DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi has come a long way in just two years.
On the field, Ajayi rapidly developed from a fifth-round pick in 2015 into a Pro Bowler and one of the league’s top tailbacks. With that success, the London-born star extended his reach off the field and is now the face of the NFL in the United Kingdom.
Ajayi will experience a seminal moment in his career Sunday when he leads the Miami Dolphins (1-1) into Wembley Stadium to face the New Orleans Saints (1-2). It is a unique opportunity for Ajayi to play in his hometown that may come only once in his career. The running back said he’s ordered “30 to 40” tickets for the game.
“My whole family is flying out," Ajayi said. "It’s a special thing, and I think it will be even more special when I get there and it’s about to kick off and all of that. I think that will be a great moment for me and for my family as well because I’m bringing everyone. So I think everyone is excited for it.”
Ajayi, 24, was born in London before moving to the United States at age 7. He remains a citizen of the U.K. but fell in love with American football once he moved. Ajayi played high school football in Frisco, Texas, and college ball at Boise State before joining the Dolphins.
When Miami played at London two years ago, Ajayi was an injured rookie who watched the game from the sideline. This year, he returns with a huge following in his home country after rushing for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
“He has a running style that will be very appealing to the British sports fans, and we’re all very proud of what he has achieved in his short time in the NFL,” said Neil Reynolds, who anchors Sky Sports’ NFL coverage in the U.K. and is an event host for NFL UK. “I went on a nationwide stage show tour with Jay in January and he told me then, ‘Stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen to guys like me from the U.K.’ What Jay has done should serve as inspiration to other young athletes from the U.K.”
Nick Szczepanik, a longtime former sports writer for the Times of London, said Ajayi is popular in his hometown, but not to the degree of local stars in soccer, which remains the biggest sport in Europe.
“Among those who follow the NFL, he'd be top 30,” said Szczepanik. “But even though the Wembley crowd will be the highest for any sports event anywhere in the U.K. and probably Europe this weekend, it won't attract a fraction of the coverage of Chelsea vs. Man City, Arsenal vs. Brighton, even Manchester United vs. Crystal Palace, who have lost all their six games so far and failed to score a single goal.”
There have been several British-born players to make it in the NFL, including former defensive end Osi Umenyiora, offensive tackle Menelik Watson and former kicker Michael Luckhurst. However, Ajayi is the first to make it to the NFL at a skill position, which is huge in an age when fantasy football is extremely popular.
Ajayi spent plenty of time in the U.K. this offseason to raise his profile. In addition to his nationwide tour last winter, Ajayi had regular spots on BBC and Sky Sports, and this summer visited the London Blitz American football team to provide words of inspiration.
“They’re chasing their dream and looking at me as a role model almost,” Ajayi said. “It’s inspiring and it’s also exciting to know that they’re taking American football serious and some of them really are striving to work their way up there, maybe fly over to the States and work their way through high school or college and make it to the NFL.”
Ajayi is making this entire week a personal celebration.
On Wednesday, Twitter announced its partnership with Ajayi to become the first NFL player to have his own emoji to highlight his return to London. On Friday, Ajayi will launch his clothing and lifestyle brand “YURP” in London and will have several of his teammates join him in support. But Sunday’s game against the Saints will be the biggest highlight for Ajayi.
“I know he’s excited beyond all measures,” Dolphins teammate and backup tailback Damien Williams said. “He’s not going to show it or tell you. But I know he’s excited to be home and actually play in front of people in his hometown. I’m ready to see what he does out there.”
Ajayi rushed for 122 yards in Miami’s first game of the season, a win over the Los Angeles Chargers. He rushed for just 16 yards in last week’s loss to the New York Jets. Look for Ajayi to get plenty of carries against the Saints because Miami’s offense works best when he has it going.
The Dolphins are 5-0 when Ajayi rushes for 100 yards or more, while the Saints rank 24th against the run and allow 4.6 yards per carry. Those factors could lead to a big performance from the Pro Bowl tailback.
“Obviously, our goal is to get the W, but he’s going out there and it’s his territory,” Dolphins guard Jermon Bushrod said. “He wants to put on a show. Trust me, I get it.”
The NFL’s London series has reached a full decade as the league continues to expand its reach in Europe. The series has expanded to four games for the first time after three games were played in the U.K. every year since 2014.
There has been a lot of speculation that the NFL aims to someday have a team in London. Fan support and attendance continue to be strong in the U.K., and Ajayi can envision the league expanding to his hometown in the not-too-distant future.
“I think it’s definitely possible. The infrastructure, I think, is there for London,” Ajayi said. “I think it’s going to be interesting to see how they set it up with an American team and Americans having to go over there and be on a London team and all of that stuff. I definitely think the city of London, they’re all ready for it, and they’re excited for American football. You can tell. All the games sold out. I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens down the line.”