From Olympics to NFL in 365 days

Okoye-MinicampFrom Olympics to NFL in 365 days
Okoye could make pre-season San Francisco 49ers team

by Andrew McSteen

The past weekend at the British Athletics Championships in Birmingham saw Croydon Harrier James Dasaolu book his Team GB ticket to Russia for the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow when he ran the second fastest 100 metres in British history.

But one Croydon athlete who will not be in Russia next month is Lawrence Okoye, the former Whitgift School student who finished 12th in the men’s discus at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Okoye will be working hard in Santa Clara, California at the training base of the San Francisco 49ers NFL American Football team and by the time of the opening ceremony in Moscow he would have hoped to have been part of the 49ers team which played two days earlier in their first pre-season game.

If Okoye makes the 49ers squad for that match at home against the Denver Broncos on August 8th it will be a year and day since his disappointing Olympic final, but the 21-year-old will not pay too much attention to what is happening in Russia.

“I will keep an eye out with interest at what goes on in Moscow,” Lawrence told media last week in America, “but it will be around the same time as our pre-season so most of my focus will be on playing some serious American Football for the best team in the game,”

On the 27th April this year Okoye announced that he was signing for the 49ers as a free agent, just 264 days after his Olympic disappointment and two weeks later on May 10th he completed his first-ever American Football training session at the 49ers ‘Rookie Minicamp’, where he was handed the number 78 jersey, which he later described as “great”.

Okoye put his successful athletic and academic career on hold – he has a deferred place at Oxford to study law in 2017 – to take up the sport his father played in America at college.

“There is time for the discus and there is time for college and the law,” he said at the time of his move to America. “I have many goals and only one life. I want to pursue my goals, my dreams.”

With an injury-hit squad the 49ers have turned to Lawrence in their season preparations and he was one of the busiest defensive players, participating in more plays than any other rookie.

Unfortunately, during this time Lawrence also had to give police a statement after witnessing an unsavoury incident allegedly involving two of his teammates after a night out, but he will be focussed next Friday (19th July) as yet another crucial date arrives in the life of the athlete whose boss, John Harbaugh has called “an Adonis”.

The date marks the point when Lawrence steps onto the pitch with the starting players and experienced professionals at the full 49ers training camp and if he impresses he could appear in the pre-season friendlies but it remains unlikely he will make the 53-man squad for the 2013-14 campaign, and may even just make the practice squad.

A practice squad player can sign for another team at any time, so the 49ers could potentially place him on the full squad, also known as the ‘active roster’, but not use him, to avoid any team coming in and signing him.

49er journalists and fans alike are all speculating that his sheer physical presence could propel him into a squad place but the 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was quick to remind people that he remains a long-term project.

“He’s got a lot to learn – he hasn’t had anybody hit him yet,” said Fangio. “He hasn’t figured out if it’s a run or pass, so it’ll probably be a very slow process with him much more than a normal rookie.

“You see some potential, yes. But it’s still a game you have to know how to play. And it’s going to be a matter of how quickly he learns how to play – I don’t think we’ll get a true picture of him for a while.”

The one real person he has to impress is his coach and John Harbaugh, like the rest of the 49ers coaching staff, is right behind him.

“He is working very hard at it (learning the game) and doing it with a very good attitude,” he said. “He is showing up, he’s working hard and he’s listening – good things will happen when you do that.”

Despite this meteoric rise in a new sport, Lawrence is keeping his large feet on the ground, joking and telling himself to stop saying ‘workout’ and ‘practice'(“I’ve obviously been in the States for too long”), and visited the Whitgift in south Croydon as part of their ‘Primary Schools Initiative’ before flying back to the USA to resume his training.

San Francisco 49ers Rookie CampOkoye himself has worked hard to concentrate on the steep learning curve and is currently in a media lockdown, but at a recent media conference at the training ground he emphasised the importance of educating himself about the game.

“I wouldn’t say anything’s strange (for me),” he said. “It’s very technical. There’s a lot of prep you have to do in the classroom before you go on the field.

“I’m just trying to learn as much as possible as soon as possible. They’re doing great with me. They’re not trying to force feed me – they’re going to teach me from scratch. I believe in my ability.”

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