Okoye looks to spin his career for the lure of NFL draft

By Ian Lamont

Hearing Lawrence Okoye, the British record-holder in the discus, describe gridiron as “football” was somewhat strange – especially as he seems to want to raise its profile in Britain, where the word has a completely different meaning.

On trial: Lawrence Okoye undergoing physical tests at Dallas last week

On trial: Croydon Harrier Lawrence Okoye undergoing physical tests at the NFL combine in Dallas last week

But then the gentle giant from Waddon is accustomed to adapting quickly, having already switched from rugby to discus in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics.

The former Whitgift School pupil, now 21, finished 12th in the discus final of last year’s Olympics. But on an athletics training trip to America last month he found a deep-seated desire to be an American footballer irresistible. A few online clicks and application form filled in, and he was invited to the open trials for unattached players.

Okoye impressed so much with his size – 6ft 6in and 21st 10lb – and astonishing athleticism that he was duly invited to a second set of trials held at the Cowboys’ Stadium in Dallas held 10 days ago. With talent scouts from most of the NFL franchises watching closely, Okoye did not disappoint: he clocked 4.88 and 4.78sec in the 40-yard speed test, registered 35in in a vertical jump, and 10ft 5in in a standing long jump.

Okoye’s now within touching distance of the offer of a multi-million-dollar contract during the NFL draft being held in New York next week.

It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which Okoye says he dare not miss. “I don’t want to look back in 50 years and think I missed out on this opportunity,” he said of his decision to put his promising track career on hold, just as he had already done with rugby and a law degree scholarship offer at Oxford University.

“Success would be becoming a dominant player in the league,” Okoye said at a hurriedly arranged press conference in south London today. “I feel like I have the talent to get it done. I wouldn’t count success as being on the roster for years and not playing.

Not for turning: Okoye competing in the discus at the Olympics last year

Not for turning: Okoye competing in the discus at the Olympics last year

“In 2010, when I started discus, nobody would have thought that I would have got to the level I did in two years, so I’m looking at doing something similar. This is a different ball game and it is going to be tough.”

Very tough, even with the agility and speed from training for athletics and rugby, even if he thinks they can help his cause to forge a career as a defensive lineman – someone whose job is to stop the opposing quarterback from making his play, rather than sprinting down the wing as he once did when playing for the London Irish rugby academy.

“The discus is all about producing power from the ground up and that is what football is all about and what playing in the line of defense is all about – and from rugby I know a lot about foot placements and how to make tackles,” Okoye said.

“You can transfer as many skills from the sports as you want, it’s no replacement for playing the game itself and obviously I have no experience of playing football, so that’s what I’ve got to keep working on.”

Does Okoye think it will take the two years he set aside for discus to achieve something – or anything – in his latest chosen sport?

“I’m not going to put a limit on it,” he said. “I could be playing next year, or in two years, or in four years. For all I know, this could happen slowly or quickly.

“The most important thing is I work as hard as possible, to give myself the best opportunity to do well.”

A career in NFL “was something that had been going through my mind for a long time”, he said, but added that it was not his father, also Lawrence – who played at college in Nebraska – or anyone else who prompted him.

“It’s something that I want to prove to myself more than anything. I’ve had whispers in my ear for a long time saying I should be in this and I finally decided I’m going to try.

“Every decision I’ve made has been my own. I’ve had great mentors in my short sporting career,” he said, referring to discus coach John Hillier and Dr Christopher Barnett, his headmaster at Whitgift who had done much to encourage him to pursue the discus.

“They and other guys have really looked after me. They have always told me that anything I want to do I should just go out and do it and that’s what I’m doing – making the best of my opportunities that I’ve got.

“I called Dr Barnett when I decided to do this and he has been amazing as usual and go for it 100 per cent and made it clear that the school will always be supporting me. I really do appreciate that because without him, everything I’m doing now wouldn’t have been possible.”

Okoye also seemed unfazed about potential injuries through hard hits – even when it was suggested that concussion could harm his option for a law degree at Oxford, already deferred until 2017. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said, explaining that his position has a “very low concussion rate” compared to the type of impact taken by receivers.

“It’s a physical game and you’ve got to look out for injuries but in professional sport you have to be man enough to take hits and expect injuries and come back stronger.”

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