When I was 16, I was accepted to play for the London Wasps Rugby Academy. Two years later, the London Irish, a Premiership team that is the equivalent of an NFL team, wanted me for rugby. There's no such thing as a draft in rugby. That’s a very American thing. There's no draft for any sport in the U.K. When you come out of school, they can sign you.
Whilst I was at school, I used to do track in the summer just for fun. I threw the discus, and I would do two competitions: District Schools and then National Championships. That year, I was introduced to my coach, John Hillier. I saw my friend who had been coached by him. He had thrown really far and I was confused by how he could throw so far. So I asked him, “How are you doing this?” And he said, “I'm just really working hard with my coach.”
After four weeks of working with Coach Hillier, my personal best improved by about 15 meters. He really taught me how to throw. Before, I had zero technique. I only had brute force. It wasn't even fine-tuning; he taught me very elementary things about how to throw. It was everything you could think of. I came from nowhere to be ranked second in the world in my age group. That was pretty crazy. I competed in the World Junior Championships in 2010 in Moncton, Canada in New Brunswick and came in sixth place.
I was supposed to play professional rugby after that year, but I decided to take two years away from school and train for the 2012 Summer Olympics in my home country. I was also accepted to the University of Oxford, where you need grades, a good interview and you need to test well. I chose to study law. You need to be a good student and have a good personal statement, be a good all-around guy and have good references. It's pretty tough to be accepted. When I got in, they agreed to defer my placement until after the Olympic Games. Oxford is now willing to extend my window until 2017.
I attended the first Regional Combine in Atlanta back in March. My agent put me forth into that. I ran a 4.78, 40-yard dash. I've ran faster in practice, but the leg injury slowed me down, which was annoying. I measured in at 6-6, 305 pounds. I jumped 10’5” broad. I had a 35-inch vertical leap and I ran a 4.38 shuttle. One of the scouts from the San Francisco 49ers, Matt Malaspina, was there. He was really cool. He said, “We heard about your story, your agent contacted us. We're going to track you and see how things go.”
After that performance I got through to the Dallas Super Regional, where I had pretty similar results. I ran a
— Lawrence Okoye (@Okoye) April 30, 2013
My first day of putting on pads was pretty tough. It was a bit of a rude awakening. We had Organized Team Activities, a rookie minicamp and a minicamp with the whole squad here, but it was different putting the pads on for the first time and actually thumping helmets. As the days passed on, I got better bit by bit. It was great to get on with that first step.
Great win last night and first tackle in the bag! #SFvMIN
— Lawrence Okoye (@Okoye) August 26, 2013
This preseason, it was great to get on the field and get on the stat sheet. It was frustrating I hurt my knee against the Minnesota Vikings in our third game – and was placed on Injured Reserve a couple weeks later – but I was able to get a taste of it. When I started, I was really a fish out of water. I’m not saying I’m anywhere near the finished article now, but it was just pleasing to see the progress.
Currently, I’m taking advantage of the regular season so that I can be ready for the offseason and training camp. It’s going to be a great period for me and an opportunity for me to really show what I can do, now that I understand how this game works. The progress is going to be exponential when I’m fully recovered. Come preseason games next August, I’ll be looking to get on the stat sheet quite a bit. Yeah, once we get the pads on again, I’ll be ready to get my thump on as it were.
This week, it’s pretty special being back home, representing the 49ers and the NFL. It’s great to see the game growing over here. I look forward to and hope I can come back again but actually have a helmet on. It’s going to be bittersweet for me to be there at Wembley Stadium this Sunday. Not being able to play gives me another motivation to really buckle down. I want to make sure that I’m playing whenever I get a chance to return.
Follow Lawrence Okoye on Twitter @Okoye