ORLANDO, Fla. – A young Brian Orakpo made it to the Pro Bowl during his first year in the NFL. He was with the Redskins back then, and just 23 years old at the time.
Surrounded by some of the NFL's superstars, he had bright eyes. And he had fun.
"It was cool," Orakpo recalled this week. "It was definitely more of a party, hangout scene back then."
Fast-forward from 2009 to today. Now in his eighth NFL season, and his second with the Titans, Orakpo is a full-fledged family man. He has a wife and two young kids, and a greater perspective on life, his family, and his career.
And that's why here, the land of theme parks and Disney characters, is a perfect location for his fourth Pro Bowl trip. It came after arguably the best season of his career, when the outside linebacker finished with 10.5 sacks, and a career-high 49 quarterback pressures.
"It is definitely cool to be back at the Pro Bowl, a great experience to be around all the guys,'' Orakpo said. "Now that I have a family, it is definitely more family-oriented, and having fun with my kids.
"But this is what it is all about. I love it. It is very special. I am so happy my family, my son and daughter, can experience this, especially being in Disney World. And I want to show my son that by me being here, hard work really pays off. I want both him and my daughter to see that."
Orakpo's wife, Bitura, has been with him from the start. The two met during his redshirt freshman year the University of Texas, and married in 2010. They have a son, six-year-old Brian Jr., and a daughter, three-year-old Brianna.
And as a family, they've soaked up the fun.
The Orakpos went to a party at Universal Studios on Thursday night, and on Friday they hit the Magic Kingdom, the girls decked out in Mickey ears. Orakpo brought a bunch of his family to town. The group includes his mother, brother, nephews and a bunch of friends, including former Titans and University of Texas teammate Michael Griffin.
Griffin has seen Orakpo evolve as a player, and a father.
"I have pretty much known both of them since they were in college, and he is very good with his kids and he has a very supportive wife,'' Griffin said of Orakpo. "They work hand in hand together, with their two young ones. Brian, he is doing a great job with everything he does. He is great on the field and off the field, and you aren't ever going the separate him from his family. That is No.1 for him.
Titans players join other NFL stars in preparation for the 2017 AFC/NFC Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla. (Photos: Amber Harding, AP)
"Being a professional athlete and being a father, it can be a tough balance during the season. You have to be a good father as well as being a good football player and he is able to do both."
Bitura Orakpo, known by friends as "Tura," said her husband has done a good job balancing the rigors of the NFL, and his family.
He leaves football at home, he said. They don't talk football when he walks in the door, she said. Well, at least he doesn't bring it up.
"He has gotten a lot better,'' Bitura Orakpo said. "When he gets home we don't talk shop. Probably the only time we talk shop is when we are in the bed watching film, or me telling him on Sundays I noticed him play a certain way. In the nicest way possible, I might say, "You didn't get off that block enough. Were you tired?" I try and be nice. We have those conversations because I have seen him progress from his freshman year in college to now."
Brian Orakpo said it's imperative for players to separate football and family, and to find time to make both work. Brian Jr. has made several trips to the Titans locker room in Nashville. He's old enough where he can now recognize the players, Bitura said, and he loves it.
"When I am on the field and at the facility, I work extremely hard at my craft,'' Orakpo said. "When I come home, I try and leave football at the facility and spend time with my kids. That is the only way to stay sane in what we do. It is definitely hard, and it takes experience. You don't want to overexert yourself with the game we play, our job, and take it out on the ones that love you and show you support. You have to spend time with them. And when you get to the facility, it time to go."
In Tennessee, Orakpo has been just what the Titans had in mind when they signed him prior to the 2015 season. In two seasons, he's racked up 17.5 sacks while registering 86 quarterback pressures.
He's been a tone-setter on a defense that generated 40 sacks as a team in 2016.
"He is your consummate professional,'' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of Orakpo. "He is a coach's dream in how he sets example for young guys coming in.
"As a player, he has everything. He can play the run, has great quickness, size and speed. Plus, he has a competitive nature that allows him to compete at a high level through the fourth quarter. He attacks any time he is out there. Any coach would love to have a guy like that on a team."
Titans general manager Jon Robinson agreed with LeBeau's assessment.
"Brian is a tough, football player, a smart guy, a captain,'' Robinson said. "He's dependable, and his teammates look up to him. He plays hard. I think he has a nice presence about him. He has that deep, booming voice that can be somewhat intimidating, which is a good thing. He likes it here, he likes what we are doing here. I think it is fun for him to come to work."
The road back to another Pro Bowl wasn't a straight and easy one for Orakpo.
In his career, he's dealt with adversity, including two season-ending pectoral injuries while with the Redskins. He played just two games in 2012 before being injured, returned to make the Pro Bowl after a 10-sack season in 2013, only to have his 2014 season cut short after just seven games because of a similar injury.
But he worked his way back, with his growing family around him.
And that's what makes this trip to the Pro Bowl even sweeter.
"It is an exciting time,'' Bitura Orakpo said. "It is always a fun time to celebrate his accomplishments. And to be honest, I think this is even more special. With the injuries, and struggling with that, and to finally get back to where he is now, it's really nice to see. We joke, his friends and I, we always say, 'The old 'Rak is back.' It really is great to see his success, and for all of us to be a part of it."
Five Titans players compete in the 2017 AFC/NFC Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla. (Photos: AP, Amber Harding)