Asomugha: Corner of the world

Nnamdi Asomugha, whose man was targeted by the Rams only twice Sunday, strikes fear in offenses.
Nnamdi Asomugha, whose man was targeted by the Rams only twice Sunday, strikes fear in offenses. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 14, 2011

AFTER JUST a few minutes, it becomes apparent.

Nnamdi Asomugha has no idea what he wants to be.

Certainly, of course, he wants to be a better football player, a champion.

He is good enough to have switched from safety to cornerback, a move nurtured by a cadre of Hall of Fame instructors. He earned Pro Bowl berths the past three seasons, commanded two blockbuster deals, first from the Raiders in 2009 and, in June, 5 years and $60 million from the Eagles.

But clearly, football is not enough for him.

He runs a foundation in his name that benefits Nigerian widows and orphans, a nod to his heritage and his childhood. The foundation also teaches vocational skills. It exposes at-risk youths to colleges all over the country and helps to send them there. So, a philanthropist?

He spent part of his NFL lockout in New Orleans collecting his fifth acting credit, a minor role in a Josh Duhamel vehicle, "Fire with Fire." His first role was Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" . . . in sixth grade. So, an actor?

He has taken part in the last three Clinton Global Initiative University conferences. Former President Clinton, the most powerful politician not currently in office, is close enough to Asomugha to send his congratulations. One of Asomugha's sisters works for the mayor's office in New Haven, Conn., dealing with youths and children. So, a politician?

Each summer, instead of pursuing common player pastimes such as partying in the Caribbean or seeking the best spa treatments, Asomugha has visited far-flung cities and regions: Beijing and Shanghai, Cape Town, London. He detests conflict; a Cal man, he does not even bother to tease his Stanford siblings. So, a diplomat?

Asomugha is 30. The game will one day end for him.

"I won't always have football. I want to be able to jump into something when I'm done. At some point, it'll click," he says. "Which is the wrong way to think."

Is it?

From 2008 to 2011, Asomugha has secured more than $65 million, with tens of millions more on the horizon.

Time, it seems, is a luxury he can afford.

None of Asomugha's options would be as viable without football.

As his star rose in Oakland, he switched to diverse powerhouse Creative Artists Agency in 2008 so one agency would represent him as an athlete and an actor.

A first-round pick of the Raiders in 2003, largely because of his 4.38-second speed in the 40-yard dash, he and his family immediately redoubled their efforts to help widows and orphans in Nigeria, his parents' homeland, which they left in the 1970s. The foundation came 2 years later.

Certainly, without the foundation, Clinton would not be calling him to speak at conferences. And if he had a regular job like his brother, Chijioke, who works for a Cleveland-based investment firm, Nnamdi might swing an occasional vacation to an interesting city . . . but not annually, and lavishly, with introductions to foreign politicians and businessmen.

Understand, these avenues have been earned. Asomugha isn't Asomugha - a smothering cover corner, perhaps the most feared defensive back in football - without a lot of help, and a lot of effort.

Every spring, when he begins his footwork drills, he does so in a crouch that makes him 3 inches shorter. His thighs burn in March and April, but by June he again glides effortlessly.

"No one knows the work that goes into making it look like that," Asomugha says. He has a 37-inch inseam that tapers to a 32-inch waist. "Every offseason, because of my 6-3 frame and long legs, I have to go above and beyond as far as drills to maintain quickness, to be able to drop."

To move like he does, to have obscene closing speed, to unfurl those long arms for bumps at the line of scrimmage, then unfold to his full height as the ball reaches receivers - it's almost unfair.

"To be so big and so tall and move like that - he's like Usain Bolt," says Eagles safety Jarrad Page.

This is not instinctive. It is learned.

Asomugha's nickname has been "Deuce," because of the two N's in his first name, but teammates in Oakland called him "Highpockets," because his spidery legs seemed to lift his belt buckle to his bellybutton.

His first two seasons in the NFL were unremarkable at best, as the Raiders switched him from safety to cornerback. But he was driven, which is who he is, and he was lucky to be surrounded by unmatched wisdom and talent.

Rod Woodson played in the Raiders' secondary in Asomugha's first year, then tutored him after that; Woodson now is a secondary coach for Oakland. Lockdown corner Charles Woodson was a teammate in Oakland for Asomugha's first three seasons. Hall of Famer Willie Brown was Asomugha's secondary coach. Ronnie Lott, the 49ers legend, was a friend of Chijioke, who played at Stanford a year ahead of Nnamdi. Lott called Nnamdi after the 2004 season and offered instruction.

"I see potential," Lott told Asomugha, "but you're not very confident."

Twice a week during that offseason, Asomugha got special help.

"I'd go to Ronnie's office in San Francisco and watch film. Then we'd go to a field and go through drills," Asomugha says. "Ronnie would be wearing nice clothes - a button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes - and he'd do the drills right with me."

Rod Woodson routinely had Asomugha visit for film sessions, too. Woodson famously kept a notebook on past opponents. He helped Asomugha start one, too. Asomugha still has it, packed with nuggets about every receiver, quarterback and offensive coordinator he has ever faced.

It helped, too, that at practice Asomugha covered Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Tim Brown. All presented unique challenges. All gave advice.

Among them, his mentors have 65 Pro Bowl nods. Before it's all said and done, they will have seven Hall of Fame jackets.

"It's crazy," Asomugha says, shaking his head, chuckling deeply.

Why would they all want to help him? Well, mainly because he asked.

"He has a lot of respect for those who have come before him. It shows when he interacts with folks," Chijioke says. "Most of the young guys come in and feel like they'll figure it out on their own. He was always thinking, 'What can I learn from these guys who have been doing this for so long?' Being up front and asking them directly, 'Will you work with me?' "

That has not changed.

The Eagles also traded for gilded corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie this offseason, a Pro Bowl talent himself, now pushed into a reserve role behind interception machine Asante Samuel and Asomugha. Asked what he found most remarkable about Asomugha, his reply echoed that of other teammates.

"I have never seen anyone ask so many questions about a defense," Rodgers-Cromartie marvels. "He wants to know everything everybody's doing. That gives him a feel of what he can or cannot do in a defense."

Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo uses Asomugha as a sounding board.

"He's more than just a player. He understands football. It's important to him. You see him drawing up coverages," Castillo says. "It's awesome to have a guy like that I can talk to."

Especially since that guy does almost no trash-talking. Unlike Deion Sanders, Asomugha's boyhood idol, and Samuel - who pointedly refused to talk about Asomugha - Asomugha disrespects no one, crows about nothing.

"The most remarkable thing about him is his humility. That is such a rarity at his position," says Eagles receiver Jason Avant. "Humility says a lot. When you become arrogant and prideful, you stop learning. He's steadily adding things to his game because he's so humble. That's the most galvanizing thing about him."

Samuel, for instance, drives a beautiful Porsche sedan.

Asomugha has a 1997 Nissan Maxima.

The driver's seat and the armrest are ripped. The tape deck does not work. He has driven it for 13 years, and it is his main means of transportation when he is home in Los Angeles.

"He'll drive it until the wheels fall off," Chijioke says.

It connects him to a wonderful, unprivileged childhood and a fatherless adolescence.

Godfrey Asomugha died of a massive heart attack when Nnamdi was 12.

"Nineteen-ninety-four is a blur," Asomugha says.

Usually, he looks at you when he speaks, and he speaks clearly, with a resonant timbre. Now, he looks away, and almost mumbles.

"There was the Northridge earthquake," he says. "And O.J. I don't remember much else."

He knows his mother's mother came from Nigeria to live with them, and stayed for 5 years. He knows his aunts and cousins were always around.

"We were just surrounded by so many people. That was the goal; to keep people around so we didn't feel like we were alone. We didn't have time to be sad," he says. "I absolutely did miss him."

Chijioke, he says, helped fill the gap for him - and vice versa.

"Early on in life, Nnamdi and I had a stronger sense of responsibility," Chijioke says.

Their father was a petroleum engineer. Their mother, Lillian, is a pharmacist. Between them, they worked four jobs. When Godfrey died, Lillian, left with four children in suburban Los Angeles, worked as many as four jobs herself.

In a world of $150 sneakers and $400 video game systems, the Asomugha kids wore Keds and they read a lot.

"The money thing was always an issue," Nnamdi said. "We were taught, 'You don't need that much.' "

"When we were younger, all the flash, or money, was nothing we strived for," Chijioke says. "We didn't need the biggest gold chain. They stressed nothing but education."

Education costs money. It helped that all four children went to school on scholarship.

Chisara, the eldest at 33, went to Stanford, then Duke medical for pediatrics, then Yale for a fellowship; Chijioke had Stanford, then Columbia for his MBA; Nnamdi, Cal Berkeley, just to be different, where he got his degree in corporate finance; and Udo, 26, undergrad at UC-San Diego, then grad school at Michigan. She's a fashion designer in LA.

They all help the foundation, which stresses helping people help themselves.

It began with Orphans and Widows in Need. On trips back to Nigeria, Lillian - a widow herself - and her children saw legions of parentless children and husbandless women cast aside, the second citizens of third-world nations. They have helped thousands get access to health care, to education, to vocational skills.

It continued with the Asomugha College Tour for Students. Since 2007, Asomugha has ushered dozens of promising, at-risk high school students from California with a minimum 3.2 grade-point average to college visits in major cities: Atlanta, Boston, New York, Washington, and, this summer, New Orleans, where he shot the movie. They help place the kids and give some aid.

Next, the foundation will build a vocational training center in Nigeria.

All the focus is on helping people help themselves.

"It's just how I was raised," Asomugha says. "We'll show you the path and give you some things to get started on that path, but you're going to have to go through the bumps and figure out what else you need. We're kind of just trying to help set people up and get on a better path."

Which begs the question, again: Where will Asomugha's path lead him?

For now, it has led him, reluctantly, to the spotlight of the sports world.

After he signed with the Eagles, Asomugha scored the cover of Sports Illustrated. He is the subject of stories in Time Magazine, New York Times Magazine, USA Today, ESPN.com and Yahoo.com.

He was featured on the "Today Show" and "Pardon the Interruption."

It has taken him aback.

"Coming from the West Coast, you don't know how big the media is on the East Coast. I've been doing what I've been doing for several years, with little or no attention over there," he says. "Then, all you do is get on a plane, and everything changes."

For the better, in one area. He is a succulent media morsel because he is a football star with a brain and a heart, well-spoken and charitable.

"How it's helped the foundation and the philanthropic things I'm doing has been huge," Asomugha says.

The foundation's website (www.asomughafoundation.org) is littered with pointed Bible verses. In his parents' native dialect, Nnamdi means "My Heavenly Father Lives." They are a devout family, and always will be, but the clergy does not seem a likely destination for Asomugha.

But he will be heard.

His Shakespearean effort at William Green Elementary - verbatim, Olde English - stirred a passion for the stage. He was teased, he says, but still he acted seriously until just before his senior season, when he shot up 4 inches, to 6-1, and football took over.

He resumed acting classes after 2006, when he intercepted eight passes and became the least-targeted corner in the league. (In his Eagles debut Sunday, the Rams' Sam Bradford threw at him just twice.)

Twice a week in the offseason he attends acting classes, sometimes alone, sometimes with 30 classmates. They open classes with a scream, or a spin, or a thousand other odd icebreakers.

The classes work. Asomugha has been on four television shows, including "Friday Night Lights" and "Leverage."

They led to "Fire with Fire," where he became friends with Duhamel, an Ashton Kutcher-type boosted by the "Transformers" franchise and married to Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas.

"Josh is cool," Asomugha says.

Perhaps.

Josh could take cool lessons from Asomugha.

He visited South Africa and was breathless at the beauty of Cape Town . . . but he also ferried to the prison on Robben Island that held Nelson Mandela for 18 years.

"You stand at his cell," he says, his eyes vacant, his hands clutching imaginary prison bars. "There's just so much history there."

When Asomugha visited China in 2009, he toured the Olympic grandeur . . . but also met enough Chinese citizens that he grew to understand the national psyche that accepts, if not embraces, communism. He learned firsthand the Far East concept of honor and shame.

He tells a story of a cabdriver in Shanghai who drove Asomugha and his cousins the wrong way down a one-way street. They nearly crashed with a truck coming around a blind curve.

"He almost killed us. We were all screaming at him," Asomugha says. "Then, he just sat there, silent. For, like, 30 minutes."

Asomugha and his cousins returned to their hotel. The hotel manager, having already heard of the incident, apologized profusely - and told them the cabbie had quit.

"He said the cabbie had shamed his family," Asomugha says. They begged the hotel manager to ask the cabbie to reconsider.

These are trips that, as a high-profile, East Coast football star, now with a major motion-picture credit, Asomugha can no longer make. He lacks the protection of anonymity. Already, security concerns have kept him out of Nigeria for a decade.

In fact, he might not be able to travel this way until his next career begins, perhaps on Capitol Hill. It is a path Chijioke can see him taking.

"At 30, he can be in a room full of high school juniors and be captivating and in line with them. Then, the next day, be in a room of dignitaries or senior executives and have that same rapport," Chijioke says. "He can make everyone feel like they count."

Sounds like that Clinton guy. Nnamdi is noncommittal.

"I don't know that you should run for office unless you feel like you can affect the world," he says, rubbing his chin, senatorially. "I get the politics question all the time. If I put some thought into that, I could give you a good answer."

Which, of course, is exactly what a politician would say.

"Yeah," he says. "You're right."

Politics means even more publicity, more attention.

Therein lies the incongruity.

Asomugha, soft-spoken and spotlight-shy, wants to be a football star, and a movie star, and a world-changer, and, maybe, a congressman.

"It's totally contradictory. I know," Asomugha says. "I love being successful, being good at something, but not the huge spotlight. I want to do great at everything I do, but I want to go about it quietly. Even on the field. I won't talk trash."

It is as if he craves fame, and recoils from that craving; that recognition is somehow shameful.

"You want to be great. But when the show is over, you don't want to be thrust out there," he says. "I never want to seem like I'm above anyone else."

That's unfortunate. Because everything he is preparing to be - actor, philanthropist, politician, Hall of Famer - comes with perpetual fame.

So, what will it be? Nnamdi has no answer.

Chijioke does. He considers his family's career paths and points out that only he, Chijioke, has a career in what they studied. Even Chijioke expects his career to at least expand, internationally.

None of the Asomugha children expects this stop to be the last.

So, what about Nnamdi? Thespian? Humanitarian? Statesman?

Chijioke chuckles:

"I would say, all of it."

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