Jay Ajayi and his Dolphins teammates caught a transatlantic red-eye Thursday and barely had time to stash their luggage before suiting up for practice here Friday.
He had every right to be dragging. And yet, he’s rarely smiled wider.
Being home can have that effect.
Ajayi will for the first, and perhaps only, time play a football game in his hometown Sunday. And he’s not even pretending that it’s not a big deal.
“I won't lie, it's a special day for me,” Ajayi said Friday at news conference packed with British writers. “... I definitely am going to enjoy the experience, enjoy what is going here. To be honest, it's rare for me in the sense that I've gotten this far and be here. It's crazy. This is pretty cool and I'm going to enjoy it.”
The odds of this particular dream coming true are insane. Like winning the Pick Six insane.
American football might have a niche following in the UK — Ajayi said that London “is not far away from” being able to support its own team — but kids here play soccer, basketball and rugby.
For most, football isn’t even an afterthought. It’s barely a thought at all.
Ajayi acknowledged Friday that he would probably be “chasing that Arsenal shirt” — or put another way, trying to make it as a pro soccer player — if his parents did not move from London to the United States when he was a child.
But even when he came stateside, he was still a huge long shot to end up in the league. Fewer than one in a thousand high school players are ever drafted.
Ajayi was not only drafted, but has emerged as a bona fide star in his third season.
Then there’s last bit of essential serendipity: the Dolphins had to actually play in London when Ajayi is a member of the team and in the prime of his career.
Dolphins-Saints will be just the 20th regular-season NFL game in London; a quarter of the league has never played here.
So this is Halley’s Comet stuff. The people of England better enjoy it Sunday, because it might not happen again for a generation.
“I don’t think he feels pressure,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “I think Jay’s more about playing, and he’s done a good job with everything we’ve asked him to do. I think he’s excited to come play in this game. I think he wants to play well. He’s worked hard this week and had a good day the one day that he went. I just think he’s ready for Sunday to be here.”
Ajayi was on the 2015 Dolphins team that lost to the Jets here, but he missed the game with a rib injury. And even if he did play, Ajayi probably would not have gotten a ton of carries; Lamar Miller was the featured back that year.
He is not only a starter this time around, but he’s coming off a Pro Bowl season.
A British reporter told Ajayi Friday that he is the “poster boy” for the NFL’s International Game, and Ajayi didn’t disagree.
He has a full dance card this week. Along with the game, he scheduled two appearances — one to promote his Yurp brand, and the other at the NFL’s fan fest Saturday.
Ajayi is also trying to squeeze in some family time. Not only are his parents making the trip, but his three younger siblings — all of whom were born in the U.S. — are in London for the first time.
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime for certain people,” Ajayi said. “I definitely appreciate what's going on, what the situation is. At the same time, I'm not going to let that distract me from my goal, which is to win the game and play well for my team.”