31 Jan 2018by tayo123
Jay Ajayi: Londoner with chip on his shoulder chases Super Bowl glory
The Philadelphia Eagles running back can be a part of history against the New England Patriots four months after he was bombed out of the Miami Dolphins without warning
From Manor House to Minneapolis, via Miami, Jay Ajayi has charted an improbable path to the Super Bowl. Born in London, he moved to the United States with his family aged seven but it was not until a decade later that he committed to pursuing a career in American football, and left association football behind.
He could hardly regret that decision now. Ajayi is not the first Briton to play in the NFL’s championship game but he is the first to feature in a ball-handling role. He will alternate with LeGarrette Blount at running back for the Philadelphia Eagles as they seek to upset a New England Patriots team that have won two of the past three Super Bowls, and five of 16 since Tom Brady became their starting quarterback.
It is a scenario that Ajayi could not even have imagined at the start of the season. Back then he was still playing for the team that drafted him, the Miami Dolphins, in New England’s division. He had no reason to believe he would be leaving any time soon. In 2016, his second year as a pro, he had rushed for 1,272 yards and been named to the Pro Bowl.
But the Dolphins struggled and Ajayi became a scapegoat. He was traded to Philadelphia at the end of October with accusations that he had become a disruptive influence in the locker room. To say that Ajayi never saw it coming would be an understatement. “I didn’t have a clue,” he says. “I was going into work like a normal day and I got called into the office and was told: ‘We’re moving you to Philly.’ I was on a plane to Philly within about two, three hours of that first phone call.”
He had no real say in the matter: NFL players can be swapped between teams without their consent. As a man who still follows European football closely, and who has spoken enthusiastically about the business done by his favourite club, Arsenal, in this transfer window, was there not some resentment regarding this lack of autonomy? “You learn that you can only control what you can control,” he says. “You learn that the NFL is a business. But I got traded into the best possible situation that anyone could get traded into.”
That much is undeniable. The Eagles had already won eight of their first nine games without him. They subsequently lost their starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, to injury in early December but still finished as the top seed in their conference and steamrollered their way into the Super Bowl with a 38-7 blowout of the Minnesota Vikings.
Ajayi has played a prominent role – rushing for 408 yards in the final seven weeks of the regular season and leading Philadelphia with 127 in their two play-off games. The Eagles’ running backs coach, Duce Staley, has seen no trace of the selfishness that Ajayi was accused of in Miami but he is only too happy to use old criticisms as a motivational tool. “When you walk into our running backs’ room, as soon as you open the door, I have quotes from different newspapers, or quotes that I’ve found, and they’re written down under each player’s number,” says Staley. “So if it’s Jay Ajayi, you’ve got No 36, and you’ve got all the shit they said about him. He reads it every day. It’s fuel.”
That approach suits Ajayi, a man who speaks proudly of the chip on his shoulder. It works, too, for an Eagles team that have embraced their underdog status since losing Wentz, players even pulling on dog masks after wins. Most of all, it feels right for Philadelphia – a city embodied by its fictional son Rocky Balboa.
“It’s a hard-nosed town, gritty, resilient,” says Ajayi. “The fans are tough. But, you know, when they love you, they love you hard.”
Those fans have never seen their team win a Super Bowl. The Eagles have lost on both previous occasions that they made it to this stage, most recently to New England, in February 2004. Brady walked off with the game’s most valuable player award and is the only remaining player on either roster.
Any hope of a different outcome this time will rely on Philadelphia finding ways to slow him down. Easier said than done against the most successful quarterback of all time. The Eagles can help themselves, though, by keeping the ball out of his hands as much as possible: a task that typically relies on a heavy involvement from their running backs. It could be quite a day for Ajayi.
Super Bowl LLII kicks off on Sunday at 11.30pm on BBC One and Sky Sports Action