Column: Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi gave the boot to soccer and has thrived in football ever since
The decisive cut of running back Jay Ajayi came long before he burst onto the scene with the Miami Dolphins, putting up consecutive 200-yard rushing games, and even before he ran for 3,796 yards in three seasons at Boise State.
It was back in high school in Frisco, Texas, that Ajayi planted his foot in the ground and pushed off in one direction for good, opting for football over his beloved soccer when his father advised him to choose.
“I was a junior, and it was kind of draining rushing from practice to practice, right after each other,” said Ajayi, 23, whose last name rhymes with Hawaii. “So I sat down with my dad and he told me, ‘You’re going to have to decide. You can be good at both or great at one.’ So I chose American football.”
The Dolphins are eternally grateful he did. Ajayi, a fifth-round pick in 2015, is on the rapid ascent to stardom, rushing for 608 yards in the team’s current four-game winning streak, including 204 against Pittsburgh and 214 against Buffalo.
“He’s going to run through arm tackles and make it tough, and then get to that second level consistently,” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “That’s trouble for a defense. I don’t care, really, what the defense is. You get a 240-pound back — or however much he weighs [Ajayi is listed at 6 feet, 229 pounds] — running full steam ahead, and you don’t want that matchup several times over the course of the game.”
The bruising runner who still has a British accent from his childhood in London — and whose Nigerian father was once a part-time soccer agent — has relied on his fancy footwork to carry him to the top of the NFL. ProFootballFocus.com ranks him as the league’s second-best back this season behind Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliott.
“I definitely credit my quick feet and coordination to my soccer background,” Ajayi said by phone from Carlsbad, where the Dolphins stayed this week between their Week 10 victory at San Diego and Sunday’s game at the Rams. “I think it’s helped me to be agile and have good balance. Those are things you need to have playing the game of soccer. I definitely think it’s translated well.”
Ajayi’s brother, Solomon, 19, is a linebacker at Bakersfield College and will play his final game of the season Saturday night in Long Beach. Jay plans to attend at least part of that game, and Solomon will be at the Coliseum on Sunday, watching his brother in an NFL game for the first time in person.
“It’s definitely going to be surreal,” Solomon said. “This is something he’s talked about his whole life, that you have to play on the biggest stage. Funny enough, I went to several of his college games, and every game I’ve ever been to he always finds me and our family in the stands. We always make eye contact.
“It’s an unspoken brotherly thing. We make eye contact and kind of nod our heads, because it’s like, ‘You know what you’ve got to do. It goes both ways, because every time he’s at one of my games, we make eye contact and he makes sure I know it’s time to go.”
Ajayi, who slipped in the draft because of knee problems in college, had to wait his turn with the Dolphins. He played sparingly as a rookie, gaining 34 yards in 10 attempts. Miami signed veteran Arian Foster in July with the idea he would be the starting running back. Apparently disappointed with Ajayi’s performance and attitude, Dolphins Coach Adam Gase even left him back in Miami for the team’s opener at Seattle.
Foster suffered groin and hamstring injuries in a Week 2 loss to New England, and last month decided to retire. That left the door open for Ajayi.
“It didn’t quite work out the way we had pictured it when we got going in training camp,” Gase said. “But at the end of the day, it’s worked out. We’ve gone through bumps in the road, and Jay has fought through some adversity. A lot of things that have happened to us have been for the better.”
Ajayi acknowledged the frustration he felt while waiting his turn.
“It was tough,” he said. “You always want to be that guy out there to help contribute. That’s all I wanted to do is help this team win, no matter what.”
Beyond his performances on the field, there’s an undeniable flair to Ajayi, from his dreadlocks that are colored gold at the ends, to the holdover habits from his British upbringing.
“I still drink tea,” he said. “I have a cup before I go to bed. … My mum, she kind of grew us up on, ‘If you’re sick, take your medicine, drink some tea, and you’ll get better.’ I’m so used to that now.”
He said he’d like to be an overseas game ambassador for the NFL when he’s not playing.
“Growing up, I don’t remember anything about American football,” he said. “It wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. Now, it’s huge, and I just want to keep playing well, keeping being a face for the UK, and keep showcasing the talent. Because there’s probably a kid over there who maybe will see me scoring a touchdown or something, and he’ll have that dream. You never know.”
He’s a devoted fan of Arsenal, and was surprised to learn that the Premier League soccer team is owned by Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Rams.
“Tell him to get me some tickets,” Ajayi said, half-jokingly. “Tell him I need my own box.”
Ajayi might want to put in that request now. With the way he’s been rolling up yards, he might not be too popular with the Rams come Sunday evening.
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