammates, but it took a while to convince coach Muschamp."
ITG: Do you feel like you earned that respect during your senior season?
Okine: "I hurt my back before the season. That's really what motivated me throughout the season. I wasn't treated very well after my injury because in the beginning, they didn't know it was broke. I was in a back brace the whole off-season. I got it off right before camp, literally the week before camp. I didn't really play the season healthy. I just did it to prove to myself. I didn't care how I felt physically. I was just trying to prove to myself and prove to the coaches and my teammates that I was a good football player and no matter what that I was going to leave the University of Florida with people thinking I was a good football player."
ITG: Describe the back injury.
Okine: "It happened last spring. It happened the spring going into my senior year. It was a very tough injury. It wasn't in the media much, to my surprise. I thought it would be. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm not going to bash anybody, but I was very unhealthy, very unhappy and it was a lot of things. That's life and once again, I couldn't have done any of that without my family. It made me tougher because now I'm able to do anything."
ITG: What exactly was the injury?
Okine: "I fractured a vertebrae, fractured it all the way through. I broke my back. Literally."
Part two of "Earl Okine: Parting Shots" will run Tuesday, as Okine goes into detail about how he felt coaches handled his back injury, his realistic expectations regarding the NFL, who the best coach he ever had was and more.