Three years ago, he was a poster boy of the London Olympics.
National record-holder in the discus in his first senior season, and qualifying for the final of a throws event at the 2012 Games, with a scholarship to study law at Oxford University lined up, Lawrence Okoye looked to have it made.
But a couple of NFL try outs later, and the then 21-year-old was chasing the dream of a career in one of the richest, and toughest, of sports on the planet, with a contract with the San Francisco 49ers which made him a very wealthy young man, even though he’d never played a game of American football in his life. But into his third season in the NFL, and 6ft 6in tall 21-stone Okoye is now on his third team in a matter of a four months, and he has still yet to play in a game.
American football continues to grow in popularity in Britain, with talk of a franchise being established in London as the NFL announced the three games to be played in the city in 2016 – including using Twickenham stadium for the first time: Jacksonville Jaguars will host the Indianapolis Colts on October 2, and Cincinnati Bengals play the Washington Redskins on October 30, both at Wembley, while on October 23 the St Louis Rams and an NFC East team yet to be determined will play at what rugger types like to call “Headquarters”.
Okoye may be the only current NFL player ever to have played at Twickenham before. He did so twice, as a schoolboy when he terrified opposition defences as a Jonah Lomu-like flying winger, used as a weapon of massive destruction as his Croydon school, Whitgift, bulldozed its way to two national school cup final wins. Among Okoye’s team mates were Wasps centre Elliot Daly and Quins wing Marland Yarde, both of whom are now on the fringes of the senior England rugby team.
Whether Okoye gets the opportunity to play at Twickenham again will depend on how his NFL career pans out in the next few weeks. Since August, he has been released by both the San Francisco 49ers, who’d talent-spotted him as a defensive lineman, and the Arizona Cardinals.
The New York Jets, whose practice squad he joined earlier this month, are now testing him out as an offensive lineman. Okoye is hopeful that the change may secure his future in the game.
“On the outside looking in, maybe it looks like it’s been a tough journey, but for me it’s a process.
“I went through it when I was throwing the discus. I wasn’t good right away, it took some time. The only difference is in that sport it’s very objective – if you throw far you’re going to win, you’re going to be invited to this tournament or that competition.
“This is a bit more subjective, taking into account more factors – do I trust this player? Is this player going to play at a consistent level? Those things make it take slightly longer.
“I’m very comfortable with where I am in my skill level. I think it’s going to improve again this off-season. I think next year coaches and teams will be more comfortable with where I’m at. If I’m given the opportunity, I’ll definitely take it.
“I’m not fazed by anything; I’m just going to keep on my course. There are going to be obstacles on my way – overcome them and I get to where I want to go. It’s going to be exciting when I do get there.”
At 24, the same age as many second-year players in the league, time is still on the Londoner’s side. The other Britons plying their trade in the NFL – Menelik Watson, Jay Ajayi and Jack Crawford – were all introduced to the game at a much earlier point in their lives.
For Okoye, there is a belief that his breakthrough is just around the corner. “Sometimes, coming from my background, where I have no experience, teams are going to take a bit longer to trust me, to put me out there. But I think I’ve got over that phase. This coming season should be a good one.”
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