- Elizabeth Merrill
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ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Of course he's a little peculiar. He has rapper Ice Cube waiting for an autograph, the Beatles locked into his iPod and Al Davis on the brain. He doesn't even know how to treat himself. Nnamdi Asomugha signs a $45.3 million contract, one that makes him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history, and as far as anyone can tell, doesn't spend a dime on bling. He still drives an old, pristinely kept 1997 Nissan Maxima. Ain't broke, Asomugha says, don't fix it. Write that down. It might be the only time the Cal-Berkeley grad, who earned his business management degree in four years, uses poor grammar.
"It's not that I want to be under the radar," Asomugha says. "It's just that I'm not a car guy."
It is easy to get lost and misunderstood in Oakland. Blockbuster deals are brokered and broken, coaches are fired and hired, and the really weird stuff gets a day's worth of juice in the national media before being shrugged off as the Raiders being the Raiders. Maybe that's why football fans outside of Northern California know little about Nnamdi Asomugha (pronounced NAM-dee AWE-sum-WAH).
But the rest of the NFL is very aware. At last winter's Pro Bowl, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning introduced his dad, Archie, to Asomugha. "He's the best corner in the game," Peyton said. The words warmed Asomugha's heart, but only for a moment.
Opposing quarterbacks have avoided him, testing Asomugha just 27 times last season. Defensive types don't quite grasp him, his freakish 4.38 speed in a 6-foot-3 body, his insistence on spending two extra hours a day on film study.
He is happy but not content, a lonely superstar living and, in some ways, dying in a place that has won just 24 games in six seasons. Will this finally be the year that Asomugha has everything -- the fear from the NFL and the success with his teammates? In typical Raiders fashion, it hasn't started out well. A couple of weeks ago, he fractured his left wrist on the first play of a 45-7 preseason loss to the Saints. But Nam is tough and undaunted. With a cast on his hand, he stands in front of a handful of cameras after a recent practice and says he'll be back.
After he leaves, a local media member points out that it's rare for a player, especially one of Asomugha's profile, to stop politely in the middle of the post-practice herd and give an update on his condition. He's a peach to work with, they say, a real stand-up guy.
"He doesn't belong here," the reporter says.
Fitting in with the Raiders
Where would Asomugha have fit in? In New England, where Bill Belichick would've loved his work ethic and made him an important cog on a Super Bowl team? In Dallas, where the star on his helmet would've made him well-known, like Deion, even if quarterbacks avoided him?
There are some who will argue that Oakland was always the perfect place for Asomugha. First, he's a quick Maxima drive from Berkeley, his alma mater, where he can sip coffee with his screenwriter friends and pontificate about life. Then there's the theory that Davis actually molded Asomugha into a Pro Bowl cornerback. His teammates didn't see it right away. His first two seasons, whenever Asomugha stumbled, it was followed by a not-so-subtle snicker from various fellow Raiders. This is the guy you drafted?
"I mean, the relationship [with Davis] is good," Asomugha says of the Raiders' owner. "It's not like we go golfing or anything. I respect his mind. People don't understand how much he wants to win.
"He's probably one of the most competitive guys that you'll find in the NFL. He gets a bad rap."
Asomugha always knew Davis had confidence in him. Back in 2003, shortly after Asomugha was drafted, Davis told the youngster that someday he would be a great corner. He didn't care that Asomugha played safety in college and was struggling mightily in the Raiders' man-to-man-heavy system.
No team in the NFL plays as much man as the Raiders, Asomugha says, and he has begged, for six years, for various defensive coordinators to mix it up. The Raiders still play man-to-man about 90 percent of the time. It requires split-second decision-making and air-traffic-controller focus. Attention to detail is key. Every night, after the Raiders' meetings and practice, Asomugha goes home and watches a couple more hours of his opponents on tape. "If it can be the length of a good movie, I'll sacrifice that movie for the day to get film [study] in," he says. In hindsight, playing man-to-man has helped make Asomugha one of the most dominating defensive backs in the league.
Rookie year was the toughest. Between the boos and the snide comments, Asomugha thought about finishing out his contract and quitting football altogether.
"It's kind of like the glass is half full, half empty type of thing," he says, "and you're pouring into the glass, but you think there's like a hole in the glass because the more you pour, you're not going anywhere. But you don't know your glass is so tall that it's taking awhile to reach that level.
"Today, you wouldn't believe it, but back then you would read in the paper that [I] had to be one of, if not the worst, picks the Raiders made in the last decade. From what I came from, all the negative criticism that keeps me from embracing that title of being the best. Because I always feel like there is another level I have to get to."
Hard work to the NFL
OK, so Asomugha doesn't read the paper anymore. Too much negativity, he says. So Alonzo Carter clips everything and hands it to him in a packet when they meet each week for lunch. Carter is 40 years old, is the former lead dancer for MC Hammer, and, five years ago, was the only person in McAfee Coliseum wearing Asomugha's No. 21 jersey.
God blessed Carter twice, he says, the first time he met Hammer, and the day Asomugha called to ask whether he could train with the coach. Back then, Asomugha was a freshman at Cal trying to come back from a broken ankle; Carter was a football coach at McClymonds High School. Asomugha would take the bus to see Carter, in a rough neighborhood in west Oakland, just to be humbled and criticized. He weighed 170 pounds back then and was rarely taken to task by a Cal coaching staff steeped in slump.
"He kind of respected that I didn't sugarcoat it," Carter says. "I was his biggest fan and his worst critic."
For all of Asomugha's extra hours, he was just an honorable mention All-Pac-10 pick as a senior. And in late 2002, when Asomugha was a projected fifth-rounder in the NFL draft, his agent suggested he go to a top training facility to prep for the combine. He stuck with Carter and his old-school equipment. The results were stunning. By February 2003, he had gone from three 225-pound bench-press reps to 17, shaved precious ticks off his 40-yard dash and added 18 pounds.
When Asomugha took his shirt off at the combine, scouts marveled at his physique and jokingly asked what he was on. The peanut butter and Top Ramen diet, Carter said.
"They were laughing," Carter says. "And I'm like, 'No, we're pretty serious.'"
Asomugha's reaction to stardom also produced a few chuckles. He watched the 2003 draft from his Cal dorm room, hearing when Paul Tagliabue stumbled over his name. A couple of days later, Nam decided to throw a party at a nightclub.
"He never went out," Carter says. "He didn't drink, doesn't smoke. And this guy is in there serving people. He's cleaning off tables. I'm like, 'Nam, you can't do that now. You're a first-round draft pick. You're a Raider, man.' That's just how humble this dude is."
Asomugha figures his Nigerian heritage probably has something to do with his work ethic. Nigerian-Americans, he says, are generally appreciative of the fact that they're in the States and take full advantage of the educational system. His mom, a pharmacist, made certain that each of her kids earned college degrees. Asomugha was 12 when he lost his father, Godfrey, to a heart attack.
The kid could've been anything, his friends say, a politician, an actor, a pianist. He rubbed elbows with former President Bill Clinton last spring in Austin, Texas, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative University and stressing the importance of global service and student activism. Asomugha meets with underprivileged kids in Oakland every week, encouraging them to stay in school, eat right and follow their dreams.
"You know when you have a friend who makes you feel like you can always do better at what you're doing? He's that guy," says former fraternity buddy Pierce Minor, a screenwriter. "He's one of those people you kind of just watch and you can't help but be motivated and want to go out and accomplish something."
On road trips in the NFL, Asomugha usually will immerse himself in a novel. He recently recommended a book on the Holocaust to Ravens cornerback Chris Carr.
Asomugha had a busy offseason, traveling to China to soak up the culture, playing board games and the piano with friends, and, of course, signing that hefty contract. But probably the best time he had was at a Coldplay concert just before training camp started. He loved the band's energy, its enthusiasm, the way Coldplay knows how to put on a show. A good concert, Asomugha says, is sort of like football -- it's done hard and at full speed.
"Nam's a guy who got me on the Beatles and Regina Spektor, musicians most people in the league don't listen to," says Carr, a former teammate in Oakland.
"He's so well-rounded. Your first reaction might be, 'Oh, this guy is a square.' But to me, that's being cool."
This season could be different?
The large metal gate swings open on another day in Raiderville, and coach Tom Cable stands in front of a silver-and-black backdrop, talking about shaking the six-year spell that has hung over this franchise. If the Raiders can do it, they'll need Asomugha, who was somewhat verbal in his frustrations about losing near the end of last year.
"The way he can impact this team," Cable says, "is with his work ethic and his study habits and the way he does everything day to day. Because not only do they see him as a good player, they want to see him really kind of back up how he says things and show them that the result of that is the player he is. That's the most important way he can help this team."
Still, Asomugha knows it might not be enough. He's 28 and already is starting to wonder about years and chances. He says losing is depressing and can weigh on him mentally and physically. He says he's lucky to be able to compartmentalize some of that.
"I'd like to say I totally sense [change]," Asomugha says. "But all you can really do is hope."
He stops after a recent practice to shake hands with Ice Cube, who's in town to do a song called "Raider Nation." It'll get the crowd pumped up, Cube says. And maybe things will finally start right in Oakland. Cube says he'd wear only two Raiders jerseys -- quarterback JaMarcus Russell's and Asomugha's.
"He's up there with the best as far as locking down wide receivers," Cube says.
Finally, somebody outside the NFL noticed.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Football fans outside of Northern California might not know much about Nnamdi Asomugha, but around the NFL he's known well as one of the most dangerous cornerbacks.