LOGANVILLE, Ga. — It looked like a presidential news conference, complete with official photographers, prepared statements and press secretaries shuffling the scrum from one area to another.
For a moment it was easy to forget this was a high school. As Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1 recruit took the stage at the auditorium of Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga., to announce his commitment to Ole Miss, scores of camera clicks sounded like a swarm of locusts. Thirteen microphones strained for space on a podium, and video cameramen jockeyed for position.
His coaches and teammates were all there, filling the auditorium and rising in unison when Nkemdiche donned the red Rebel cap. Afterward, students, teachers and school administrators flooded the stage to shake this 17-year-old man-child’s hand.
He even had an earpiece that he fumbled with as he signed autographs and answered questions. And he did it all without a hint of hesitation or a flicker of understanding at how crazy this all seemed.
But his parents knew.
“It has been overwhelming,” said Dr. Sunday Nkemdiche, an Atlanta-area physician and native of Kenya. “All of this” — he pointed to the crowd and the cameras — “It’s unbelievable.”
Sunday and his wife Beverly, a Kenyan state legislator who commutes regularly between Nairobi and Atlanta, worked tirelessly for two years to keep the circus at bay. They long ago stopped answering phone calls from numbers they don’t recognize, and they counseled their son to avoid media requests and be cautious around strangers.
Because even though Robert is a physical specimen and the kind of signee who could turn the tide at Ole Miss in short order, as his mother pointed out, “They are kids. That is what I’ve been trying so hard to tell people. Robert is a child.”
As such he did some childish things, like the early verbal commitment to Clemson that he rescinded, and the late trip to LSU, even though he admitted after his press conference on National Signing Day that Ole Miss had been his choice for at least a couple of weeks. “When the Clemson issue came up, I tried to tell everybody, this is a 17-year-old boy we’re talking about,” Beverly Nkemdiche said. “Adults don’t make the correct overnight decision, and we’re talking about a child.
“It has been really overwhelming for Robert. This day, I could not wait for the 6th of February to get here so we could put this to an end. In as much as people will think that we made a decision for him, Robert told me earlier that it was Ole Miss, but it was all his decision.”
Unfortunately, the Nkemdiches are the exception in the way they have handled the brouhaha of National Signing Day. Too often, the kids become intoxicated by the attention, forgetting that the moment they show up on campus they are freshmen football players fighting for a spot like everyone else.
And the people who fed that intoxication with lights, cameras, and dozens of digital recorders move along to the next big thing often forgetting that these young men will almost certainly get homesick and do at least a few stupid things as they dip a toe into the real world.
“This has definitely been crazy,” Robert said as the press conference wound down and the Grayson assistant principals started herding kids back to class. “I just have to stay level-headed, keep to myself and stay humble. My coaches, my family, my friends, they treat me like everybody else, not like I’m some special guy. I feel like that stuck with me. I’m not a superstar at home. To my parents, I’m just their youngest son. That has helped.”
The biggest story to come out of the Nkemdiche signing isn’t the fact that he chose Ole Miss: It is that he appears to be the sort of grounded young man who has a chance to be more successful off the field than on it.
“My foundation is God and it is those values that I have instilled in my sons,” his mother said. “I want them to do well in life. Football is a season. It will come and it will go. I want them to have life after football.”
It’s early, but so far Robert Nkemdiche seems to be well on his way to a successful life before, during and after football.