Here is a short list of statements about Romeo Okwara, all of which are true. After a standout football career at Notre Dame, the Nigerian-born defensive end went undrafted in the 2016 NFL Draft; three seasons later, he’s a star on the Detroit Lions, racking up a team-leading 7.5 sacks in 2018. He’s an avid photographer who, this past summer, exhibited a show of photos he took in the 20(ish) days and nights he spent at Brooklyn’s Rescue 2 firehouse. When he’s not taking timeless black-and-white photos or sacking QBs, he’s a faithful Grateful Dead fan—becoming, through the Dead & Company shows he’s attended, a certified Friend of John Mayer. All of the clothes in the following psychedelically stylish photos are his own. (It took him four hours to decide what to bring.) He’s 24 years old. And, most remarkably, this is probably the first time you’re hearing about him.
How did you originally get into style?
When I got to New York after college, I started buying clothes. All of college, I was basically wearing athletic gear. We used to make fun of athletes, [because] they had the gray sweatsuits. We used to call it the grout-fit.
When did you move over from Nigeria?
In 2005. I was 10. I got here in sixth grade.
What was your first creative outlet?
Drawing. I remember drawing in class instead of paying attention. I'd trace or draw random things in class all the time. My mom's brother is a painter. That's probably in the bloodline somewhere. I was always interested in visuals.
How did you get into the Grateful Dead?
I think it was my senior year of college. I had a professor who I didn't know was a Deadhead. It was around the time they had a farewell tour in Chicago. He busted into class one day and was like, "Guys, the Grateful Dead is doing one last tour." I've always loved music, but I'd never heard of the Grateful Dead.
I went back to my dorm after class and I looked up the Grateful Dead, and listened to a couple songs. It wasn't anything crazy to me. I was like, "Why is this guy freaking out about it?" Right after I graduated, they were playing at Alpine Valley and I just happened to be close by in Wisconsin. They were touring as Dead & Company. I was like, "This could be cool. I like John Mayer. I don't know about the Grateful Dead, but I know professor loved the Grateful Dead."
I went to the show and it completely blew my mind. I've been to like 15 shows now—which is not that many in the Grateful Dead world.
Why do you think Deadhead culture is having such a moment in fashion?
I feel like John may have influenced a little bit of that. I think John being in the band pulled this new generation into this old generation of the Grateful Dead. As younger people start going to shows, finding out more about the band, the clothing and the merch also became a whole thing.
Do you have a relationship with John?
We actually met my rookie year. I think he was playing at the Roots Picnic. I got the chance to hang out for a little bit. Then we just kept in touch ever since.
What have you learned from spending time with him?
I'm a big fan of his style. I asked him about playing, how he improvises certain stuff, [and] how he deals with nerves, because I get nervous before games sometimes. He reminds himself, “I'm just going out there doing what I do.” I tell myself the same thing: I practice every single day, I've done this before.
What do you dig about his style?
I've never seen anyone wear a robe [like him]. Something simple as that. “Wow, John's wearing a robe out in public.” [There’s] just something very unique about the way he carries himself.
I find it hard to take risks when it comes to fashion and style.
It can definitely be hard. I went to school with people that take a lot of risks and it's cool being around those type of people. It pushes you to take risks. At the end of the day, are you gonna judge someone for wearing a piece of clothing? You're just wearing clothes. You can have a good fit, or you can have a bad fit. It doesn't really matter. You're learning at the same time, too. You got to take those risks.
What's something you learned from spending time with the firefighters on the Rescue 2 team?
They have a very intense job. It just teaches you that humans are very resilient. It doesn't matter how tired you are, there's always extra gas in the tank, you always have time for one more play. Their job is to rescue people from burning buildings. No matter what's going on at home, no matter the situation, that's their job. They don't complain to anybody. What am I complaining for when these people are put in these life-and-death situations? I'm running around on a football field.
It seems to me like the routine of football would be very different from the creative impulse that it takes to snap photos.
With football, routine is very important. Every single week, our schedule is the same. It does not change. I think within football, within the way you play, you can be creative. That's why different athletes are different. Michael Jordan had his own style. Kobe Bryant had his own style. Julius Peppers had his own style. Steve Smith had his own style. I think you can extend your creativity on the field in the way you move and what not. [Creativity] carries over in its own form.
When you're shooting photos, what are you trying to capture?
I love a good portrait. [I’m] just trying to capture a sliver or moment in someone's life at a certain time.
You went undrafted. Then, you were waived by the Giants your rookie year. How much self-doubt crept in, in those moments?
None at all, really. It just pushed me to work harder. It was just more of, “When I get my shot, I'm going to show you.” Everyone gets an equal opportunity, no matter if you get drafted or you fall into a free agent, once you get into the NFL, nothing you did before matters. Nothing matters except what you put on tape going forward. Once I got my opportunity, I just took that and said, "Here's my situation. How do I make the best of it?"
How much do you worry about all the things that are emerging with regards to concussions and CTE?
We're all aware of the dangers and the risks that comes with the job. There's only so much you can do. I'm not quitting football. I love this game. If you're worrying about those things, I don't think it's going to really help you much. I try to play with better technique if anything, keep my head out of the game, use my arms or whatnot.
What do you do to protect your mental health?
Mindfulness is very important. That's how I got to meet the firefighters. Two of the guys came to talk to the Giants about the mental part of the game and how they deal in stressful situations. A big part of it is just breathing—finding your breath, slowing down your breath, and using that as meditation. Music is very stress relieving. Also, football is an outlet. There's no other place in the world where you can legally hit people.
I feel like in the NFL, you can be like, "I want to make the Pro Bowl." Do you have an equivalent benchmark for photography?
Not necessarily. I started doing this as a hobby. I'm not necessarily looking for anything from it. I think that's a healthy way to go about it. I'm just doing something I enjoy doing.
Do you approach football that way, too?
We're playing this game because we love it. If you try to worry about a lot of stuff that comes with it, you can stress yourself out and hurt yourself. At the end of the day, we're out there playing this game I've been playing since I was 11 years old. I go as hard as I can every day no matter the situation. I just let everything else take care of itself. I try not to worry about the outside.
What does success look like to you?
At the end of the day, if I'm doing things I love, I'm having fun, and I'm happy, I think that's success to me. I just like doing what I like to do. I don't necessarily care what people think about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ