Kene Nwangwu doesn’t look nervous, although he probably should. The former Iowa State running back is standing in the kick return huddle on an October evening in Ames, ready to put his heels on the five-yard line and take the lead role in football’s most violent play. His Cyclones need a spark—a strip sack left them trailing No. 17 Oklahoma by a touchdown with under nine minutes to play.
“If you execute your job, I’m going to take this thing back,” he tells his teammates.
When he catches the end-over-end kick, he isn’t thinking about the cascade of tacklers charging toward him or the cracking collisions around him. He’s transported home, away from the drizzling rain and biting wind at Jack Trice Stadium, to the Dallas heat rising off a rubber track and his teammate sprinting around its curve with a baton.
Running what feels like the anchor leg of 4x100 meter relay, Nwangwu very nearly delivers on his promise to his teammates. He takes the kick and splits the 11 men hurtling at him, scampering down the left sideline before being run out of bounds at the Oklahoma eight-yard line and continuing his dead sprint back to his teammates in excitement. It was a play that changed the trajectory of Iowa State’s season—the Cyclones tied the game up two plays later, then Nwangwu’s younger contemporary Breece Hall finished off the win with a late touchdown run. The return launched Iowa State on a journey to their first ever Big 12 Championship Game. It was a play made possible by Nwangwu’s natural gifts and his manufactured ones, forged by an uncommon dedication to his craft.
Nwangwu won’t beg for your attention. While he’s not soft-spoken, he’s certainly not self-aggrandizing. His stats won’t catch your eye, although you wouldn’t say the same of his pro day numbers, particularly an alleged 4.29-second 40. He’s spoken with 13 teams on Zoom calls since his pro day, but he’s happy to let his tape do the talking.
After five years in Ames where he was primarily used as a return specialist, Nwangwu is ready to ply his skills at the next level. It’s not often a special teams star has any realistic NFL dreams. Then again, it’s not often a 6' 1", 210-pound man can outrun and outwork, well, just about everyone.
Kene is about seven years old. His family is at a picnic they host each year with dozens of friends and family from Nigeria. The large group gathers at a park in Richardson, Texas, eating and enjoying each other’s company. To keep the children entertained, the adults plan a competition between all the kids. This year, it’s a race.
Kene's parents, Jerome and Ogonna, are otherwise occupied while the 20 or so children bolt for the finish line. Afterward, a family friend approaches the couple. Kene had torched the rest of the field.
“Ogonna,” he says. “You have to put Kene in track or something. That boy is so fast.”
The roots of Nwangwu’s drive can be traced more than 6,500 miles and nearly 30 years back to Nigeria. Jerome and Ogonna grew up in Nnewi, a metropolitan area in the country’s southeast region, before moving to north Texas in the early 1990s. Nnewi is a city founded on industrial success, seeing exponential population growth over the last half-century.
“We are very well known in Nigeria,” says Ogonna.
Jerome and Ogonna instilled the values of hard work and discipline in their children from a young age. Even as they bounced around north Texas towns, going as far west as Abilene, Kene combined his natural intelligence (“It comes so easy to him” says Jerome) and a general desire for greatness to excel in school, well before he played his first minute of organized sports.
“The way my parents raised me was to always be the best at whatever I’m doing,” says Kene.
Kene attended three different elementary schools and two middle schools. Everywhere he went, his speed was his introduction. Whether it was kickball on the playground or pickup football after school, he wasn’t just the new kid. He was “the big, fast kid”.
When it was finally time to start organized football in seventh grade, coaches saw Kene as little more than a lanky teen with no previous experience. He landed on the “C” team. It didn’t take long for him to turn the gridiron into his lifelong proving grounds—the second snap of his first game, he took off for a long touchdown run, the first of his career. After just a few weeks, he was on the “C” team no longer.
His career at Frisco Heritage High School, however, began in the shadow of his older brother Emeka. Two years his brother’s senior, the eldest Nwangwu son was known around Heritage High as “Dougie” for his affinity for dancing; Nwangwu was then dubbed “Little Dougie”. As a junior, Emeka was growing into his 6' 4", 230-pound frame as a defensive end. He took his opportunities on the practice field to show freshman Kene who the older brother was.
“[Kene] could run, but he was a skinny little twig with Coke bottle glasses,” says former Heritage High coach Che Hendrix.
Nwangwu became a contributor on the varsity squad as a freshman, primarily learning the art of the return. That spring, he followed in his brother’s large footsteps and began running track. Hendrix remembers one spring evening when he looked out and saw Nwangwu practicing high jump on an otherwise empty track. He had already completed a sprint workout, a weight workout and a full track workout. He just wanted more.
That summer’s work began his transformation. Nwangwu kept growing, filling out his wiry frame. By the time he was a junior, Emeka a freshman hurdler at the University of Texas at Arlington, Little Dougie was little no more—Nwangwu looked the part of a star running back.
When asked for a highlight of Nwangwu’s high school career, the consensus settles on Nov. 14, 2014. Heritage was in the playoffs for the first time in school history. The wind whipped through Plano’s John Clark Stadium. Temperatures dipped below freezing. Hendrix decided the conditions were favorable to let Nwangwu bear the offensive load. The kid his coaches called “crazy legs” took it and ran with it.
Nwangwu finished with 380 yards and seven touchdowns that day, propelling the Coyotes to a thrilling 77-63 victory.
“We were just running power, and it was like watching a video game,” says Hendrix.
It’s the type of performance that made Nwangwu a Heritage High star, but it wasn’t enough for college coaches to come running with offers. Nwangwu’s senior year was marked with heavy interest from a variety of schools. He averaged more than eight yards per carry, all the while winning the state title in long jump and setting school records in the high jump, 100 meters and 200 meters.
But no Power Five university from his home state was willing to extend a scholarship, even as Nwangwu showed out on the field and in satellite camps. He decided to take a visit to Ames in November of his senior season to watch the Cyclones take on undefeated Oklahoma State. That’s all it took—Nwangwu was hooked. When Oganna picked him up from the airport after the weekend, he didn’t stop talking the entire car ride home.
“Mom, you should have been there,” Nwangwu told Ogonna. “They have the best fan base. The campus is so beautiful. I’m done. I’m going to Iowa State.”
Nwangwu arrived in Ames in 2016 as a three-star recruit, not expected to make an immediate impact but hopeful to prove himself once again. Again, it was his track-star speed and willingness to do whatever was asked of him that earned him valuable game time. He averaged more than 26 yards per kickoff return that year and earned several national honors for his special teams play. It was a solid start to a promising college career before everything changed that spring.
It’s a brisk February day in Ames. Fresh off a rebuilding 3–9 campaign in coach Matt Campbell’s first year, the Cyclones are holding an offseason workout, going through competitive drills designed to pit players one-on-one against those with similar skillsets. Nwangwu, a freshman, lines up next to former Iowa State All-American defensive back Brian Peavy and stares ahead—he’s to jump over a hurdle, then run immediately into a 10-yard sprint. Nwangwu skies over the hurdle, but his right leg ends up outside his frame. He lands hard on his heel and feels a pop. He tries to push off his right foot. He collapses.
It’s his achilles tendon. Oganna receives the call midday while she’s in the middle of a shift as a surgical nurse. She was on a plane to Ames that evening.
Nwangwu missed the entire 2017 season, spending the year in recovery. As he putzed around through the snow-laden Iowa State campus on a one-legged scooter, he gained more than just a respect for the ferocity of a central Iowa winter. Nwangwu earned perspective given only to those who take a step away, whether by choice or by force.
“It was just a different mindset that I had to think about,” he says. “Instead of looking forward to football games, I was looking forward to being able to walk again.”
Campbell and the Cyclones experienced a sharp turnaround that season, winning eight games and reaching as high as No. 14 on the AP Poll. Nwangwu itched to get back on the field to be a part of the winning culture. It was admittedly the hardest year of his life. But as he approached the end of his recovery, he realized all his absence meant was that his return would be that much sweeter.
When Iowa State running backs coach Nate Scheelhaase arrived in Ames before the 2018 season, he saw something different in Nwangwu. Then a redshirt sophomore, Nwangwu brought a different level of focus than most. He took pages of notes in the meeting rooms. He was a leader by example for a young group of running backs. Scheelhaase was impressed with everything he saw off the field.
Then, he saw Nwangwu run. Even after a ruptured achilles, the speedster hadn’t lost a step.
“You’re only around somebody with that power and that speed once or twice in your lifetime as a coach,” Scheelhaase says.
But his return never went quite by design. He backed up current Bears feature back David Montgomery in 2018, earning one start. He rushed for just 157 yards on the year. As a junior, he was expected to feature heavily in the Iowa State offense before electric freshman Breece Hall stole the show. Nwangwu was once again stuck behind a bona fide star. In the end, Nwangwu finished with 744 rushing yards and four touchdowns over four seasons.
But he reveled in his special teams role, finishing his career as a known return specialist. According to Scheelhaase, Nwangwu was a rare constant throughout the chaotic landscape of college football during a pandemic.
“You name the day and you ask, ‘Man, was Kene bringing it that day?’ And the answer would be yes, over and over again,” Scheelhaase says.
Nwangwu, a projected Day 3 draft pick, isn’t nervous about the draft. Excited? Yes. But true to form, he’s keeping a cool head in anticipation of hearing his name called. Maybe it’s because he’ll take the same level-headed approach wherever he lands. Maybe it’s because that approach extends to the rest of his life beyond football. The dedication to greatness he learned as a child means that being a pro isn’t the end goal; it’s a means to the end of generational wealth and financial independence.
Just over a week before the draft, he talks of owning his own business—a family car shop, where his younger brother, Adi, can be the head mechanic, Emeka can help run the finances, and the Nwangwu family auto shop will take shape.
Because Nwangwu didn’t hear his name called on Thursday or Friday, you might be tempted to pity him. Don’t. The kid who bounced around schools, who went underrecruited, who never was a feature back is used to proving himself. When he gets his chance, you can bet his scorching speed and tireless discipline will speak for itself.