No pads, but the dream is now reality – NFL career starts for Lawrence Okoye today

Lawrence at his pre-NFL draft UK workout
Lawrence at his pre-NFL draft UK workout

The dream is soon to become reality for the former Whitgift School pupil Lawrence Okoye in just a few hours as he will officially become an American Football player with the San Francisco 49ers as their three-day ‘Rookie Minicamp’ commences in Santa Clara, an hour’s drive south of the city.

A minicamp is held by National Football League (NFL) teams so new players can get used to their new teams, the training ground and staff, while coaches and administrators get to know their new recruits.

Normally the drills and plays at the camp are just in shorts and team shirts so there won’t be any full contact or wearing of full pads just yet for the London 2012 Olympian but Okoye will be hoping to at least experiment with them as he finds his way in the new world.

Usually a player will emerge from the camp to make the step up to the full squad, but with an extremely strong squad the 49ers do not need any new starters immediately, but rather to nurture potential future stars like Okoye.

“Can’t wait!” said Okoye this week on Twitter as he made his way to minicamp, by chance on the same flight as another British NFL player, the Manchester-born Menelik Watson, who was drafted by the Oakland Raiders.

“Luckily, when we first get to camp we don’t have to put pads on until July,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

“But hopefully between now and then I’ll have some practice (in them) – it was quite interesting, they’re not as heavy as I thought, and I want to be able to do it sufficiently well so I don’t embarrass myself in the locker room.”

Okoye was widely expected to go undrafted in the NFL draft of 254 players at the end of April and then be picked up as an undrafted free agent which he did, as just a few minutes after the final draft pick Okoye announced his signing.

“Impressive”, “unique” and “explosive” were just three adjectives used to describe Okoye by senior, respected individuals in the NFL ahead of being drafted and at the first press conference following his draft San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh left no doubt about the potential that Okoye could have in America.

“Inadequate…was my first impression standing next to him,” said Harbaugh. “He’s just an Adonis. Just a great physical specimen of a man. I can think of some other adjectives (but) our Creator created a beautiful man.”

“The things that really impressed (was that) he had the rugby background growing up, and didn’t start throwing the discus until he was 18 years old. And then two years later he was throwing in the Olympics.

“So, you maybe start to put the pieces together and say, taking on football at this time in his life, I can see this guy doing it. So, I’m excited.”

Super Bowl runners-up the 49ers already have a very impressive 53-man squad, plus 11 drafted rookies and then the 12 undrafted free agents (of which Okoye is one and who many observers say is the biggest name in this group, with a recent poll online in America saying that 74% thought he would have the biggest impact) it will be tough for him to get a place anywhere near the game field.

Undrafted free agents only receive a small amount of money, compared to first team players, plus a small signing bonus.  It has been reported that Okoye received $3,000 (£2,000) to sign a three-year contract with potential to earn around £90,000 in his time with the practice squad, rising to £260,000 if he makes the full squad.

With a $1.2 billion new stadium next year the 49ers are a team going places and one of those includes London as they play an already sold-out regular season game at Wembley in October against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Okoye is likely to be in town for the game but in a promotional capacity rather than on the playing squad, although anyone who knows him and his self-determination and drive would not be surprised if he made his NFL debut on the hallowed turf.

“It would be a dream come true to play American football in front of my home country and my hometown in London,” said Okoye. “I’m a long, long way away from that. My priority at the moment is to get to camp, train as hard as possible and work with (defensive line coach) Jim Tomsula.”

Tomsula has experience of south London, having coached with the now defunct NFL Europe team the London Monarchs who played some games at the Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium in the mid-1990s. Tomsula met Okoye in America and kept an eye on him ahead of the draft and his experience and passion was one of the key reasons why Okoye signed for the west coast team.

There has been a lot of talk from observers, the media and Okoye himself since he announced his intention to enter the draft, but this is all expected to go quiet now as Okoye concentrates on the monumental task ahead of him.

His UK management has confirmed that Okoye will not be conducting any further interviews for the time being, as he wants to concentrate on his training.

The 49ers have been known to experiment with athletes before with shot-putters Michael Carter and Jeff Stover both enjoying successful careers, however both had already played American Football at school.

“With Lawrence, you can see that he’s got the raw talent,” Carter said to American media. “The question I ask is, ‘Will they allow him the time to learn the game? How much patience will they have?’ ”

However, a precedent has already been set – in the Okoye household no less. His father, Lawrence Senior played American Football at college (Lawrence junior has called this “impressive” and “awesome”) having never played it before and ‘Junior’ as he is known to his sisters will be hoping he can go one step better and make the professional ranks of the NFL.

“I expected Lawrence to do well in sport,” said Lawrence Senior back in 2011 for a TV special. “I knew from when he was young that he was extremely competitive – I can’t forget him doing 100s and 100s of calf raises on the stairs because he wanted to dunk a basketball.

“It’s not just his performance – it’s his personality. He’s coming in doing things his way and showing what he can do and that’s all I can expect from him.

“There’s no limit to what he can do.”

Lawrence Junior has frequently cited the Whitgift School as his main influence in pursuing a successful sporting career with Headmaster Dr Christopher frequently being cited as his main influence; however Sir Alex Ferguson was described this week by Okoye as “a true sporting legend – an inspiration for anyone that wants to achieve.”

Alongside another former Whitgift pupil, Danny Cipriani, who has wished Lawrence good luck with his new career, the Okoye family in Waddon, who Lawrence has said he will miss the most after his move Stateside, will be crossing their fingers that the first steps ‘Junior’ takes today are those on a long and successful path in America.

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