Dates of destiny approach for Lawrence Okoye

Will former Whitgift student make the cut in the next seven days?

by Andrew McSteen

Since deciding back in March to put his Olympic discus career on hold Croydon’s very own American Football star, the San Francisco 49ers’ Lawrence Okoye, has made significant progress and for many observers he is the most interesting and certainly the most inexperienced prospect amongst the 2,880 players currently in NFL training camps across America, all hoping to make one of the 32 NFL teams’ 53-man squad rosters.

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Lawrence first took to the American Football field in anger when he played against the Denver Broncos at the beginning of August in the 49ers’ first pre-season game of four. Despite their 10-6 loss at home Okoye took part in a number of plays in their final attacking push in the last five minutes and was targeted by two opposition players, or ‘double-teamed’ – a sure sign that teams are worried about his physical ability and prowess.

“It was a crazy experience,” Okoye told the Guardian after his debut. “Candlestick Park is an incredible venue, with great fans, so to be out there playing my first game a year after taking part in the Olympics was pretty amazing.”

His second game, last Friday (16th), saw a 15-13 win away at the Kansas City Chiefs with Okoye again coming on for the final few plays in the last eight minutes and this Sunday (25th August – 5pm local time) he will be looking ahead to the third of four friendly pre-season games when the 49ers face the Minnesota Vikings at home in Candlestick Park.

Okoye’s immediate future can be charted over the next few weeks as the 49ers look to trim their current squad of 93 (the NFL allow 90 players pre-season, the 49ers currently have 10 players out with injuries) down to 53 through a series of cuts.

As a general rule NFL teams shrink their rosters to 75 players (by August 27th) and then to the final 53-man squad by 1st September.

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Okoye has a small chance of making the 49ers’ final playing squad and a better chance of making one of the five ‘game day inactive’ player spaces, which allows the 49ers to hold onto him, not rush him into action and have no risk of him being signed by another team.

Should the 49ers decide one of these spaces is too valuable to use on Okoye, he could be destined for one of the eight places on the practice squad – a group of players who are permitted by the NFL to train with the team but not play in games.

With 38 players eligible for the 49ers practice squad this season and eight of them likely to make the 53-man squad, 30 players are left fighting over the practice squad places, including six on the defensive line where Okoye’s position of right defensive tackle is.

To be put on the practice squad the 49ers will have to officially release him, also known as being put on ‘waivers’. This means that he is free to be signed by any other team, but if he goes unclaimed then the 49ers can re-sign him for the practice squad, although with all the groundwork they have put in so far this could prove to be too much of a risk.

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If Okoye makes either the full or practice squads then it will rank as arguably his biggest sporting achievement in his fledgling multi-sport career.

“We’ve got a lot more to do and a lot of progress to make,” said Okoye about what people are calling the 49ers ‘project’. “Hopefully, by this time next year, I’ll be in a good spot, but it’s just good to know I went out there I did my assignments and I didn’t look out of place.”

“Our first goal was to get him so he looks like a really bad football player,” said defensive line coach Jim Tomsula who had a spell in south London coaching the London Monarchs in the late 1990s, after the first match.

“I don’t mean that in a negative way – it’s a compliment. The key term there is ‘football player’.”

Lawrence was named ‘Worst Player in Camp’ by local media when the 49ers training camp concluded on Monday (19th August), but this ‘award’ was given as a compliment, noting the immense progress of someone who has only ever played 10 snaps of American Football in their life, compared to those players who have played all of their lives.

“Everyone in the organisation (49ers team) has been so good in giving me advice and encouragement,” Okoye said. “I want to do it for them and me.”

“I’m pretty happy with where I am at the moment. But there’s a long, long way to go before I can consider myself a decent or a good football player – we’re at first base now.”

Okoye’s progress is also evident in his practice sessions with the squad and after his first tentative weeks he has started to make his mark, breaking up passes and causing enough concern to draw holds from players with full training now started.

“If I look at myself in the mirror, I should be knocking these guys (opponents) out,” remarked Okoye about his playing experiences so far. “But there’s so much skill involved in this game which people don’t appreciate – I’m learning that every day, but I’m enjoying the ride.”

After the first game, the 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Okoye “…did OK for a guy that’s never played football in his life,” but added “he’s nowhere near where he should be or where he hopes to be – he is making slight improvements and, in his case, slight is big.”

“He’s got a world to go,” explained Fangio. “I don’t want to put any undue expectations on where he’s headed.

“The questions I ask every day are; ‘Is he showing up?’ ‘Is he working his tail off?’ ‘Does he want to succeed?’ And ‘is he determined?’ The answer to all of those is yes, so now you’ve got a tremendous athlete who has got all the intangibles – let’s see where it goes.”

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Lawrence told media in San Francisco that his average working day has been from 7:30am through to 10pm encompassing team meetings, walk-throughs, practice, weight-room sessions and playbook study. “I haven’t seen San Francisco to be honest,” he said. “I flew out when they signed me as a free agent and I’ve been working every day since.”

These long days have taken their toll on Okoye who remarked on his Twitter account this week; “I’ve lost contact with the world – what’s going on??”

Okoye and those watching him with interest will know the answer this time next week.

The 49ers play their final pre-season game away at the Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego against the Chargers on Thursday 29th August before facing the Green Bay Packers at home in their opening NFC West game on Sunday 8th September at home.

Photos courtesy of 49ers.com

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