Jermelle Cudjo has accomplished something that, statistically speaking, is close to impossible.
Only nine out of 10,000 high school seniors—0.09 percent—will ever set foot on the field as a player in the National Football League. A Lawton native—he was a standout at Lawton MacArthur High School—Cudjo excelled at the University of Central Oklahoma and is now a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions. Through it all, Cudjo and his wife Kandyce keep their native roots and live in Oklahoma during the off-season.
“Oklahoma is home. Our friends and family live in Oklahoma. When we are home, it’s easy to put all the worries of football aside and just enjoy the time we have with our friends and family,” Cudjo explains. Despite living in the Detroit area during the regular season, he never gets too comfortable. “I have friends in the different cities I’ve played, but at the end of the day… it’s where I work. I will always go back to where I came from.”
Cudjo, an imposing presence at 6’2”, and just over 300 pounds, is a blend of swiftness and physical prowess. He registered a 5.10 second 40-yard dash at the Oklahoma “Pro Day,” which allows athletes to showcase their bona fides to NFL scouts. This strength and speed is fortified by his spirituality, which he discovered after he joined the NFL.
“When I went pro, I realized I couldn’t do this without God. I never know where I will be the next year, or if I’ll have a job or be sitting at home waiting on a call. If I didn’t have my faith, the unknown would drive me crazy. Through my faith, I have hope and reassurance that no matter what, God is taking care of me and my family.”
Although he’s now a pro, Cudjo’s success wasn’t always guaranteed. He went undrafted and had to work his way onto an NFL roster. He signed with the St. Louis Rams as a free agent in 2010 after a series of players on the roster suffered injuries, giving him his big break in the NFL.
“A few of the starters on the Rams’ roster got hurt. That gave me a chance to showcase my skills. I made sure to take advantage of that opportunity when it was given to me.” He played with the Rams for one season before being released in May 2014. A brief stint with the Kansas City Chiefs followed before he signed with the Detroit Lions in January 2015.
Cudjo stresses how important his Oklahoma roots are to him. “I want to leave a legacy. I want people to know that being the underdog, being from a smaller school like UCO, doesn’t predict your future. Especially football players who are from UCO, if you have a big dream, you can achieve it.”
Cudjo’s schedule during the season is a testament to his grit and determination. “During the season, it’s pretty much 7am to 5pm with one day off. Weights twice a week, meetings before and after practice. We watch a lot of film of past games.” Despite the grind of professional football, he insists on placing family first. “My wife and I try to make sure we have date night every week. If we don’t intentionally make time for each other, football season can take over.”
The off-season is a little more forgiving. “I work out for about three hours Monday through Friday, varying between weight training and interval training. After that, I just chill. I try to find active things to occupy my time. I really like boxing, bowling and just hanging out with friends and family.”
Going pro has made Cudjo a better man. “I have grown as a person. I have to be more responsible, disciplined and hungry to be successful so I can provide for my family. God has blessed me with success and with those blessings come with more responsibilities. Even when I don’t feel like working out, I have to give it all I’ve got. There aren’t really any sick days in the NFL.” Regardless of his success, Cudjo is still a humble Okie at heart. “I’m just a normal Oklahoma guy who happens to play football.”