It’s 1:30pm on an early spring day in London and Jay Ajayi is getting hungry.
The Super Bowl champion has had a busy morning at the NFL’s European headquarters and fortunately, a staffer has just arrived through an elevator with several helpings of Nando’s takeaway.
Not yet back in training after his third and most memorable season in the league, Ajayi happily eats the chicken but in this particular location, acknowledges there’s something missing.
“I said I was going to bring a whole box of ranch out here”, he says after lunch. “How’d you have wings without ranch?
“The UK needs to step up.”
Ajayi could go on explaining how the dressing is a meal enhancer for hours, for it’s his favourite thing America has that the UK doesn’t. But he can go without, for he's had plenty go his way over the last five months. First the trade from Miami to Philadelphia on Halloween, a move that took him from underachievement and onto a championship contender.
Franchise quarterback Carson Wentz tore his ACL six weeks after Ajayi arrived, but the team rallied behind Nick Foles and went on to win their first ever Super Bowl, beating the New England Patriots 41-33 in an offensive classic.
Oh how Philadelphia partied, for the most part on lampposts up and down Broad Street.
“Hopefully the Crisco has dried up and I’m going to get on one when I get back”, Ajayi says, referring to the vegetable shortening that was used by local police to try and prevent Eagles fans from scaling the lampposts.
The odd mix of white solid fat coupled with metal beams didn’t exactly work. An unexpected formula was also used in the Super Bowl, where the Eagles ran the infamous “Philly Special” play late in the second quarter on fourth down, Nick Foles receiving his first pass since he quarterbacked the Arizona Wildcats in his rookie college season. It led to a touchdown and gave the Eagles a 10-point half-time cushion that they’d need.
Moments before, New England had tried a similar thing with Tom Brady, and Ajayi starts laughing when the subject is broached.
“I’m on the Eagles, I hope they throw him [Brady] as many passes as they want next season”, he chuckles.
“If it ends up like that, hey, you can throw Tom as many passes as you need to.” He laughs harder. “For that to happen as it did, it was so funny. For us to go right back and have our quarterback do it, that was bragging rights for us.”
While GIFs of the ball slipping through Brady’s outstretched fingers will live on forever, it’s Eagles head coach Doug Pederson’s willingness to go for it on the big stage that will remain etched in Ajayi’s mind.
“That play, what’s crazy, was I was in the game and all of a sudden we called a timeout and I was like ‘are we calling Philly Special?’. I was thinking, ‘oh my gosh’.
“Coach Ped, he didn’t care what the score was, or what anyone was thinking, he just called the game the way he wanted to.”
Weeks earlier, Ajayi and his teammates were telling the eventual quarterback on the play, Trey Burton, not to throw too hard in practice. “He’s got a good arm, he was trying to show off.”
Burton, who was a pitcher in high school, nailed the throw.
“New England had no clue”, Ajayi says.
Sitting next to the 24-year-old, he wears ripped black jeans and a matching baseball cap, looking fresh and energised. By now British fans have read the stories about him; born in Hackney, Ajayi grew up in Manor House in north London before moving to Texas at the age of seven. A Union Jack was draped over his back when the Eagles toasted their success on the field at U.S. Bank Stadium on February 4th, but to solely focus on his British roots would do a disservice to him and his family.
“Nigeria is what I grew up on”, he says.
“I’m British by birth and this is where I lived, but I grew up on Nigerian values. My parents are both Nigerian, they spoke to me in Nigerian, ate Nigerian food…”
“What’s the best dish?”, this reporter asks.
“Jollof rice all day”, Ajayi says with a passion. “Nigerian Joloff. Ghana Joloff. All those other Jollofs can clear it, we don’t know nothing about that. I love being African, I love the fact that I know where I come from, that’s a special thing that a lot of people in the world can’t say.”
There was plenty of rice to go round the dinner table as the family set up camp in north Dallas, deep in Cowboys territory and an ironic destination given today’s context. It was in this environment that the Ajayis learned about the game of American football, all diehard Cowboy fans except for one.
“My mum didn’t like the Cowboys”, Ajayi says. “She loved the Eagles because of Donovan McNabb.”
His parents used to argue when the two rivals played each other, but there’s no longer any loyalty to America’s team. As a youngster who played for the Plano Colts, Ajayi used to choose which parent he would take sides with, but now the pair wear green and get to watch their son play the hated franchise - one they used to root for - twice a season in the NFC East.
“I’ve replaced McNabb as her favourite Eagle”, Ajayi says proudly.
The same emotion will arise when he collects his championship ring, which he doesn’t yet have. “I know there’s going to be a lot of bling bling on it, so I’m hype”, he says.
Ajayi will take up the option of having two rings, keeping the real one somewhere safe while wearing the replica to big events. “When I walk in and shake people’s hands, they will know they’re shaking the hand of a Super Bowl champ.”
Acquiring this jewellery is all so far-fetched given his journey and the interests he once had. Ajayi played soccer until his senior year in high school - “I was stubborn and chasing that dream too” - but it came to a head when both his soccer and American football coaches wanted him to give 100% in just one. His father, once a licensed FIFA agent, would have wanted him to play for Arsenal, given the family are as big into the Gunners as they once were with the Cowboys, and pushed his son to make a choice.
That summer, he gave up soccer before suffering what he believed to be one of the biggest injustices of his life.
Malcolm Hill, someone Ajayi describes as his “best friend and brother”, played with him on the same team at Frisco Liberty in Texas. “I didn’t know much about football from an NFL aspect in high school, so when I saw Malcolm play so well, he was like my NFL hero.”
The pair were at their end-of-season awards banquet and just as Ajayi was giving up his first love of soccer, his second dealt him a crushing blow.
“Malcolm gets picked for district first team and I get picked second”, Ajayi says.
“Man, I was so angry because I felt like I got snubbed. It wasn’t anger towards Malcolm because he got it, it was anger to the point where OK, I’m motivated now to show everyone that I deserve to be just as recognised as the other running backs that were on the first team. So that offseason, with no soccer anymore, I got bigger in the weight room, I had a growth spurt and the next season I balled. I ended up winning the division MVP and got a bunch of other accolades.
“As Malcolm said, that one moment motivated my whole football … that was like a pinpoint moment where I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to take this no more.’ I want to be great, I want to be just like Malcolm and recognised as such. Yeah, I was mad, I won’t lie.
“I’ll never forget that because that’s when I can say I began to build a chip on my shoulder of always wanting to be the best and strive for people to recognise the talent that I have.”
Ajayi cites the draft - he was selected in the fifth round - injuries he suffered his rookie season and the negative storylines that followed him out of Miami about his temperament as some of the injustices he’s faced. But, along with the help of running backs coach Duce Staley, who has plastered those same negative headlines across the walls of the Eagles running back room, Ajayi is reminded every day of why he plays football.
“A lot of these guys aren’t even brave enough to put their names behind the statements, but that is what they think of us as a running back group, that is what they’ve said. It’s always a great motivating factor to just look at that and say, ‘yeah they said that about me before and look at me now as a Super Bowl champion, as a great teammate and only three years into the NFL’. My accolades are there. It’s like smashing that mould and continuing to strive to prove all of that stuff wrong.”
With that attitude in mind, even when he does collect his Super Bowl ring, Ajayi will continue to run the way a ‘Jay Train’ is supposed to. In other words, he won’t stop. To finish this interview, the running back is asked a very tongue-in-cheek question: Would he rather invest in property in Miami or Manor House?
He laughs at the question but then twists his head, pondering it far more carefully than he thought he would. “I’m actually going to invest in Manor House. I need to be back in the ends, you understand? I’ve been in Miami. I’m back in the ends now.”
Shame there’s no ranch.