Analysis

Miami Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi to have bittersweet return home

LONDON -- Jay Ajayi always dreamed of stepping onto the legendary turf at Wembley Stadium, but it wasn't supposed to happen like this.

The Miami Dolphins rookie running back, who lived in London until he was 7 years old before moving to Texas, harbored dreams of kicking a round ball on this field, not running with an oval one.

"I've never even been to Wembley," Ajayi said in an accent he describes as British, American and Texan all in one. "For a homecoming to be like this, it will be very special to me."

Unfortunately, it won't quite be the fairy tale Ajayi and his fans had hoped for. When the Dolphins face the New York Jets on Sunday, he'll watch from the sidelines as the rookie is currently on the Dolphins' injured reserve after cracking a rib in the team's preseason finale against the Buccaneers -- in which he ran for 66 yards and caught a pair of passes for 37 yards in an eye-opening performance.

While a love for the Dallas Cowboys inevitably followed the family's move to Texas, Ajayi professes an equal love for Arsenal F.C., a soccer team in the English Premier League. He was photographed wearing the team's famous red jersey earlier this year during a visit to London. Despite moving to the state considered the home of high school football, soccer was still encouraged by his father, Ibi, who had worked for FIFA as a licensed agent.

"I was getting a lot of pressure from both sides to give one sport my undivided attention," Ajayi told "The Guardian" in a pre-draft interview. "I was getting it every day. I played competitive soccer and my soccer coach would be like, 'Man, we need you to be at practice.' While my football coaches at high school, they're saying, 'Quit chasing around that soccer ball and come to practice.'

"It was very stressful at that time because I was trying to please a lot of people, and in the end, my dad told me, 'You can be good at both of them or you can be great at one. You really need to choose which one you want to be great at.' "

While soccer remains a passion, it was football that won Ajayi's heart in the end -- although his skills on the gridiron can be attributed to his original sporting love.

"The footwork, the coordination that is built through playing soccer all helps," he said. "I can translate that into my game of being a running back, where I need very quick feet and balance."

Ajayi earned a scholarship to Boise State, where he played for three seasons. After he finished his college career with 3,796 rushing yards and 50 rushing touchdowns, tied for the second most in school history, Ajayi was a highly touted draft prospect. Some believed he would be a second-round pick. Given that he didn't even start playing football until three years after moving to the U.S., it was an achievement in itself.

"I didn't know about American football in England," he said in August. "I learned about American football when I moved to the States. I moved to the States in 2000. I didn't play until 2003."

The first two days of the 2015 NFL Draft came and went without Ajayi's name being called. It wasn't until the fifth round (and the 149th overall pick) when the Dolphins arrested his fall -- in doing so, picking up plaudits for a possible draft steal.

"The draft is such an unpredictable process and not knowing what will happen next is stressful, but the moment I got that phone call, it was a massive family celebration that brought pure jubilation into our house," wrote Ajayi in an exclusive draft diary for NFLUK.com.

The knock on Ajayi, which caused his tumble past the first few rounds, was a knee injury suffered in 2011. The injury troubled doctors and raised questions about how long Ajayi could take the pounding required of an NFL running back.

Ajayi is motivated to prove those people wrong when he returns from the injury that has kept him out of the Dolphins' disappointing 1-2 start to the season. He said, "I'm working hard to rehab and just doing what they tell me to. I want to be able to come back to the team and contribute soon."

Indeed, a team that has struggled to move the ball on the ground -- ranking 28th in the league after averaging 72.7 yards per game through Week 3 -- might need the fresh legs of the hard-running rookie when he is eligible to return from the IR in Week 10.

When he does, Ajayi will be the focus of attention from British fans. The only skill-position player among a handful of Brits that now populate NFL rosters -- defensive ends Jack Crawford and Efe Obada in Dallas, defensive end Lawrence Okoye in Arizona and offensive lineman Menelik Watson, who is also on the IR, in Oakland -- Ajayi has the chance to be the face of the sport in the U.K., a responsibility he would be excited to take on.

"When I was growing up here, there was nothing like this," Ajayi said during an NFL Play 60 event the Dolphins put on at Allianz Park, a rugby ground in West London. "I think it's great that kids now have a chance to experience the game and can see that there's a path to the NFL."

When Ajayi was a child, he knew nothing about a sport that would eventually become his profession. Now he could potentially become the face of that same game for millions of kids in the U.K., and in the process, become the catalyst for a new generation of players in American football.

Follow Henry Hodgson on Twitter @nflukhank.

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