Sporting Life

Good year for a Bulldog in the NFL

Foyesade Oluokun '17 had a breakout season with the Atlanta Falcons.

Evan Frondorf ’14, a risk analyst in San Francisco, writes frequently about sports for the magazine.

While Yale didn’t take the football field last fall, that didn’t stop one recent graduate from having a breakout season on the gridiron. In January, Foyesade “Foye” Oluokun ’17 wrapped up his third season with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. And, as the St. Louis native puts it, he was able to “flourish.” As a full-time starting linebacker, Oluokun led the Falcons in tackles and forced four fumbles. “It’s a blessing to be out there,” he says. “You definitely realize that as you suit up for 16 games and play a lot of snaps.”

Oluokun earned honors during the season as NFC Defensive Player of the Week and was a candidate on the Pro Bowl ballot honoring the league’s best players. Perhaps Oluokun’s flashiest play came in a late-season matchup against the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, when the 235-pound linebacker intercepted a pass by MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes at the goal line and then danced around the Kansas City offense for a 51-yard return. “He’s just playing so confidently,” says Yale head coach Tony Reno. “We knew that, once he was given an opportunity, he would make the most of it.”

At Yale, the former high school basketball player bulked up and moved inside on the defense from cornerback to safety to his eventual home at linebacker senior year. “Every year, he just got so much better,” says Reno, who brought Oluokun to Yale in his first recruiting class. “In his last season, he really took off. We put him in a more natural position, and he completely excelled.” He was second-team All-Ivy in his freshman, sophomore, and senior seasons.

Oluokun’s speed and versatility have made him a dynamic force on defense—someone who can blitz the quarterback and thrive in pass coverage, leading to explosive performances. During just a single quarter of a Week 2 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, Oluokun forced three fumbles, including two instances on the same drive.

In 2018, the Falcons drafted Oluokun in the sixth round, making him the first Yale player to be selected since Shane Bannon ’11, and he’s the first Yale product to play a regular starting role since Eric Johnson ’01. “Going to Yale makes it a little harder to get recognized coming out,” says Oluokun, “but I was able to get my shot and an opportunity.” He headed to Georgia with Jaeden Graham ’18, who was undrafted but became Atlanta’s backup tight end and notched a touchdown in the 2019 season.

Oluokun credits the rigor of Yale as strong preparation for employment in the NFL. “Going to Yale and playing football is no easy task. Being able to roll with whatever comes is the biggest thing I got from Yale,” he says. “If you say, ‘I get to do this’ instead of ‘I have to do this,’ it all works out. If you know what your goal is and what you have to do to attain it, Yale prepares you for that.” He’s using his profile to spread a message on the importance of education, including weekly pre-pandemic reading sessions in Atlanta-area schools and a recent visit to a St. Louis–area school. “He treats people well and is extremely humble,” says Reno. “He’s a great example for professional athletes on how to carry themselves.” The Atlanta sports press even presented Oluokun with their yearly “Good Guy” award in January for his “professional style” in working with the media.

Every season when the Falcons have their one week off from play, Oluokun has returned to New Haven to offer inspiration and encouragement to the Yale team, rather than taking a vacation or going home. As Oluokun puts it: “I’m not too far removed from them, so they know the same struggle and grind I went through.” But the reward for being a Yale athlete is preparation for whatever path life takes. “Whatever you feel like doing for a profession, you have the opportunity,” he says. “In the world, what I think I’m best at is playing sports, so I wanted to keep on doing that. That’s my profession.”

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