London-v3

Almost seven months since he suffered the worst injury of his football career, Drake London walked across the NFL Draft stage in Las Vegas as the first receiver drafted and the No. 8 pick by the Falcons.

London's expected to be the next in line of the Falcons' great receivers. He'll rely on his innate competitiveness and the family bond that got him this far to do so.

By Kris Rhim



As Cindi and Dwan London saw University of Southern California assistant athletic director Gavin Morris running towards them, their son lying on the ground, tugging at his lower leg in the end zone at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, they feared for the worst.

Over their three years attending USC football games, Drake London's parents had gotten accustomed to knowing when a player suffered a severe injury. A USC staffer would run to the injured player's parents in the stands and escort them to the field.

So as they saw Morris coming towards them in the second quarter of USC's game against Arizona, they knew London had been badly wounded.

"If he's taken like a hit and gone down, he's always pumped back up," Cindi said. "We just didn't know what because we couldn't see from where we were sitting. What was he holding? Was he holding his knee? Was he holding his ankle? We knew it was something on his leg, but we didn't know what."

London ran a route he had executed many times before. In this game against Arizona, he was motioned inside. As the ball snapped, he quickly turned and broke into the flat, a few steps ahead of the closest defensive back. London caught the pass and strode into the end zone with a defensive back draped around him for his second score of the day.

As a teammate ran to London to celebrate, he stayed on the ground, grabbing at his right ankle.

Unable to put weight on his ankle, London was lifted on trainers' shoulders to a medical cart in the now silent Coliseum. London left the field in tears, with a medical boot wrapped around his lower right leg.

Tests revealed an ankle fracture. London's season was over.

"I was so heartbroken just because I saw my whole career go before my eyes," said London, who was on pace to have one of the best college receiving seasons in USC history. "I knew that would be the last time I played in the Coliseum, the last time I would have that jersey on, so it was a big emotional moment for me."

The six-month recovery process was the biggest challenge of London's football journey thus far. His stock fluctuated throughout the pre-draft process as he was not healthy enough to work out at the NFL Combine. Evaluators questioned his speed and how he would perform on his ankle.

Ultimately, the Falcons bet on London's skill, competitiveness, and character, which he has had since he was three years old, playing football in his childhood living room. And while the injury was devastating for London and his family, it gave him the rest his family says he desperately needed, and their support kept him upbeat all the way up to the draft.

"We looked at it as an unfortunate blessing," Dwan said.



Drake London was not a typical kid.

He was never interested in having a video gaming system and playing Madden or NBA 2k as many kids were. He grew up with a small playground just at the end of the street he lived on in Moorpark, Calif. His sister Makayla remembers London there most days, often by himself.

"Kids would be like, 'Where's Drake?'" said Makayla, five years older than London. "That boy was running routes at the park down the street by himself, and all the other little boys were riding scooters. He was so focused, which was crazy because no one was telling him to do this."

Cindi and Dwan never pressured London to play sports. They like to say that if London wanted to play chess, they would have supported him in the same way, but London always gravitated to a ball.

Dwan, who played college football at Moorpark College, became somewhat of a personal trainer for London as he would continually ask for workouts. London would run mock 40-yard dashes barefoot, outside the house, while Dwan timed. There were PVC pipes and blankets set up in their home for drills.

"Drake always wanted more," Cindi said. "I remember him saying, 'Dad, I want more. I wanna work harder.'"

In middle school, friends remember London keeping a close eye on the time if they were hanging out at the local rec center, ensuring that he was home by 4:00 p.m. when his dad got home from work to work out together.

"Drake was like one of those kids you knew was just different," said Noah Mattera, who has been friends with London since kindergarten and is now a pitcher at UNLV. "Compared to everybody else, even back then, he was always just different. He's just always been so competitive."

London's family isn't sure exactly where his competitiveness came from, just that it's always been there, even before he was fully potty-trained.

It traces back to when London was just under three years old. He and Dwan would play what they called "knee football." They would move all of the living room furniture, saving the cushions and pillows for lineman and other positions on their teams. Donning uniforms made of Dwan's old football uniforms and pads, T-shirts, towels, and whatever else they could find, Dwan would play on his knees as London played on his feet.

Even back then, London was physical and took the games seriously.

"We moved the couch one day, and there was a hole in the wall," Cindi said with a smile. "[Drake] must've tackled someone into it."

London played many different sports growing up, beginning with youth soccer. But eventually, he fell in love with basketball and football over the others and became a standout player in both sports.

It was not until the fourth grade that Dwan realized just how competitive his son was.

London capped off a stellar basketball tournament with 24 points and had 12 rebounds in his final game, but he was noticeably furious afterward. When Dwan and London were walking to the car, London finally admitted what was bothering him: he missed three free throws.

London wanted to correct these issues immediately, so they headed to a nearby court where he shot free throws as Dwan rebounded.

"That's when I knew I was gonna have more problems turning him down than turning him up," Dwan said. "It was like, 'Okay, I got something on my hands.'"

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London always thought he would be a running back, partly due to his size. He was around 5-foot-9 when he graduated middle school.

Over his first two years of high school, however, London sprouted to his current 6-foot-4-inch frame. Friends and coaches recall how London battled back and leg pain as his body rapidly changed while playing many different roles on the football field.

He quarterbacked for the freshman team, played running back, safety, and receiver over his first two seasons at Moorpark High School. At the end of his sophomore year, Moorpark football coach Ryan Huisenga decided London would focus on playing receiver. The following year London's growth spurt reached its end, and he became one of the best receivers in the area.

"As he got more comfortable, you could see just his natural talent take over," Huisenga said. "And you just knew it was only a matter of time before he got recruited by everybody in the country. As he progressed his junior year, you just knew [the NFL] was his destiny."

By London's senior year, he was an established star in both sports while still carrying the passion and competitiveness he's had since he was a toddler.

Coach Ryan Moore was in his first season as Moorpark's head basketball coach in London's senior year. Moorpark was winning in a game early that season, but they were playing an inferior opponent, and Moore felt they were letting the team stay close by not playing with total effort. He called a timeout and reprimanded the team and London specifically for settling for short jump shots instead of attacking the basket.

When the game resumed, London scored everything at the rim. And-one layups with defenders draped on him, dunk after dunk while looking at Moore after each bucket, seemingly his own way of saying, "Is this good enough?"

"It was never adversarial," Moore said on London's look towards him that day. "He's not a big talker. And so he's gonna let his play do the speaking. He has no problem proving people wrong."

Moore was always impressed with London's ability to find motivation each time they stepped on the floor, whether it was his national basketball ranking or something that he or someone else said to him.

"He has that mental approach that's different," Moore said. "I think the new challenge for him is, he's always been able to put that chip on his shoulder – and I have no problem imagining the one he's dreaming up right now – but he's the number eight pick in the draft. He's not the underdog anymore, you know?"

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It didn't take long for former USC wide receivers coach Keary Colbert to know that Drake London would be a star.

The moment London arrived for USC's training camp in 2019, he proved that he was among the best receivers on the team. But London had three future NFL receivers in Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman, and Tyler Vaughns ahead of him.

As London continued to excel at practice, the coaching staff realized that they could not leave him off the field. So Colbert gave London a call. He asked London if he would be willing to play inside as a slot receiver in USC's four receiver offensive set, a role London had never spent significant time playing.

"I kind of hesitated, and I was like, 'I ain't no slot. They better not put my hand in the dirt or nothin like that,'" London said while laughing. "He said, 'Just trust me.' So I did and kind of tore it up in the slot."

London spent his first two years playing in the slot. In his sophomore season, shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he finished with 510 yards and three touchdowns, just under 70 yards less than what he had through 13 games as a freshman. That year, his best game came against Arizona State, where he had eight catches for 125 yards and a game-winning touchdown; it's one of Colbert's favorite moments of London's career.

"He was always there and ready to make a play when we needed it," said Colbert, who now is an assistant and wide receivers coach at the University of Florida. "He would always shine in the biggest moments. He's a playmaker, and I think that's his mentality. He wants to be in that moment."

The move to slot ultimately made London a more versatile pass-catcher. Playing inside helped him with his spatial awareness and taught him how to play against bigger linebackers and nickel defensive backs. When he moved back outside for his junior season, he was virtually unstoppable.

London finished with 1,085 yards, 88 receptions, and seven touchdowns through just eight games, enough to earn the Pac-12 offensive player of the year award.

"I haven't coached anybody like him," Colbert said. "Someone who could do it on the inside and the outside. You know, at that size and with the body control and route running ability."

London and Colbert connected almost from the minute they met each other during the recruiting process. Colbert grew up in Oxnard, Calif. – the same town as Dwan – and he and London the two developed a family-like bond over the years.

"He was like a dad away from home," London said. "He built me for those three years at wide receiver."

Because of how close they were, London would often come to Colbert when he felt like he wasn't playing well or doing enough in games. Multiple times last season, Colbert remembers London asking the ball not to be thrown in his direction for a few plays so he could block and get his head back in the game.

"I would always tell him like, 'Hell nah, we gonna throw you this rock bruh,'" Colbert said while laughing, "'we're tryna win the game.'

"That's just his nature, though. He's not a self-centered guy. He wants to get other people involved. He wants to help out. He wants to block and wants to be a decoy guy. He'll do whatever to help everybody win."



London's name being called in the first round of the NFL Draft was not a surprise for family and friends, as London was projected to be a top pick, but it didn't make the moment any less special.

As he walked across the stage in Las Vegas and hugged NFL commissioner Roger Goodell almost seven months since the worst injury of his life, as the first wide receiver drafted and the eighth overall pick, Dwan couldn't help but think about their journey.

London doing homework in the backseat of his car on the way to tournaments or football games, running hills and doing drills together at Moorpark Junior College, and the many knee football clashes.

"I'm thinking, 'Man, those must have been some hellified wind sprints,'" Dwan said while laughing. "You can't be any more happy for your child. To see his dreams come true and watch him work for this entire time and sacrifice.

"It's been like a huge buildup trying to find a way to translate the things and knowledge I have about movement and about sports to him, but not be pushing it on him. And my god, he has turned into quite the monster."

When London heads onto the field for his first NFL game, it will also be Cindi's first. She has only been to London's college games at USC. She followed the Lions briefly because Dwan's favorite player was running back Barry Sanders and London's favorite player later was receiver Calvin Johnson, but other than that, she is unfamiliar with the NFL.

"I'm probably gonna cry," Cindi said. "That first time coming out and seeing him in an NFL uniform – a Falcons uniform – that's going to be just so special."

Last season was the first in recent memory where the Falcons did not have one of the best receivers in the NFL leading the group. From Roddy White to Julio Jones and then Calvin Ridley, the Falcons have had the luxury of having some of the best pass catchers in the league over the past 15 years, and London will be expected to be the next star on that list.

While his family is excited to see London chart his path in the NFL while following the footsteps of other Falcons greats, they are just as enthusiastic for the world to get to know who London is beyond the football field.

"Makayla always says he's the funniest person she knows," Cindi said with a smile. "I hope people get to see his personality. He loves to prank me. He could be hiding somewhere, you know, to scare me. He has a really funny personality."

"Keep the camera on him," Makayla added. "He doesn't show people, but he's really funny and he's that in-person type of funny, so he's gonna be a good person to laugh with."

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