Raiders’ Asomugha a humble star

ALL ACCESS: A lot of networks do TV interviews, but have you ever wanted to know the juicy details that never make air? You can tell a lot about who people really are when the cameras aren’t rolling. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the interview with the Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

When I created “PROfiles,” the concept was simple. I was tired of talking and hearing so much about the handful of NFL players who do bad things, I desperately wanted to give some attention to the majority of guys who are actually good people, doing wonderful things and don’t get much attention for it.

In short, Nnamdi Asomugha was the reason I created “PROfiles.” A Pro Bowl cornerback who gives up so little on the field, yet gives so much off if it. The more I heard about Nnamdi, the more I wanted to do a show on him. The only problem? Nnamdi Asomugha does not like talking about Nnamdi Asomugha. Not in the third person, not even in the first person. He’s very comfortable shutting down opposing offensives, but ask him about his charity work and he will shut down talk of that just as easily.

Nnamdi’s parents came to the United States from Nigeria, both earning their doctorates while raising four children. They taught their kids the importance of education and philanthropy. All three of Nnamdi’s siblings have master’s degrees and they joke that Nnamdi is the "slacker” of the family, “only” earning a corporate finance degree from Cal, while also playing football.

On the philanthropy front, they are equally as impressive. Giving back to their homeland, the Asomughas created their own foundation, which benefits widows and orphans in need, with Nnamdi serving as chairman. The foundation provides food, shelter, medicine, job training and scholarships to widows victimized by abuse or poverty in Nigeria.

Closer to home, Nnamdi created the Asomugha College Tour for Scholars program (ACTS), where each year, Nnamdi selects inner-city kids from Bay Area high schools and takes them on college trips across the country. This year’s trip was to Washington, D.C., touring the likes of Georgetown and George Washington University, while also meeting former President Bill Clinton, going bowling at the White House and meeting Alicia Keys backstage at a concert. It’s an education and cultural whirlwind experience for kids who have never been outside their neighborhoods.

Nnamdi doesn’t do any of this charitable work for recognition, but he’s deserving of more for it. The year he was given the Jefferson Award, which is like the Nobel Peace Prize of Public Service. Past winners include Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey. He was also named the NFL’s Byron “Whizzer” White Man of the Year this past season, given to the player who best represents his team, his family and his community.

I think you can see why I was smitten with the idea of doing a show on him, but it was one of the hardest interviews I’ve ever done. And I told him so. Nnamdi will talk all day about football, but he is truly uncomfortable when it comes to talking about his philanthropy. There were times in the interview I would literally be miming pulling a rope trying to "pull” more out of him.

Normally, you prepare yourself for short, three-word answers in an interview that is negative in nature, knowing a person not be forthcoming with the story or all the details, but never have I had a guy so reluctant to speak about something so positive. It was maddening … and refreshing. I don’t want to give you the impression Nnamdi is reserved and cold, because it’s completely the opposite. Even with his maddeningly short answers, he is thoughtful and engaging, which only makes you want to pull more.

It wasn’t just the interview. Simply finding things to do with Nnamdi proved exhausting, because he did not want to go anywhere where a camera crew would draw attention to himself. We couldn’t go to the beach or a restaurant because people would see cameras. Even when we met him and a group of wonderful kids who were on his ACTS tour this summer at a L.A. bowling alley, he wanted our gear and lights tucked away in the corner so we wouldn’t be quite as obvious. He is "anti” superstar and there lies the irony.

Nnamdi Asomugha is the highest paid defensive player in the game and arguably the best cornerback, but for most people outside of Oakland, not only can they not pronounce his name, but I don’t think most people even know it. I’m absolutely amazed how many people — including NFL fans — looked at me with blank stares when I told them I was doing on show on him.

Ask him about what it means to help widows, orphans or inner-city kids and prepare for brevity. Ask him about what it would mean to get in the playoffs, and you’ll need to get comfortable because his answers will take awhile.

In “PROfiles,” he talks about how winning off-the-field awards and helping less-fortunate people are rewarding, but they can’t help fill the hole when it comes to wanting to win. Watch the show and you will think you’re listening in on a therapy session, when he wonders why it’s so important to him to win a Super Bowl.

At one point, he talked about how lofty a goal it is to win a Super Bowl, asking me how many people have won one. I answered, "More people than have won a Jefferson Award.” While his mouth answered that I was right, just watch his face and you’ll know what his heart’s answer is.

When I thought about what I wanted to write for this column, I truly thought I’d write about Nnamdi the football player — and I could. He literally shuts down an entire half of a football field. He had 28 balls thrown at him last year. That’s right, 28 balls all season — and that’s common.

He sees so little action, he has to find other ways to judge himself when watching film. His postgame conversations with quarterbacks and coaches are always the same. They meet at midfield and they apologize to him for not going near him and tell him how much they respect him. Look up the word “bittersweet” in the dictionary and that just might be the definition.

While most players love playing in a Pro Bowl for a free trip to Hawaii, Nnamdi says he loves it because he actually gets thrown at. He’s been on "Nnamdi Island” long before Revis established residence on his, yet sadly, it gets lost in a black hole, where only members of the Black Hole know its exact coordinates.

He is an amazing player, but he’s even more special as a person (sorry, Nnamdi). He may not want to talk about it, but I think everyone else should.

“PROfiles” with Nnamdi Asomugha appears on FSN all this week. Check your local listings.