In the words of San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, Lawrence Okoye is a “beautiful man.” Standing tall at 6’6’’, 304 pounds, the 21-year-old NFL prospect impressed scouts at the Super Regional Combine. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds, while posting a vertical jump of 35 inches and a broad jump of 10-foot-5 inches. As a result of his physical measurements, the 49ers signed the undrafted free agent days after the NFL Draft. However, he’s never played a single down of football.
The London native ran track, played rugby and was an Olympic finalist last year in the discus. Okoye even has his future mapped out, as he deferred his acceptance to Oxford until 2017.
At such a young age, Okoye handles himself very maturely. He’s succeeding both on and off the field.
While the British Olympian is still learning how to put on his pads and helmet, the 49ers have plans to use him at defensive end. Okoye’s raw talent makes him a long-term developmental project, but Harbaugh can afford to be patient. Even though he has an uphill battle to climb just to make the practice squad, there’s no harm in seeing what he is capable of. As an amateur discus thrower at the age of 18, Okoye showed that he is a quick study.
If he proves that he can master another sport, his success will reap many benefits not only for San Francisco, but for the NFL as well.
The NFL has been expanding its brand over the past several years, playing games annually in London. Ironically, the 49ers will square off against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a Week 8 battle across the pond. Commissioner Roger Goodell hopes to globalize his league at some point in time, and if Okoye can make an impact for a highly successful franchise like the 49ers, it should only help accelerate the growth.
Out of the four major sports leagues in the United States, the NFL has the least international diversity. But there’s no doubt that athletes around the world are beginning to take note of America’s most popular sport. Some notable foreign-born rookies include Bjoern Werner (Germany), Ezekiel Ansah (Ghana) and Margus Hunt (Estonia). They just picked up the game of football in college and turned out to be high draft picks this year.
Unlike that group, there’s no guarantee that Okoye will make the roster. Although he lacks experience, his freakish athleticism gives him an outside shot of making an impact in the future.
Harbaugh and defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, have their work cut out for them, but given Okoye’s intelligence and work ethic, the opportunity is there for the taking.