Kellenberger: Nkemdiches’ moving experience in Africa

first_imgRobert Nkemdiche, second from left, and Denzel, second from right, pose with friends in Onitsha.Robert Nkemdiche, second from left, and Denzel, second from right, pose with friends in Onitsha.OXFORD – The Manning Center has all the usual things you would find in an indoor practice facility, like a football field, locker room and weight room. It also has meeting rooms, coach’s offices, a massive team room that would be the best movie theater experience in Oxford and a dining facility that is designed to meet all the nutritional needs of Ole Miss’ athletes.It’s not opulent by the standards of some other major universities, but it is substantial and comfortable enough that you can see an athlete choosing to never leave the building (built for $18 million in 2004, and renovated for another $12.5 million nine years later) were it not for class.It is in this setting that Denzel and Robert Nkemdiche are talking about an experience that’s altogether different from their day-to-day lives as two key members of the Rebels. This summer’s nine-day trip to Nigeria and the memories it created will never leave them, and it reminded them what it actually means to struggle.“I can’t even really explain it at all,” Denzel said. “Starving kids. Naked kids everywhere. And this was family, in my family’s home where my people are from.”“I saw people who were underprivileged, who really didn’t have a pot to piss in,” Robert said. “I didn’t know that was real.”In every respect of the word, the Nkemdiches are Americans: They grew up in the Atlanta area, went to high school in Loganville, Georgia, and became football stars. Separated by two years, Denzel was an unranked recruit and Robert the No. 1 player in the country, but they ended up at Ole Miss together. They are college football stars in the South, with all of the privileges attached to such things, and Robert likely will be a millionaire by this time next year (the junior defensive tackle is expected to be a top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, should he declare). As it stands now, Robert is a preseason All-American defensive tackle going into his junior season, while Denzel likely will start at outside linebacker (after an All-SEC season in 2012, injuries have limited him each of the last two years, and, as a redshirt senior, this is his last season).There’s another part of the Nkemdiches though. The sons of Nigerian immigrants, their mother Beverly returned to the country to represent Onitsha (a city of more than 500,000 in the southern part of the country) in the Nigerian legislature several years ago. It was a part of every story about Robert’s high-profile recruitment, but at the end of the day these were (and are) American kids.But both said separately that this trip (the first for Robert, who is nearly 21 years old, entirely, and Denzel had not been since he was a toddler) helped them reconnect with a part of their heritage.“It was amazing, almost life-changing,” Robert said. “America has a perception of Africa, and it’s so not true. There are so many different parts, so many pretty parts, so many pretty souls there and America just trashes them and says it’s this dirty place that doesn’t have anything. But the people I saw there have spirituality and intuition, and it’s good people. I stayed up all night one time and just looked at the view, and it was amazing.“It was an awakening for my soul to keep pushing, because at the end of the day there’s a bigger thing than just football.”This is not a football story, but here’s the impact on Ole Miss football anyways: How can you come back from a trip like that (or the mission trip to Haiti that coach Hugh Freeze and a group of players went on for spring break) and not at least be affected in some way? And if the overriding lesson was that we — black/white, rich/poor, first-/third-world country, other line of demarcation — are all humans and therefore deserving of respect and common decency, that affects a locker room. While there are plenty of big voices at Ole Miss, the Nkemdiches carry a ton of weight with what they say and how they behave.“There’s no judgment,” Denzel said. “In the locker room there’s no boundaries. Everybody accepts you for being you. … That’s what I live by. I don’t want to say I’m the reason, but I know for a fact that’s what I live by and that’s what my baby brother lives by, and we had a lot of teammates around us that started believing that no judgment is the way to live. Not only as a football player, but as a human.”Maybe that type of mindset leads to a better team experience, and that keeps Ole Miss together or more resolute when the season inevitably provides complications. Or maybe this was just what college is supposed to be about: an education experience that’ll never be forgotten, even if it was thousands of miles from the classroom.Contact Hugh Kellenberger at (601) 961-7291 or [email protected] Follow @HKellenbergerCL on Twitter.last_img

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