LONDON — Don’t tell Jay Ajayi that playing in London is just another game.
The London-born running back will finally get a proper homecoming when his Miami Dolphins take on the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium on Sunday — and he’s determined to soak up the moment.
Ajayi, whose family moved to the United States when he was 7, was injured when the Dolphins (1-1) came to London during his rookie season two years ago and had to watch that game from the sidelines. Now he’s the poster boy for NFL UK and will undoubtedly be the most popular player on the field at his home country’s iconic stadium.
So while most NFL teams who come to England try to treat it like just another business trip, Ajayi is having a different mindset.
“I won’t lie, it’s a special game for me,” Ajayi said Friday after a practice session at Allianz Park, the home of the Saracens rugby team. “I get to come home. This is an opportunity of a lifetime to certain people. And so I definitely appreciate what’s going on, and 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. But I’m definitely going to enjoy the experience.”
Ajayi is the closest thing to a British star in the NFL, even though he has spent most of his life in the U.S. Twitter has even produced a special emoji for the running back ahead of this game — available with hashtag JayTrain — and he will spend much of the weekend in the media spotlight.
“The emoji, that was really cool to see that,” Ajayi said. “I’ve embraced (the attention) because at the end of the day I’ve got a lot of pressure on myself to be successful. So it’s been a really cool thing to embrace and be that face for the NFL in the UK. And it’s just about going on the field and doing well.”
He’ll also have a chance to catch up with old friends. He said about 40 people have already been in touch to get tickets.
“Everyone that even knew me (as a kid) are probably hitting me up trying to get to the game,” he said.
The Dolphins only arrived in London on Friday morning, unlike the Saints (1-2) who have spent the whole week in Britain as a way of getting adjusted to the time difference.
Head coach Adam Gase said most of his players managed to get some sleep on the flight over, and should be fine for the game as long as they eat right and stay hydrated during the weekend.
“Without us having the bye week afterwards, we were trying to keep (the trip) as short as possible,” Gase said. “We’re trying to look at the big picture, and we felt that that was the best thing for us.”
Quarterback Jay Cutler certainly seemed a bit jet lagged after the team’s practice session, though. This is Cutler’s second trip to London after coming to Europe with the Chicago Bears in 2011, but that first visit didn’t seem to have made a lasting impression.
Asked about the atmosphere at Wembley, Cutler said: “I played, did I play at Wembley? I don’t know whether I played when I was here.”
He did play, in a 24-18 win over the Bucs. Cutler didn’t perk up much for the next question either: Which Game of Thrones character would he put on his team, and in what position?
“I can’t do that right now,” Cutler said. “I’m tired.”