American Football: The Britons with an NFL dream

Lawrence Okoye and Menelik Watson are aiming to blaze a trail in the States

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The Independent Online

The cities of San Francisco and Oakland, on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay, are separated by both a geographical and a cultural divide. But the sporting gulf has been even greater for two British hopefuls who joined the Bay Area's two NFL teams this summer. While former Olympian Lawrence Okoye contemplates a season on the San Francisco 49ers' sideline, Manchester native Menelik Watson expects to be at the centre of the action as the Oakland Raiders start the 2013 season away to the Indianapolis Colts today.

Neither has much American Football pedigree, but Watson's two seasons at college level persuaded the Raiders to make him their second pick in this year's draft. Okoye had never played before this year, but the Great Britain discus thrower impressed coaches at try-outs in the NFL Super Regional Combine in Dallas. His raw athleticism coupled with his heavy, 6ft 5in frame persuaded the 49ers, five-time Super Bowl winners, to take a chance on him as a defensive-line prospect.

Watson's experience, however limited, was always going to give him the edge over Okoye. He used to train with Manchester City but turned to basketball after an ankle injury. He won a basketball scholarship to Marist College in New York state after being spotted in Spain, then switched to gridiron when he saw his chances of success were greater in a sport of which he knew little.

"When I put pads on for the first time, I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I was watching everyone else and I saw places where I could use my physical nature and places where I had to use my brain."

An outstanding 2012 season in Florida State University's offensive line made Watson a likely first or second-round draft pick. An injury last month to the Raiders' first-choice left tackle Jared Veldheer means that he has been named the starter in this key position, protecting the blind side of quarterback Terrelle Pryor, even though his experience in the role amounts to one pre-season game in Seattle last week. "I'm the type of person, if you tell me to do something, I'm just going to do it," he said.

His motivation to succeed comes from his upbringing in inner-city Longsight as one of four sons of a single mother. Some of his siblings have been in jail but Watson only seeks to be a source of pride.

The Raiders' famed silver and black colours no longer adorn a force in the game, so Watson's dream of a Super Bowl appearance may take a long time or a trade, but his aims remain high. "I've figured out the way you're supposed to do things, the way the elite guys, the legends have done things," he said. "How much effort, how much time, how much dedication, how much blood sweat and tears you've got to put into it. Whether anyone else is expecting things of me or not, I've set goals higher than they could ever think of."

Okoye struggled in training camp, admitting his first target was to become a bad player, never mind a good one. In the end, the 49ers' decision on whether he would make the grade was put on ice when a knee injury allowed them to place him on injured reserve, effectively retaining his registration for a learning season.