Rookie defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye has returned to his home country as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. The former British Olympian shared the back story on why he chose to play professional football to 49ers.com


I was talking with my agent at a track meet in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was saying to him, “It's a shame I wasn't born in the U.S., I would've played football and all that.” That's all it took for him to quickly say, “Let me make a call. Let's make this happen.”

I was born in Croydon, a reasonably big town in south London. We've got some suburbs. We've got some not-so-nice places. It was a decent place to grow up. I have no complaints. I didn't really have money growing up.  I didn't go to any sporting events as a kid. But I had family and my education. I had three sisters. My parents aren't together, but they fought hard to put me through school. I'll always appreciate that. I was accepted to a really good boarding school, with about 1,200 students called Whitgift. It was the best decision they ever made. I had a really great Headmaster, Dr. C.A. Barnett, who really helped me out in so many ways. If it wasn't for that decision, none of this would have happened.





Whitgift was known for academics and athletics. I was pretty bright and it helped me out loads.  I mainly played soccer, or football, up until the age of 10. It was an all-boy school – we wore blazers, shirts, trousers and ties – so there weren’t many distractions as you'd get out in the states. There's no advantage to not working when you're in class. So that's what I did.

When I first got to Whitgift, I was also the biggest kid there. I was probably 5-11, maybe 220 pounds at age 11. Rugby was the major sport of the school and I had never played it before. They introduced me to it and I took to it really well. And I was much bigger than everybody else, so I did pretty well.

When I was a kid in school, people always talked about me playing football as a defensive end. They would say, “You should play in the NFL.” Even my friends were like, “What the hell are you doing in this country? You should play football.” That resonated with me over time. It hung around in my brain, I guess.

When I first started rugby, I was a second row, from the age of 11 to about 14. At 14, I moved to position number eight – you obviously won't understand this – but when I got to 16 years old, I moved to the wing. The most comparable thing to the wing is wide receiver in the game of football. I was known for getting mismatches against smaller guys and running them over, using my speed and power. I would come in and make plays, running with the ball. That's one thing I miss. There are not so many opportunities in football to touch the ball at my position. Who knows what can happen in the future. Maybe I can make an interception.

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.

In 2011, I improved a lot in my event. I threw a British record for discus and I won the European Under-23 Championships in Ostrava, Ukraine. The following year, that was the Olympic year, again, I broke the British record, and I threw well. In a standard day of discus training, I'd lift for maybe two hours and throw for maybe an hour and a half. It also included other exercises to develop my power. In a typical discus session, I'd have about 80 throws. In a week, maybe it was 250 throws. The training helped me get to the Olympic final. I qualified on my last attempt, and I came in 12th place. It was a bit disappointing, but considering the journey, it was a good achievement.

Post-games, I had a few competitions I did well in. This was when I began talking with my agent, Paul Doyle, about the possibility of playing American football. He really grabbed it. Paul was always a big help in my career – getting me into big track meets across the world. He said to me, “You've got to come out to the states. We've got to do some work. With your athletic ability, anyone will want to work with you. They can turn you into a great player.”  I guess I went along with it. I had doubts, but everyone around me was so positive about it. After speaking to them and just looking at myself, I felt like I could do it.

I went to my agent's training facility – Doyle Sports Performance in Hiram, Ga. – with a few other guys that were working out for the NFL’s Regional/Super Regional Scouting Combines. It wasn't my first time in the states, I had been several times before to compete, train and spend time with members of my family. The first time I visited the U.S., I was maybe 13. I remember the amount of food, or the amount of restaurants everywhere. That's what shocked me the most.


So by 2012, I was used to my American surroundings. I started my preparation for the combines, and it was a little frustrating. I had a hamstring injury, so I couldn't train very well, but I was getting the grip of everything. I learned the drills I was going to have to do – the 5-10-5, a short shuttle drill, and all that other nonsense.  I felt like I was very explosive. I was quick and strong, because of my discus throwing. It carried over for the NFL workouts.


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
4.84, 40, along with a 10’7” broad, and a 36-inch vert. I spoke to a lot of teams and after that, I was invited to come out here to see Jimmy, the defensive line coach with the 49ers. I could tell Coach Tomsula really wanted me to succeed and he really wanted me to do well. He was going to put a lot of effort into me. I went to visit other teams and there was some interest, but nobody had the same enthusiasm and the drive that he did.

When it came down to the draft days in April, I was on the phone with Jimmy after the final round. He said, “You've got to come here.” I had a few other teams calling me, saying they wanted me, but I was sold on Jimmy. I signed the contract and faxed it in a couple of days later and then I flew out for rookie minicamp. It was great to sign a contract, but I'm not big on those sorts of things. I'm big on getting things done.

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.


Right away I learned technique is so important in this game. Playing on the D-line, it’s a lot about using your aggression and your power. But when I first started to pass rush with full pads on, I didn’t quite get it. I didn’t use my full potential physically. As training kept coming on, I was really starting to get it by the end.

Coach Tomsula did more than I would have ever expected to try and help me out. He's really passionate about the guys in his meeting room and he puts his heart and his soul into anyone that comes into that room. He has stayed with me after practice and he has talked with me for hours. I'm really pleased I came here because he has been working his tail off every day.


It’s pretty special being in that locker room on gameday at Candlestick. It’s great to see the rest of the team – how they prepare – how Justin Smith and Ray McDonald hit a switch. They change into not quite different people, but they step up their game. You could see the fierceness in their eyes, and it’s great to be a part of that. I look forward to developing that side of my game, that tenacity, that aggression, that fierceness. I want people to look into my eyes and see what I saw in Justin and Ray.

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