Surbhi Bharadwaj, Staff Photographer and Courtesy of Yale Athletics

In the second week of the NFL season last month, the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons found themselves in a game for the ages.

Atlanta’s early 20-point lead had all but whittled down to two in the fourth quarter, and with four seconds remaining, a 46-yard field goal attempt by Dallas split the uprights, crushing the hearts of Falcons players and fans alike. Yet, in a game filled with dreadful negatives for Atlanta, there emerged one positive in the form of a 6-foot-2 linebacker who finished the game with three forced fumbles on only 17 recorded snaps, which Falcons head coach Dan Quinn described as the best 17 snaps he could remember from a linebacker.

Quinn was referring to Yale football alumnus and sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Foye Oluokun ’18. While his performance against the Cowboys may have been an eye-opener for Falcons fans, it was merely reaffirmation for Yale fans. Former classmate Jaeden Graham ’18 plays alongside Oluokun in Atlanta, and the pair constitute Yale’s two active alumni playing in the NFL. 

“Our players go on to do some pretty amazing things,” Yale football head coach Tony Reno said. “All Yale students do, but to have [Oluokun and Graham] playing professionally is awesome for us. We’re really excited for them and their journeys — journeys that were both a little different. They all had moments of adversity that hit, and they pushed through. 

“The commonality I see between them is that they were very, very driven to be the best they could be, not only on the football field but in everything else in life. They were not going to take no for an answer, and they were going to exhaust all areas necessary to make sure they had a chance to play professionally.” 

The Falcons declined requests to interview Oluokun and Graham.

Oluokun’s journey: From St. Louis to New Haven to Atlanta

Oluokun began his football career as a linebacker at John Burroughs School, a premier college-preparatory school located in Ladue, Missouri. Its football program has been just as preeminent — it has won the Missouri State Championship eight times. Oluokun’s arrival made an already illustrious team history even more distinguished. Alongside future NFL All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliot and Indiana State phenom Jake Bain, Oluokun helped lead his team to three district championships and two league titles. During his senior year, Oluokun was awarded All-League, All-District and All-State honors, making him one of the highest-rated recruits in Missouri. Of the offers he received from the Ivy League in Harvard, Yale and Penn, Oluokun landed on the Bulldogs, and his collegiate career donning the Blue and White was officially set to begin.

Oluokun entered his 2013 rookie campaign with high expectations to perform well on a defense that ranked seventh in the Ancient Eight the fall before, and the St. Louis native lived up to the hype. In the 10 games he started as a first-year, Oluokun accounted for nearly 60 tackles, the most by any rookie in the Ivy League, earning him Second Team All-Ivy honors. In those 10 games, none stood out more than a November matchup against Brown — a contest that saw Oluokun tally what was then a career-high 13 total tackles in a 24–17 victory.

“[Oluokun] has performed well all this season. He brings size, speed, strength and physicality to our secondary,” Victor Egu ’17 told the News during the 2014 season. “He really pushes our defense to the next level because of his effort. I trust [Oluokun] to do his job well and perform well on the field.”

Picking up right where he left off during his sophomore year, Oluokun racked up a team-high 79 total tackles to go along with a pair of interceptions and a blocked kick. The bar had been raised, and he entered his third season poised to have even more success. Then, all of a sudden, adversity struck.

During week three, Olukun suffered a pectoral tear in his chest, and the Yale star was forced to miss the remaining seven games of the season. Amidst a sidelining that had the makings to be a devastating blow to Oluokun’s football career, the Ancient Eight granted the Missourian an extra semester to play football, Reno said. In his fifth season as a red-shirt senior in 2017, Oluokun finished second on his team with 50 tackles, and in a must-win game against Harvard to close out the season, Oluokun finished the game with nine tackles and a sack, helping hold the Crimson offense to a meager three points as the Bulldogs went on to secure their first outright Ivy League crown in 37 years.

Kurt Rawlings ’20, who quarterbacked that 2017 team, said he was impressed every week by the drive Oluokun displayed to perform his best on defense.

“Foye’s willingness to play any defensive position was evident throughout his entire career,” Rawlings said. “His talent as a player, and even more so as a leader, was invaluable for us at Yale. I believe that Foye’s selflessness as a leader has allowed him to flourish into an incredibly versatile player many NFL teams seek to have on their defense.” 

After ending his collegiate career with an Ancient Eight title, Oluokun wasted no time in taking whatever steps necessary to make it to the professional stage. Although he did not receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine during his last semester at Yale, Oluokun did participate in drills at a Pro Day with 20 NFL scouts in attendance that Fordham hosted, according to ESPN. There, he recorded a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and a 4.12 in the short shuttle, times that would have ranked sixth and second, respectively, among all linebackers at the NFL Combine.

After the workout at Fordham’s Pro Day, Oluokun attended pre-draft visits with several NFL teams, and the Atlanta Falcons selected Oluokun in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL draft. He became the first Yale player drafted by an NFL team in seven years. 

“I viewed myself as an undrafted free agent, especially because I came out of a small school, so I wasn’t sure how much film they had watched of me,” Oluokun said to the media after a training camp session in August. “I did everything I had to do to prove to them I had what it took. I realized very early on that everything I did was evaluated … My coaches loved the grit that I showed. They didn’t know I had that much grit at Yale, which was all we preached there. I was ready to do whatever it took to make the team.” 

In early 2018, Oluokun recorded a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and a 4.12 in the short shuttle, times that would have ranked sixth and second, respectively, among all linebackers at that year’s NFL Combine. (Photo: Courtesy of Yale Athletics)

Graham’s path: A positional switch and a breakout senior season

Just about a month after the Falcons drafted Oluokun, his classmate Jaeden Graham ’18 signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent.

Graham was born and raised in Colorado, and it was at Cherry Creek High School where his athletic prowess began to shine through. Not only was he a football defensive star, earning First Team All-State safety honors and the Iron Man award twice, but he was also a First Team selection in baseball and the captain of the track team. When he had to choose which sport to pursue in college, Graham went with football.

Graham’s first three years as an Eli, however, were anything but perfect. In the five games he played as a rookie in 2014 alongside Oluokun on defense, he managed only five total tackles, splitting time between being on special teams and as a long snapper. Things did not improve much in the seven games he played in his sophomore campaign, while Oluokun was enjoying the best season of any Blue and White defender. Then, in the fateful months leading up to the 2016 season, Reno made a decision that forever changed the course of Graham’s football future.

“After his sophomore year, the other Yale coaches and I came together and ultimately decided that [Graham] might be better served on offense,” Reno said. “So he transitioned to a position that he had never played in his career before: tight end. It took him his whole junior year to try to get his bearings. And then as a senior, the rest is history. He simply redefined the position of tight end for us at Yale.”

After serving as the backup tight end his third year, Graham as a senior had one of the most successful seasons a tight end has ever enjoyed in the Blue and White. His four receiving touchdowns, 26 receptions and 380 yards led all tight ends in the Ivy League that year. His historic season did not go unnoticed by the FCS, which awarded the Colorado native with First Team All-ECAC honors to complement his First Team status in the Ancient Eight.

After graduating, Graham received no invites to any combines or pre-draft NFL camps and was not picked up by any team in the 2018 NFL draft, Reno said. Nevertheless, the same resolve and tenacity Graham exhibited when transitioning to a completely new position would be on full display yet again, as he worked his way onto three NFL mini-camps: first the Oakland Raiders, followed by the Detroit Lions and finally the Atlanta Falcons, with the Falcons deciding to sign the undrafted Graham to a spot on their practice squad. 

“Jaeden has an incredible story of perseverance,” Rawlings said. “[Graham] never once complained about not playing on defense, or switching to take on an entirely new position at ground zero. The easy thing to do in Jaeden’s situation would have been to just show up and have the days pass by until his playing days came to a close. Instead, he attacked each day with an enthusiastic attitude backed by truly wanting to be a difference maker for Team 145. You certainly do not become an All-Ivy and NFL tight end in one season out of luck.”

Where are they now?

When the 2018 NFL season rolled around, Oluokun — whom Falcons columnists did not expect to be anything more than a special teams contributor — suddenly assumed a starting role at middle linebacker after an injury to Atlanta’s Pro-Bowl linebacker Deion Jones. Exceeding expectations for a sixth-round draft pick in his rookie year, Oluokun finished the season playing 525 snaps and led the team with 67 tackles and 31 run stops in the process.

Graham did not see much action on the NFL stage in 2018, but in Week 11 of the 2019 season, Falcons starting tight end Austin Hooper was sidelined with a knee injury, opening the door for Graham. In his two weeks as the team’s starter, Graham collected five catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, with Falcons veteran Jones healthy again, Oluokun saw his snap totals on defense sharply decrease, but he still finished his second season with 56 tackles, with 45 of them coming during the final eight games of the year.

“[Graham and Oluokun] are incredible athletes, but they are where they are now with the Falcons because of who they are as people,” Rawlings said. “The effects of these two outstanding leaders, along with the rest of their class, continues to take shape within the Yale football program. Their efforts and sacrifices have set a standard of excellence that was crucial for Team 147’s journey and will continue to be for Team 148, 149 and so on.”

With the 2020 NFL season underway, Oluokun is now the Falcons’ starting outside linebacker, while Graham continues to serve as the backup tight end. 

Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu