On a dimly lit NewYork City subway platform, the NFL's highest-paid player watches a group of 10teenagers goof around. One of the kids hands a video camera to a friend andbegins doing a dance reminiscent of Billy (White Shoes) Johnson's touchdowncelebration, except slower and more strenuous. The dancer leans his upper bodyforward while his knees butterfly open and closed, then he finishes by puttingthe back of his hand against his forehead in a gesture of mock relief. Many inthe group chuckle and applaud before turning to the player, who's in blue jeansand a peacoat. They want to see if Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland's 27-year-old ProBowl cornerback, can do the Jerk.
This is an article from the June 15, 2009 issue
Asomugha(pronounced AH-sum-wah) makes as if he's going to accept the challenge, thenstops and laughs, perhaps realizing he would have a hard time telling Raidersowner Al Davis how he injured himself just two months after signing athree-year contract worth up to $45.3 million. Many who know Asomugha would beshocked to see him cutting up with the kids. With his head held high and hisshoulders back, he has an almost regal bearing, and he weighs his words ascarefully as he picks a tie to match the faint pink stripes in a gray suit.Even in the Oakland defense's no-holds-barred meeting room, where pride andsanity are regularly assaulted, Asomugha responds with a chuckle and an"Oh, dear," when caught on tape making a rare mistake.
What wouldn'tsurprise anyone, though, is that the 10 boisterous teens in the subway are inNew York thanks to the generosity of Asomugha, who for the past three springshas underwritten—and chaperoned—five-day trips for high-achieving and ofteneconomically disadvantaged students as part of his work with the nonprofit EastOakland Youth Development Center. He has taken this group to see Billy Elliottand Ellis Island, and accompanied them on tours of NYU, Juilliard, Columbia andthe New School. "Being from Oakland, they can be so distracted they mightnever give college a chance," says Asomugha, who took groups to Atlanta in2007 and to Boston in '08. "This way they are exposed to college life andlife outside inner-city Oakland. So far the kids have all ended up incolleges—not necessarily the ones I've shown them, but the point is to get tothat next level."
Since the Raiders'season ended last December, Asomugha has held a fund-raiser for Orphans andWidows in Need, the charity his mother founded to aid the disadvantaged in hisparents' native Nigeria; addressed the United Nations on ways to fight thespread of malaria; and sat on a panel on the importance of community servicewith former President Clinton, whose Harlem office he visited with his Bay Areateens. "If I were to choose a verse that would sum up Nnamdi, it would beProverbs 22:29," says his older sister, Chisara, who's an ordainedminister. "It says, 'See a man who is diligent in his business. He willstand before kings.'"
It's fair to saythat if Tom Brady or Peyton Manning were to stroll across NYU's campus on aspring afternoon, he'd attract some attention. Asomugha, who in 2009 will earnmore than either quarterback, goes unrecognized—even by a man in a CAL T-shirtwho nearly bumps into him. Cal happens to be Asomugha's alma mater.
In NFL circlesAsomugha is, of course, widely known—and, by offensive coordinators,respectfully avoided. Because Raiders cornerbacks line up in bump-and-runcoverage 90% of the time, they're often one mental lapse from being beaten;typically the only help is a safety in the middle of the field. Yet over thepast two seasons Asomugha has been targeted 73 times and allowed just onetouchdown, according to STATSPASS. When Chargers quarterback Philip Riverslooks out of the corner of his eye and sees the 6'2", 210-pound Asomugha inhis crouch, he's immediately struck by what he calls the "presence" ofnumber 21.
"He's the realdeal," says Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. "He's big andphysical and has good hips. He's also very patient and has a high football IQ.You can tell he watches a lot of tape because you see him running routes forreceivers. That means he's reading their tendencies."
Yet just threeyears ago Asomugha was far from the real deal; in fact, he was shaping up as afirst-round bust. Picked 31st in 2003, he had been a playmaking free safety atBerkeley, where he returned interceptions for TDs three straight years. ButDavis envisioned him as a press corner, and Asomugha struggled to accept themove. He started eight games total in his first two seasons, then watched theRaiders spend their first two draft choices in 2005 on cornerbacks. "I wasfinishing my second year thinking, They don't like me," Asomugha says.
But when Oaklanddealt incumbent Phillip Buchanon to the Texans in April '05, Asomugha finallygot a shot at a starting job. His first game was the nationally televisedopener against the Super Bowl champion Patriots. On New England's first snap,wideout Deion Branch faked a corner route and broke toward the middle on a deeppost. Asomugha expected safety help, but none came. His recollection? "Isee that ball in the air, and I'm like, Not the first play."
Though the passfell incomplete, the reprieve was momentary. Brady completed 24 of 28 throwsfor 306 yards and two touchdowns in the 30--20 victory. He picked on Asomugharepeatedly, leaving the cornerback shaken and searching.
Later, during hisnightly prayer session, Asomugha expressed his anger with God for putting himin such a difficult spot. His older brother, Chijioke, who played corner atStanford and was staying with Nnamdi at the time, provided some perspective. Hetold Nnamdi that he had been put in this situation, on this stage, for onereason: to do something special. That was just what he needed to hear."When you realize that, your whole mind-set changes," Nnamdi says."Your determination changes, your goals, the zest that you put into eachday changes, because now you're realizing that you're not just here for noreason. You're here to make a mark. I kid you not—from that game forward I feellike I've gotten better every game I've played."
The week after theNew England game, Asomugha and the Raiders did not allow a touchdown pass tothe Chiefs' Trent Green, who had thrown 27 the previous year. Asomugha gave upjust three scores, total, in the 67 times he was targeted that season. In eachsubsequent season he surrendered one fewer: just two in 72 attempts in 2006,one in 38 in '07 and none in 35 last year.
"He has a rarecombination for a cornerback: He has long legs and long arms, he's physical,and he can run [a 4.38 in the 40]," says Darren Perry, who coached Asomughain 2007 and '08 in Oakland and now coaches the Packers' secondary. "Onething that really surprised me was his ability to play just as low as thesmaller corners. You would expect guys with long legs to come out of theirbreaks slower and not transition as well as a 5'10" cornerback. He can bendand change direction with the best of them."
And he does it allquietly. Rivers, who likes to chat up opponents, says Asomugha is one of thefew corners he's never had a dialogue with during a game. That's becauseAsomugha views such talk not only as a waste of energy but also a detriment tohis image.
Asomugha'sunderstated demeanor is a far cry from his days as a mischievous kid who foundcomfort on the basketball court or football field when he couldn't find it inhis own home. His parents, Godfrey and Lilian, came to the U.S. from Nigeria inthe early 1970s to study. After earning doctorates from Texas—Godfrey inengineering and Lilian in naturopathic medicine—they moved to Los Angeles tostart a family. The constant theme in their home was the importance of faithand education, which continued after Godfrey died of a heart attack when Nnamdiwas 12.
Nnamdi struggledat times to fit in among a household of academic achievers. Chisara, the oldestof the children, is a pediatrician with an M.D. from Duke and a master's inpublic health from North Carolina; she's a finalist for a White Housefellowship, to be announced later this month. His younger sister, Udodirim, hasa master's in public health from Michigan, and Chijioke received his M.B.A.from Columbia this spring.
"I hate theterm black sheep, but I just felt like I wasn't keeping up," says Nnamdi."It was a subtle pressure I put on myself. It can be a bit sententious inthe Nigerian household, to the point where you feel like with any wrong stepyou've set yourself back so far. It's like everything has to be done right. Iwas always the person who would make the mistake. I was the one who would getsuspended from school. No one else was getting those things, so I felt likethere was a problem with me. What's wrong with me?"
When he broughthome the D in algebra as a junior at Narbonne High, Lilian pulled him off thebasketball team for half the season and made him drive every day after schoolto work at her pharmacy in Torrance. Eventually the lessons sank in. Hegraduated from high school with a 3.8 GPA and earned a degree in corporatefinance from Cal.
Which will come inhandy. Asomugha's contract guarantees him $28.5 million over the next twoseasons. If the Raiders pick up the option in 2011, he'll earn either another$16.8 million or the franchise number for a quarterback (the average of the topfive earners at that position), whichever is greater. If they don't pick theoption up, the contract prevents Oakland from using the franchise tag on him,and he will become an unrestricted free agent. At 29, Asomugha would be in linefor another massive payday.
It was ajaw-dropping deal for a cornerback who has played on only one winning team inhigh school, college or the pros. In five NFL seasons Asomugha has only 10interceptions, but that's because first, QBs throw his way infrequently, andsecond, Oakland's press coverage demands he watch the receiver rather than lookback for the ball. "You're trying to conceptualize it: Are they paying youfor what you've done or what you're going to do? Are you worth that?"Asomugha says. "The answer I come to is, it doesn't matter what I think orwhat anyone else thinks about whether or not I'm worth it."
Clearly, somedon't think he is. Says one NFC executive of the contract, "It's so out ofthe box that, to us, it's not even worth the paper it's printed on. We won'tfactor it into the negotiations we do."
Any suggestionthat the megadeal will change Asomugha elicits incredulous smiles from thoseclose to him. His penchant for generosity is long-standing. As a nine-year-oldhe gave away one of his prized Christmas presents, a video game he'ddesperately wanted, because a friend's parents didn't have the means to buygifts. Last year Asomugha earned nearly $10 million but drove to work most daysin a blue '97 Maxima "because it still runs." Change him? Why?
With his teenagegroup from the Bay Area, Asomugha does more learning than teaching. He mademental notes as he watched the dance steps and vows to try the move—just notnow. He says maybe he'll do the Jerk in the end zone after he returns a pickfor a score. The kids laugh, but it's likely that deep down, Nnamdi Asomugha iscompletely serious.
Now on SI.com
NFL off-season news from Peter King, Don Banks and Jim Trotter atSI.com/bonus