By Frank Cooney
Next week, Lawrence Okoye will be among the hundreds of athletes hoping to hear their names called at the NFL Draft. Unlike all of the others, Okoye never played football. Not a down. Still, there is a realistic chance his name will be called.
It helps that he is 6-foot-5 1/4, 304 pounds, runs 40 yards in 4.84 seconds, soars 36 inches in the vertical jump and can bench press 225 pounds 30 times. Although that is great data, it does little to reflect the true measure of this man.
He brings new meaning to the term "option," and well beyond the one re-introduced to the NFL by quarterbacks RGIII, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson last season. Okoye's options are many.
He is a rare individual who sets his goals ridiculously high and then shows they weren't that ridiculously high after all. Not for Okoye. At 21 years old, he already set the British record in the discus and was a finalist in the London Olympics last year. Not bad considering he only began really learning the discus 20 months earlier.
Track experts note that discus athletes don't peak until after they are 30 years old, so his future is bright there, with the potential for a world record. And, thanks to perfect grades throughout school, he has been offered a scholarship to the prestigious Oxford Law Program in the UK. But Okoye has another goal right now. So he set aside his discus and deferred his entrance to Oxford.
On Wednesday, Okoye was busy getting his visa renewed in hopes of staying and working longer than originally expected in the United States. While some NFL nabobs might consider that optimistic and his fans back home believe he is abandoning a bright career or two, Okoye is doing what he thinks he must.
"I am blessed with abilities, and I want to make the best of them," Okoye said. "I have this opportunity to play football now, so I will address it now. There is time for the discus. There is time for college and the law. I have many goals and only one life. I want to pursue my goals, my dreams."
So, whether he makes the NFL or not, he already takes the term "option" to a whole new level.
Raised in Croydon, one of the most diverse and populous boroughs of London, Okoye played rugby since he was 18 but was intrigued with what he saw of American football. It remained on his mind until earlier this year, when he ventured to the U.S. to work out in the warm weather in Georgia. He noted that one of nine regional combines for the NFL was in Atlanta, so he went online and signed up. He was accepted, not shocking when added to a list that already includes Oxford and the Olympics.
"American football was in the back of my mind, but it was only when I got here that I made the decision to give it a try," Okoye explained to London's Guardian this week. "When I was at school in Croydon, I also had these thoughts, but they seemed crazy at the time. So it seems surreal I'm in a position now to actually try out for the NFL.
"At the combine, I really stood out because of my size, strength and speed. I don't want to sound arrogant, but I was good on the day -- to the point that a lot of NFL clubs began talking to me immediately on the back of it. They all see me as a defensive end, which suits me just fine."
After his Atlanta football debut, as it were, Okoye was one of more than 200 athletes at the Super Regional Combine in Dallas on April 7. He again blew away coaches and scouts and soon was visiting the New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears, who wanted another look.
Now it seems the chances of Okoye taking part in the track and field world championships in Moscow this September are fading fast, much to the chagrin of his fans in the UK and Croydon especially. In a recent open letter to Okoye, one Croydon journalist begged him to reconsider and decried steroids, HGH and other drugs and indecencies of the NFL in graphic terms. As one respondent pointed out, international discus competition has a bit of steroids in its history.
But such concerns seem incongruous for the ever-proper Okoye, who addresses people as Mr. or Ms. and makes it seem natural.
One NFL team executive marveled at Okoye's raw athletic ability but admitted nobody will know how that translates to being able to play in the NFL. Videos of Okoye throwing the discus or even playing rugby are of no value.
"Our game is highly evolved. These guys in the NFL are also great athletes, and they are experts at their trade," the executive said. "He certainly has the physical ability, intensity and amazing work habits. One heck of a start. What's he have to lose?"
Well, there is the Olympics, a possible world record in the discus and that scholarship to Oxford. But for now, they can wait.