For one 49er, Sunday’s eight-hour post-game flight from Nashville to London was standard and routine.
Rookie defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye was born 21 years ago in the South London town of Croydon.
Jim Harbaugh’s 6-foot-6, 305-pound “Adonis” returns to the UK where he rose to prominence as a junior rugby wing before switching to the discus and reaching the London Olympics in 2012 before deciding to give American football a try — a sport he’d never played.
Okoye spoke briefly to the local media upon arrival at Heathrow:
“It’s great to be back home. I’m excited for the whole team to be here. Everyone is enjoying their stay in London and hopefully we’ll have a successful week and beat the Jaguars on Sunday.”
He won’t be playing against Jacksonville though. He’s on injured reserve following a knee injury suffered during a preseason game against the Vikings.
Concerning his status Okoye said:
“The injury is annoying, but it’s all good because this year is all about learning and developing and next year is showing what I can do.”
Okoye will be on the sidelines Sunday, though Londoners are excited that he’s caught on with an NFL team. One local Lucy Whitehead who watched him compete at the Olympics told SF Bay:
“It was great to see Lawrence Okoye in the Olympics making the discus final but disappointing for him to not throw closer to his (personal best) in the final round. Maybe Rio! But his latest move to NFL is not such a crazy idea. … it’s great to see a local boy from South London in the NFL.”
After finishing 12th in the discus at the London Games, Okoye pondered a return to rugby but he traveled to the U.S. where he impressed scouts at an NFL off-season combine with a 4.78 40-yard-dash time and a 36-inch vertical jump.
Okoye soon landed a three-year, $1.4 million deal with the 49ers, who plan to develop him under defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who spent years teaching the game to international novices in NFL Europe.
Despite being out for the year, Okoye is making good use of his time at the 49ers practice facility:
“I’m learning everyday in the film room, in meetings and understanding the concepts of this game so that when I take the field again I’ll be ready to contribute.”
The practice squad seems the likely landing place for Okoye next season, with a long shot at cracking the 53-man roster if he gets the standard techniques down and shows he can routinely get off the snap.