If you want to play American Football, you had better be athletic. It is a game designed to be played only by very big, very fast and very durable men. When I played the game in my University days, my old head coach used to tell us that we didn’t play a contact sport, we played a collision sport; he often went as far as calling it violent. Two torn ligaments later and my tiny 11 stone frame finally learnt its lesson. Make no mistake about it; you’ve got to be physical to play Football.
Thankfully for Lawrence Okoye, physical attributes aren’t something he’s short of.
Lawrence Okoye is a British Olympian and a professional athlete. Born in South London to Nigerian parents, Okoye grew up playing Rugby Union, and while displaying quite a talent for it he made the switch to track and field in 2010, training full time as a discus thrower. Okoye then discovered an even greater talent, as even at just 21 years old the Brit has had a decorated career. He is the current British record holder for the discus, and one of Britain’s greatest young prospects. He reached the final of the event at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, his home town, but finished a disappointing 12th place with a throw of 61.03 meters, 7 meters short of his personal best and the British record, 28.24.
But all that is history now. In a surprising and bizarre move, Okoye, once ranked 4th in the world, has decided on a career change. With the London Olympic behind him, he has turned his back on track and field opting instead for another sporting arena; the National Football League.
Getting to the National Football League is no small order for anyone. The NFL is the elite American Football league. The men who play at this level are not only some of the most gifted athletes in the world, but they have also been playing the game since they could stand on two feet without falling over. They have honed their skills for over a decade before making it to the NFL, practising day after day until the game became instinctive to them. For Okoye, getting into the league is going to be a very tough task.
Now, successful multiple-sports athletes are not unheard of in the world of sports. In the NFL alone, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, two of the league’s great football players, spent their summers playing Baseball in the MLB. Jeff Demps, a member of the USA’s 4 x 100m relay team at the London Olympics, is currently on the roster for the New England Patriots. So there are examples of athletes excelling in two professional sports careers. However, the difference between Jackson, Sanders and Demps as opposed to Okoye is that the former three all had significant high school and collegiate level experience playing in both of their sports.
Lawrence Okoye hasn’t played a game of American Football in his life.
He’s watched the NFL since he was a boy, and he probably understands the game as much as a spectator to the sport can. But he has never actually played in a game. At his first try-out in Atlanta, he didn’t even know what position he should play. He told the Daily Mail’s Ian Stafford “[the NFL scouts] all see me as a defensive end, which suits me just fine”.
So why then does this track and field star from South London think he can make it in the NFL? Well to start with, just look at him.
With the exception of placekickers and punters (whose sole purpose is to kick the ball as far as possible), every single player in the NFL is a physically impressive specimen. Whether you are blessed with strength, speed, height or build, or perhaps a combination thereof, there is always a tangible attribute that can be pointed to as an indicator that a player can be successful in the National Football League.
Physically, Okoye is awe-inspiring. Without question, he has the height and the build to play in the NFL. He stands at 6 foot 6 inches tall, or 198cm, and weighs 300lbs (136kg or 21.4 stone). Even for the NFL, that’s pretty big. The strength is quite obviously there too. After all, he is an Olympic Discus thrower. However, it is the surprising speed of Okoye that has caused NFL scouts to turn their attention to the young Brit. At the NFL Supercombine in Dallas, which is essentially try-outs for prospects not deemed good enough to warrant an invitation to the more prestigious NFL Combine (another try-out), Okoye ran the 40 yard dash in 4.78 seconds. Men that big aren’t supposed to move that fast.
However, while athleticism will certainly give Okoye a basis on which to craft an NFL career, American Football is more technical and complicated than the average viewer would realise. Athleticism alone is by no means indicative of future NFL stardom. British sprinter Dwayne Chambers, who tried his hand at American Football with the Hamburg Sea Devils in the NFL Europa League, highlighted the technical difficulties of learning the game:
Clearly, it won’t be easy for Okoye. Having said that, the British track and field star is attracting much more praise from NFL scouts than Chambers ever did. Much more, in fact, than a lot of American college players get. Gil Brandt, a highly regarded scout who has been around the league for decades, said that Okoye was “unbelievably active and incredibly explosive” during drills at the Supercombine in Dallas. Brandt went on to call Okoye’s work out a “real, first class show” and tipped him as the best defensive lineman at the try-outs (per NFL.com).
That is quite simply remarkable. It takes a great degree of ability to become a successful defensive lineman. Okoye has displayed skills, such as the ability to ‘shed’ your block with various hand movements as well as the body control to move your blocker where you want him to go, which he has never been taught. Apparently, they come naturally to him.
In March, the Brit athlete reported that up to 5 NFL teams were interested in signing him at the conclusion of the NFL draft. Now, after his excellent showing in Dallas, Okoye should feel optimistic that there will be a lot more than 5 teams interested in his services. In fact, experts including Brandt are beginning to suggest that he might actually get drafted.
Perhaps that is being slightly optimistic. Annually, only a handful of prospects who workout at the Supercombine actually get selected to an NFL roster, so the odds are stacked firmly against him. But if Gil Brandt believes, I believe.
If Okoye does in fact make it, his achievement cannot be overstated. For an athlete to make the roster of a professional American Football team without any coaching at all would be incredible, regardless of his physical build. Just because somebody looks like they should be good at a sport doesn’t mean that they will be. Imagine if Peter Crouch crossed the pond and made it as a professional basketball player in the NBA. That’s how unprecedented it is.
With less than a month to go before the draft, it is now up to Okoye to prove to every single team that he is good enough to play in the NFL. If he continues to show the kind of skill that was evident in Dallas, he shouldn’t have too much trouble convincing at least one team to take a shot on him.