NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As a youngster growing up in Houston, Brian Orakpo played basketball and football. In his mind, sports gave him a chance to spend extra time with his friends.
"It was fun, just a hobby,'' Orakpo said. "It was an after-school activity, and I happened to be really good at it.
"I guess I didn't realize how important football was to me until I received a scholarship to the University of Texas. That's when I knew football was really serious."
Fast-forward to today.
Orakpo is in his eighth NFL season, and his second with the Titans. The talented outside linebacker has been to three Pro Bowls, and he's in the middle of another standout season with the Titans, one that could end up being the best of his career. He's a leader in the locker room, voted team captain by his teammates prior to the season.
Orakpo, who turned 30 in July, is also a serious guy who fell in love with the game and everything about it. It shows in his play on the field, and his actions off it.
"This profession, it is a great way to provide for your family, and at the same time have fun doing it," Orakpo said. "To be able to hang with a bunch of great guys, on a team, and be able to keep that competitive drive in you every single day in your life, I love it.
"It is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one I never take for granted."
Orakpo is on a roll to start the season, with seven sacks in six games.
With his seventh sack of the season – and 54th of his career – against the Browns, Orakpo became the first Titans player since Jevon Kearse (1999–2001) to record at least seven sacks in consecutive seasons. Orakpo had seven a year ago in his first season with the team.
Orakpo has at last one sack in five consecutive games, marking the eighth time in franchise history a player accomplished the feat and the first time since Kearse had six consecutive games with a sack in 2003.
Orakpo said he's happy with the start. But he's more concerned with the big picture, and finishing what he started. The same goes for the team, he said.
"I want to excel in everything I do,'' Orakpo said. "Yeah, it's definitely a fast start, and I attribute that to a lot of hard work I put in in the offseason and just playing my game. "But it is still early, so you can't get too high. It's great, but I just want to win, regardless of if I have zero sacks, three sacks. But it's good because it helps the team."
The Titans have won two straight games heading into Sunday's game against the Colts.
Coaches and teammates say Orakpo has been a difference-maker on and off the field. Orakpo is leading the way on a defense that's produced 12 sacks in the last two games and 18 on the season.
"He's doing the same thing that he always does,'' Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of Orakpo. "He just plays hard every down. He makes plays. He's a great leader in the game, he's a great leader on the sideline, he's a great leader in the locker room. He's just a plus. He's a coach's dream. He does the same thing every year. He doesn't know any other way to do it."
Titans cornerback Jason McCourty was among those who met with Orakpo while he was considering signing with the team last year in free agency.
Orakpo recorded 40 sacks in his first six NFL seasons while with the Washington Redskins.
"I know for this organization, what we needed was a guy who was a really good player, and an even better guy off the field,'' McCourty said of Orakpo. "He's a guy that you want your young guys to come in and follow. He's a guy that comes in the facility early, and he leaves late. He works his butt off. Those are the things we needed. He's not only a great player and a pass rusher, but he's also a guy that can lead. He brought that in here, a voice that people will listen to and follow."
Teammate Wesley Woodyard agreed that Orakpo has been a tone-setter on a team looking for solid leadership.
"He is just a great player to be around,'' Woodyard said of Orakpo. "Players on the team gravitate to his actions and his words. The one thing about him is he comes to work every day to get better, and as an eight-year vet, that can get challenging sometimes. But he is here every day working hard, and he pulls up the guys around with him.
"He is a guy who steps on the field every week and he challenges other players to be better. Now, he can be a character outside of football, but I think that is something that's good for his personality, too. When he steps on that field he is all business, but when he is off the field he is a very reachable and approachable guy to the guys in the locker room."
Orakpo said he developed his work ethic by watching his parents, who are immigrants from Nigeria. His friends called him "old man" when he was younger because he acted so mature for his age.
His dad, Arthur, and mother, Gloria, raised him in Houston, where he played his high school football. Orakpo went to college at Texas, where he became a star, and put himself in a position to be a first-round pick (13th overall) by the Redskins in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Orakpo said he wants to keep the momentum going in 2016.
And when his career is over, he wants to be considered one of the best linebackers ever coached by LeBeau.
Along the way, he plans to keep having fun, and influencing those around him.
"It was a huge honor for me to be voted captain,'' Orakpo said. "It is an extraordinary feeling to be in the position I am in, where guys depend on you to lead them to success. I want to do everything I can to be a role model and help my younger teammates, and my team. That's very important to me."