Chargers left tackle Russell Okung returned to practice Thursday after missing all of training camp and the first six weeks of the regular season recovering from a pulmonary embolism.
“I definitely looked death right in the face,” Okung said. “Had it not been for a family who cared a lot 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. So, I’m grateful for people who love me and care about me.”
Okung includes his teammates in this group, whom he said he missed a lot during his absence.
“I love my teammates, (and) I love being able to support them,” Okung said. “I’ve been a team captain here and hopefully a person that the guys believe in.”
While Okung’s status for Sunday remains unclear at this point, it’s clear that he’s happy to be playing football again in whatever capacity that may be.
“I’m just ready to get back to work,” Okung said.
Even Okung’s 3 1/2-month-old son, Cairo, is itching for his father’s return.
“He’s like, ‘I don’t know what Daddy’s doing,'" the Super Bowl-winning offensive tackle said. “‘Daddy, it’s time for you to go back to work.’”
Okung said he’s been working with “the best doctors in the world,” Dr. Victor Tapson of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Dr. Hussein Nassr, whose priority was for Okung “to live a long life.”
“If not playing (football again) was a part of that possibility, it would be that way, but fortunately (I’m able to),” Okung said.
Despite this possibility of Okung’s playing career being over, he said he’s always been an optimist.
“Today is a culmination of hard conversations with my family (and) my loves ones (and) internally looking at myself to figure out what was the best decision for me,” Okung said. “And we made that decision together, and now I’m here.”
Speaking to the media on Thursday, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt expressed excitement about Okung’s return.
“Any time you get a Pro Bowl player back that plays at a high level, especially at the left tackle position, it’s big,” Whisenhunt said. “Just knowing that if he announced that…that means that in his mind, he’s gonna do it, and, gosh, it would be great to have him back.”
Okung said he’s been working hard on his conditioning early every morning and that Thursday’s return to practice would be “just a matter of getting the pads on and feeling the speed of the game again.”
“I’ve put a lot into this game,” Okung said. “And I’m going to trust my abilities and my experience and use that to go out there and help my team win games.”
Okung also expressed confidence in his young offensive line-mates who were tasked with stepping up in his and fellow Pro Bowler Mike Pouncey’s absences.
“I’m very confident in our young guys and their ability and their willingness to be coached,” Okung said. “And we’re going to put our best foot forward, and it’s going to be enough.”
Okung, who has started all 118 games of his NFL career, elaborated on the stigma that elite athletes, who can sometimes feel invincible, carry with regard to seeking medical help.
“When you talk about athletes and our health, it’s very difficult to go to the doctor and even want to take care of ourselves,” Okung said. “But I was forced into that, and 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.”