Former Whitgift student prepared for the hard yards in quest for NFL stardom
You can be forgiven if you thought it was a done deal if you read the stories about the 6ft 5”, 127kg former Whitgift student and London 2012 Olympian in discus Lawrence Okoye, But it is by no means a guarantee that he will be selected early on by a National Football League (NFL) American Football team at the prestigious draft next Thursday (25 April) in New York City.
The draft, a lot like a supersized football transfer deadline day, gives all 32 NFL teams the opportunity to choose the best college and university athletes who believe they are ready to step up to the toughest and most physical sports league in the world.
The first day of the draft starts with the most high-profile players going to teams on multi-million dollar contracts and then continues for days until all the teams have exhausted their pick allocation – even the lowly-based players can command a minimum of just over $400,000 a year.
To explain the draft any further, including the trading between teams ahead of it needs the sort of IQ score that will get you a place at Oxford or Cambridge University which, thankfully, Okoye has, with a deferred place at St. Peter’s College in Oxford to study Law.
Originally, this was so he could compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2017 World Championships in London, but after attending warm weather discus training in the United States, a nagging interest in playing the game that his Nigerian father played at the University of Nebraska encouraged Lawrence to apply online to attend a regional ‘combine’ – an open day for NFL coaches to look at potential picks – in Atlanta back in March.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I was good on (that) day – to the point that a lot of NFL clubs began talking to me immediately on the back of it,” said Okoye at the time. This tryout was swiftly followed by being invited to a ‘Super Combine’ in Dallas earlier on this month where he impressed with figures in the strict NFL measurements of success; the 40-yard dash, vertical and standing jump.
“He was unbelievably active and incredibly explosive in drills,” said veteran NFL Draft talent evaluator Gil Brandt in Dallas. “It was a real first-class show.”
But despite these high profile endeavours which attracted a large media interest and invites from the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears to attend private workouts, the softly and well-spoken, thoughtful former junior rugby player is well aware of the task ahead of him.
“It would be pretty audacious of me to say I should be drafted when I’ve never played a down of American football before,” he said. “But it’s a crazy world, and we’ll see what happens. I’m sure I will be with an NFL team either through the draft or via free agency (not being picked by the end of the draft) and the important thing is that I get on the right team and continue to progress as much as possible.”
The 21-year-old was speaking at the London Soccerdome, formerly the David Beckham Soccer Academy, next to the o2 Arena in Greenwich at a press event where he worked out in front of a number of national and international media. Sky Sports, ESPN, BBC Radio Five Live and a host of national newspapers were all in attendance to see Okoye replicate some of the drills he performed in America and then take questions.
The attention did not concern Okoye as his confidence in his own ability shone through and he is being touted as a possible Defensive End, a position his father, Lawrence Senior, played.
“In 2010 I started throwing the discus and no-one thought I would have got to the level I got to in two years, reaching the Olympic final,” he said. “I’m looking to do something similar with American football, but obviously it is a different ball game and it’s going to be very tough.
“For me, success is being a dominant player in the league – I won’t count success as just being on a roster and not getting anything done. I haven’t gone to the States, abandoning a very successful potential career in discus, to be a nobody in the league. I want to do well in everything I do and I feel like I have the tools to get it done in the league.”
This confidence and level-headedness will be keys to any potential success for Okoye with the game full of young men with all the athletic prowess being let down by their mental toughness.
“I could be playing next year, in two years, in four years – it could happen slowly or quickly” said Okoye. “It is important that I train as much as I can and give myself the best opportunity to do well.
“I am making the best of the opportunities that I’ve got. I am in a really fortunate position and every day I realise how lucky I am, so I want to take the opportunity and not look back.”
Starting a new sports career at such a young age is nothing new for Okoye who played rugby at Whitgift and for the academies at London Irish and Wasps and he has stated publically that he can return to discus where athletes reach their peak going into their late 20s and early 30s, but with the rough and tumble of the NFL is Lawrence worried about returning to discus if his new career move doesn’t work out.
“The position I intend to play has a very low concussion rate because they don’t get hit in the same way that receivers and running backs do and this is the same with other injuries,” said Okoye. “But it is a physical game and I’m going to get cut blocks because of my height and players will be going for my knees, so I’ve got to look out for that sort of thing.
“But it is professional sport and if you’re not man enough to take hits and expect injuries and not come back stronger then you can’t play it – it’s just part and parcel of being a professional.”
With such a focus on both sides of the Atlantic on whether Okoye can make it or not there will be people watching cheering him and maybe some hoping he will fail, but this is all taken in his big stride with ease and he is under no illusion about the story that lies ahead.
“I haven’t done anything yet – this is the easy time; showing people my athletic ability. The hard work comes when I get to camp and I get guys the same weight as me who I have to run against.
“It’s great that people are seeing the potential (in me) and my numbers from the trials show that there is potential. But there is no replacement for playing the game and I am playing catch-up all the time. The teams that are watching me know this and know that they have to do some work with me to get the dividends out of me. It is clear there is work on both sides.
“The most important thing is that I study the game on a daily basis, I am going to be pushed every day.
“From what I’ve seen going on in the UK they want to see a Brit doing well in the league and I take heart from that. It motivates me to prove people right, as opposed to proving people wrong.”