HARTLAND, Wis. — Joey Okla grew up watching Bret Bielema roam the Wisconsin football sideline.
With Okla living barely an hour east of Madison, he gravitated towards supporting the Badgers.
Such allegiances, however, tend to fade when one has a chance to play football at a different FBS institution.
“All my life I’ve been a Wisconsin fan,” Okla said. “But I’m all Illinois now.”
Okla became the first Class of 2022 recruit to pick Bielema’s Illini, doing so Friday with a verbal commitment first made public on Okla’s Twitter account.
The 6-foot-4, 280-pound offensive lineman out of Arrowhead Union High shirked an offer from Eastern Illinois and interest from Wisconsin, Iowa, Iowa State and Northwestern in favor of wearing the orange and blue.
“Any opportunity to play football after high school ... is a blessing, and just to make it Division I is even more of a blessing,” Okla told The News-Gazette on Friday. “Going to an excellent school with an excellent staff like Illinois is just another add-on. I’m truly blessed that God has given me this opportunity, and ... I’m going to make the most of it.”
Okla helped Arrowhead to a 7-3 record and an average of 30.8 points per game during the Warhawks’ 2020 season. Okla described the campaign — contested amid the COVID-19 pandemic — as “for sure different.”
He and his teammates possessed limited locker room usage and were required to arrange their own transportation to and from games.
Even so, Okla knows his junior year — in which he garnered second-team all-conference status — factored heavily into outreach from Bielema and Illini offensive line coach Bart Miller.
“Every week I was motivated to play my heart out,” Okla said. “I knew that was something I needed to do to move me in the recruiting world.”
Okla harbored an inkling that he might hear from Bielema and company not long after Illinois hired Bielema on Dec. 19.
“My dad told me right away, he goes, ‘Joey, they’re going to come up here and look for Wisconsin offensive linemen,’” Okla said. “A few weeks later, I got a call from my head coach, and he asked if I was ready for some good news. And I knew it was something big.”
Arrowhead coach Matt Harris informed Okla that the Illini staff had found Okla’s on-field film and wanted to chat. Okla received a scholarship offer one week prior to his commitment and hopped on a Zoom call last Monday to virtually tour Illinois’ facilities.
“My whole family was on the Zoom call. I had my coaches on there. It was with Bielema and the rest of the staff,” Okla said. “It literally left some of my family members in tears with how well they saw the Illinois staff treated me, and ... I just knew that’s the place where I belonged.”
Okla said the family atmosphere presented by Bielema played a significant role in securing his commitment.
“Right from the get-go I kind of knew, this is going to be a special place,” Okla said. “That’s something that I wanted to jump on right away.”
Cumulatively, Okla is the fourth high school player to link with the Illini since Bielema took over the program less than two months ago. Okla joins Class of 2021 signees Joshua McCray and Dwayne Johnson and 2021 preferred walk-on Lucas Althaus in that regard.
Along with playing football at Arrowhead in the fall of 2021, Okla said he also might play basketball during his senior year, in addition to sticking with the Arrowhead track and field team as a thrower. He’ll also continue his work with Milwaukee-based strength trainer Matt Gifford.
“He really gets me right,” Okla said. “From here on out it’s all about taking care of my body, eating right, sleeping right.”
While this moment certainly is a big one for Okla and his family, Okla also knows he owns a new role since he’s the first commit for Illinois in the Class of 2022.
“I’ve already been in contact with some (other recruits),” Okla said. “I’m definitely going to be an ambassador for the staff and for the program.”