Fooch's Note: This is the latest post from the folks at The Pulling Linemen. This piece comes courtesy of Toby Durant.
Lawrence Okoye is most notable to many in the UK as the holder of the British men's discus record and an Olympian. Now, however, he's part of a San Francisco 49ers team that has come over to play a game in London for the second time in the last four years. He won't be on the field on Sunday as a knee injury in the pre-season forced him onto injured reserve during the roster cuts. The 49ers bring their injured players on road trips, but Okoye in particular was not going to miss this trip to his home country. His return meant he was the star attraction at Wednesday's press conference.
For many in the UK, the NFL is still a foreign concept. We have the Sunday games, but only on a subscription channel, and primetime games shown in the small hours of the morning. There is now a weekly highlights show at the more palatable time of 9am on a Saturday morning, but for those trying to come to the sport fresh, it's very difficult to penetrate the language and strategy and find something that hooks you. But now there's a chance that Okoye, along with British born players Menelik Watson & Jack Crawford of the Oakland Raiders, can change that.
Okoye's appeal is that he too is coming to the NFL without any prior experience. He, like NFL fans is certain it can gather from the UK (and European) market, is an untapped resource just waiting to be used, and it seems that some coaches are all for trying out new avenues.
"I was ready for the experiment," Head coach Jim Harbaugh said today. "I was excited about the possibilities... You wanted to see what would it be like if he switched to football and how quickly he could grasp that."
The NFL has experimented before and will again, but for this one to coincide with the league's experimental push into the UK market is a dream come true. The Raiders will be coming over here with, hopefully, both their British born players next year, which can't be a coincidental decision from the NFL. They want this International Series to continue to be a roaring success and while the idea of a UK-based franchise continues to receive mixed responses, having players that are born and bred in other countries can only help to spread the sport globally.
Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who has a resume full of coaching Division 2 NFL Europe in the UK, was effusive about Lawrence Okoye's athletic potential and the fact that he's come to the game with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn:
"He studies. He's very thorough. He's a football nerd right now. It's all football. He talks it, he eats it, he sleeps it.... He studies every aspect of it. He studies the game itself. Lawrence maximizes every opportunity he has."
Okoye talked today about being able to see beyond sack totals and understand the impact defensive linemen are having away from the ball as well as when they're making plays directly. He spoke about how much the mental aspect of his game has improved week on week, day on day. He was already looking forward to Training Camp 2014 when he can get back on the field and show his improvements against guys like Joe Staley and Mike Iupati who gave him a "nice rude awakening" this summer. Such passion and drive has fuelled Okoye to be a respected prospect at rugby as well as an Olympic athlete, pencilling him in to be at least a useful NFL player doesn't seem that outlandish.
If the NFL is to spread beyond the oceans that bind the United States of America it's going to have to provide international stars in the same way the other major sports do. There are some Eastern European guys out there, most notably Cincinnati's Estonian defensive end Margus Hunt who featured heavily in HBO's Hard Knocks. But if you're choosing the UK as your first concerted effort at a foothold abroad you need UK players to grab to the attention of the non-football fans you're trying to turn. Lawrence Okoye might just be that guy.
Fooch's Note: 49ers.com has a great piece written by Okoye about his journey toward American football.