An open letter to Lawrence Okoye: NFL could be a dead-end

Dear Lawrence,

Interesting piece in the Sunday papers about you and the NFL. I’d just ask: “Why?”

Athletics is not without its rewards: barely a year after he left school, and Lawrence Okoye's record-breaking exploits saw him given the use of a Range Rover by local dealership Harwoods

Athletics is not without its rewards: barely a year after he left school, and Lawrence Okoye’s record-breaking exploits saw him given the use of a Range Rover by local dealership Harwoods

You are already a local hero, and a national hero, too. By the age of 21, you have managed to be offered a scholarship to study law at Oxford, you’ve twice played in winning rugby teams at Twickenham, you’ve broken the British record for the discus and competed with some style in an Olympic final.

Your polite, articulate and charming character (really, you don’t still need to call me “Mr Downes”) rightly won you many admirers, and your performance at the London Games and massive stature marks you out as one of British sports biggest stars – in every sense – for the next decade or more.

But now, you’re talking about a career in American football. I reckon that might be one move too far.

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday yesterday, you said, “I came over to the States for warm-weather training for my discus. But when I saw that there was an American Football Regional Combine taking place in Atlanta, I applied online. And when I passed, I went along.

“At the combine, I really stood out because of my size, strength and speed. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I was good on the day — to the point that a lot of NFL clubs began talking to me immediately on the back of it. They all see me as a defensive end, which suits me just fine.

“I’ve had some meetings since, and done some private workouts with some clubs, too, and already they are talking to me about contracts even before the Super Combine in Dallas next weekend. I’m talking about some of the best known and biggest teams.

“With the college drafts not taking place until the end of April, I won’t be officially signing anything or becoming a pro footballer until then, but I have no reason to believe that it’s not going to happen.”

At first, I thought it might be an over-hyped story to fill space on a quiet weekend. But I noticed you on Twitter later confirming your NFL ambitions.

In two short years, Croydon Harrier Lawrence Okoye has become a poster boy for British athletics

In two short years, Croydon Harrier Lawrence Okoye has become a poster boy for British athletics

Of course, you wouldn’t be the first track and field athlete to transfer to grid iron. Some have done so with great success.

Bob Hayes, the 1964 Olympic 100 metres gold medal-winner became an NFL hall-of-famer with the Dallas Cowboys as a wide receiver who scored 71 touchdowns, and was in the winning side at the 1971 Super Bowl.

Willie Gault wasn’t shabby, either, enjoying a 11-year career in the NFL with the Chicago Bears and LA Raiders, including a 1985 Super Bowl win, after being part of a world record-breaking sprint relay squad (with Carl Lewis as a team mate) at the 1983 world championships.

Michael Bates was an Olympic 200 metres bronze medallist before being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 1992. Playing as a kick returner with the Carolina Panthers, Bates earned five Pro Bowls invitations.

The names of American tracksters who have converted to American football goes on and on… Ron Brown, Sam Graddy, Jim Hines are among the many others.

But for every success story, Lawrence, there are an equal number of tremendous athletes who were left bruised and battered by their grid iron experience. John Capel was shrewd enough to get back on track after a couple of seasons where he failed to transfer his speed to the football field, and sprint hurdles great Renaldo Nehemiah won a Super Bowl with the 49ers but never looked at home in the rough and tumble of pro football.

What most of them, even the success stories, have in common, though, was that they are all out-and-out sprinters, and that they turned to football after they had done as much as they thought they could achieve in their track career, which in some cases including winning an Olympic gold medal. Neither of which, I’d submit, is the case for you just yet, Lawrence.

Of course, the potential rewards on offer for a football star in the States are beyond the dreams of any lawyer or discus thrower based in Europe.

But a move to American football so soon in your sporting career, Lawrence, may carry massive risks as well as rewards.

Let’s not mince words: performance enhancing drugs are in widespread use in American football, even to the extent of kids as young as 13 or 14 dabbling in steroids in order to boost their chances of making their High School teams.

The drug-taking culture in NFL is such that Lance Armstrong would be made to look an innocent naif alongside the professional football players.

Lyle Alzado: former NFL player, dead at 43

Lyle Alzado: former NFL player, dead at 43

It is ingrained into the very culture of American football. Don’t take my word for it. Consider this interview, Lawrence, given in 2004 to Sports Illustrated magazine:

“I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 and never stopped. It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I’m sick, and I’m scared. Ninety percent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We’re not born to be 300lb or jump 30-foot. But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better.

“I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car and I beat the hell out of him. Now look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.”

That was Lyle Alzado, the former Denver Broncos defensive lineman, who died of a brain tumour shortly after his magazine confessional. He was aged 43.

That was then, this is now: The New York Times points out that during 2012, there were 21 suspensions announced in NFL because of failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs. Yet this is in a sport that lacks any mandatory blood testing – as exists in Olympic events – for human growth hormone or insulin growth factor, two banned substances which are suspected to be in widespread use. Alzado admitted that HGH was something he had used.

The last British international track athlete to dabble with the idea of an NFL career (and fail), of course, was Dwain Chambers, someone who was forced into considering such a career change because of a positive drug test. Chambers was caught using THG, a substance devised by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative outside San Francisco specifically for American football players to avoid detection in their drug tests.

Of course, Chambers lacked the ball-handling skills required to make it as a football player, though it ought to be instructive that when Chambers was enduring a worldwide sporting ban for being a drugs cheat, NFL didn’t blink when it came to giving the British sprinter a trial.

Lawrence, you will know that your athletics event, the discus, has one of the dirtiest reputations in the whole sport. The men’s world record has stood, suspiciously unchallenged, since 1986, and the event’s champions are notorious for repeatedly being disqualified for positive tests after collecting their world titles or Olympic medals. The event is infamous for one leading figure being caught with a balloon with “clean” urine secreted in their anal passage, as a means to evade detection.

Yet in all of that, you have an unsullied reputation as a clean athlete, whose strength and speed is expected to mature over time with improved technique.

Is that really something you are prepared to risk with a dalliance with grid iron?

Best wishes, and hope the rest of your warm-weather training trip goes well,


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3 Responses to An open letter to Lawrence Okoye: NFL could be a dead-end

  1. In all likelihood, Okoye will be signed to a minimum salary contract, go to training camp in July, and be released and back to the discus before September. The risk is tiny compared to the potential rewards. Even on the small chance that Okoye is a successful NFL lineman, and has a career twice as long as the average, he will be back to athletics before he turns 30 (the average NFL career lasts only 3.5 years).

    As far as the drugs angle, there is nothing forcing Okoye to take HGH or any other drug. Besides, 21 positive tests out of over 1,600 NFL players is not a huge percentage, certainly not as high as the rate seen in cycling, weightlifting — or the discus.

    • 1, “By September” would mean he’d miss the 2013 world championships, and in all probability be out of the UK Athletics elite funding programme, through until 2015, meaning he’d miss out on coaching fees, training camps and physio in a vital period building up to Rio for what would have been a brief and failed spell with the NFL.

      2, Were he to be successful as you suggest, it would mean that he would miss three to four years honing his discus throwing skills, at a crucial time in his development. Who knows what physical state he might be in after three seasons as an NFL lineman anyway.

      3, There’s nothing forcing any NFL player to use performance enhancing drugs. Except that in NFL, the drugs have become performance-enabling, providing the chemical back-up for players just to get out on the field each week. The 21 positives in 2012 are in a deliberately flawed testing system that does not have blood tests (as in cycling and weighlifting, and indeed the discus) for the drugs which anecdotally and empirically are the performance-enhancers of choice. If you ain’t testing for it, you ain’t going to catch anyone…

      It’s also worth considering that, if Okoye does opt for NFL, and so come off the UK Athletics elite scheme, were he to want to return, he would have to go for at least six months of random testing before he would be allowed to compete again, even in the Croydon Harriers club championships.

      IMHO if he wanted to take time out from athletics, he’d be far better getting his law degree. That is not something which, like the NFL, presents a point of no return.

  2. patreid121 says:

    IMLO I think Lawrence should focus on his education at this time and continue to train and be the best he can be. His natural ability will still be there in 4 years time, bigger, better, stronger; his window of opportunity to educate himself with a Oxford Uni degree is a small one, take it and reassess your options later.

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