“He’s just an Adonis,” Harbaugh said of the 6-foot-6, 304-pound Okoye. “Just a great physical specimen of a man. I can think of some other adjectives. Our Creator created a beautiful man.”
Unfortunately, the traits enumerated by Harbaugh are not those that guarantee success in football. Though it’s not to say that former Olympians can’t make an impact in the NFL. To the contrary, the rich history of the NFL teems with examples of great athletes becoming even greater NFLers.
Jim Thorpe immediately comes to mind. Bob Hayes and Herschel Walker are wonderful examples, too. But, of all the Olympians to make the NFL, most are sprinters. In fact, of the 25 former Olympians to play in the NFL, only two transitioned to the defensive line in the NFL: wrestler John Spellman and shot putter Michael Carter.
Spellman would play seven years for the Providence Steam Roller and the Boston Braves. Carter, as you probably know, played eight season for the 49ers, earning three Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl titles.
Though Carter could provide a wonderful template for Okoye, his story is infinitely different. Carter was no stranger to football when the 49ers drafted him in the fifth round of the 1984 draft. In fact, he had played nose tackle at Southern Methodist University on football scholarship. Shot putting, for Carter, was just something he “dabbled” in, according to Sports Illustrated.
Then, of course, there is Jeff Stover, another former 49ers lineman. Before playing six years in the NFL, Stover was poised to an Olympian had the U.S. not boycotted the 1980 Olympics. Though he never played collegiate football, Stover did play organized football at Northern California’s Corning High. In fact, he played fullback, tailback, running back and defensive end.
Though Harbaugh is confident, noting that he “can see this guy doing it,” I am not. There is simply no precedent of a player achieving at the highest level without having some amount of experience — either in high school or college — especially when that player first put on a helmet and pads at a mini-camp.
Yet if anyone can do it, it might as well be the guy who called defensive end “one of the easiest positions to learn on the pitch.”