Okoye: 'I think like a football player now'
HERTFORDSHIRE, England -- In the Summer of 2012, Lawrence Okoye represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games.
He made the Olympic finals after taking up the discus just two years earlier.
Now, the discus is gathering dust. He pursued American football just before the NFL draft, and he is collecting $288,000 this season while on injured reserve with the 49ers.
He is a defensive lineman in a sport that is far down the list of popularity in the United Kingdom. But he is still carrying his nation’s flag.
“I can tell you, in terms of country pride, in terms of pride of England and pride of Great Britain, he is presenting this country well -- extremely well,” 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula said. “Everything he can do, he’s doing, and then some.”
Okoye has been a forgotten man among the 49ers since the beginning of the season. But he was in the limelight on Wednesday upon his return to his homeland as a professional athlete in a sport that does not exist professionally at a high level in his country.
Okoye sustained a partially torn posterior-cruciate ligament in his right knee in the 49ers’ third exhibition game. He was placed on season-ending injured reserve, though the injury is not considered serious.
“I’ll be 100 percent in the next few weeks,” Okoye said.
He is unable to practice due to his spot on injured reserve. But he continues to study all aspects of football to grow his knowledge of the sport.
“I feel like I think like a football player now,” Okoye said. “I definitely didn’t think like a football player before. I didn’t have the football IQ that I have now a couple months ago or even a month ago. I’m improving every day.
“Physically, I always felt like I was up the standard. (But) I can’t declare myself as a football player until I get out on the field.”
At 6-foot-6, 304 pounds, Okoye’s size, strength and athleticism have never been questioned. What has remained in question is the unseen: How much does Okoye want to play football? To what lengths will he go to make up for the many years he went without playing the sport?
When he showed up for training camp, he did not know how to properly outfit himself in football pads. Then, he went out and lined up against, perhaps, the best offensive line in the NFL.
“Training camp was good because that’s the hardest thing I could’ve gone through,” he said. “Having zero experience and going out against Joe Staley and Mike Iupati was a nice, rude awakening.”
He has spent his time off the field getting more familiar with the game of football. And he has studied minutiae about the individuals who play the game. He is able to tick off heights and weights of players from around the league, among many other tidbits.
While he defers his enrollment into Oxford to study law until 2017, he exercises his mind while rehabilitating his body.
“He’s a football nerd,” Tomsula said. “It’s all football. He talks it, eats it, sleeps it.
“The guys get on him because he can tell you were everybody’s from. He can tell you what school they went to, what high school, how tall they were in the ninth grade, how tall they are now. He can go through the statistics.
"But not to get lost in that, he studies the game itself. He studies every aspect of it.”
Okoye confirms his peers tease him because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the men who play the game.
“Sometimes the guys on the D-line take the piss out of me,” he said to laughter from the British media at the 49ers’ team hotel.
Okoye had a promising rugby career only to move on to the discus. If he devoted himself fully to the discus, he could easily become challenger for an Olympic medal in three years.
“I don’t think past tomorrow, let alone 2016,” Okoye said. “I’m just focused on being a football player. And the next biggest thing on my horizon is 2014 training camp. I’m not worried about 2016 or anything else.”