“The best is yet to come,” Robert Nkemdiche says, sitting in the balcony of Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre. The 6’4”, 300-pound Nkemdiche (pronounced kim-DEECH-ee) engulfs his aisle seat, but seems at home in a venue that has hosted the Rolling Stones and Prince.
Although only 21, Nkemdiche has been well known in football scouting circles for the better part of a decade. He became a local semi-celebrity as a 6’2”, 220-pound man-child in junior high and grew into a man among boys as the undisputed No. 1-rated player in the country in 2013, coming out of Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga., just east of Atlanta.
Nkemdiche headlined an Ole Miss recruiting class that also included the country’s consensus top offensive lineman (Laremy Tunsil) and wide receiver (Laquon Treadwell), two names expected to be called early in the first round of the NFL Draft in Chicago on April 28.
The spotlight is nothing new to Nkemdiche. He has an innate star quality. He’s quick to flash his megawatt smile and is clearly a self-aware, conscientious individual accustomed to attention in mass quantities. It’s all he’s ever known, really.
Yet for a giant whose persona looms large no matter where he’s standing, looks can be deceiving. And the reputation that precedes Nkemdiche isn’t necessarily accurate.
“The reality of it is that I’m one of the most positive, charismatic, energetic, understanding people that you will ever meet,” he says. “Aside from football. Aside from anything. Just as a people person; I’m a very spiritual, selfless, egoless person. I love everybody, I don’t like negative people, I don’t like negative vibes. And I love to play football.”
He is one step away from being a professionally violent millionaire, engaging hand-to-hand with some of the biggest and strongest mean men in the Western Hemisphere. Yet he also plays tenor saxophone and bass guitar, listens to Pink Floyd and Kenny G, and is as quick to reference Zen and positive energy as any follower of Eastern philosophy.
In a sport that too often falls into the rut of lockstep uniformity, Nkemdiche marches to the beat of his own drum.
“Being peaceful and Zen and understanding yourself helps with football,” he says. “D-line is probably the most violent position on the field. Every snap you’re busting your head, clashing with people. You’re fighting. It’s chaotic, every six seconds.
“When I’m away from that I just really want to get away from that. I want to set my soul back at ease. If you let that carry over then bad things can happen. You’re always tensed up and don’t really get to enjoy life.”
The NFL is plagued with domestic assault and anger issues, so it should be refreshing to hear Nkemdiche’s perspective. Leave work at work. Save hitting for the football field. But NFL also stands for “No Fun League.” Cam Newton shouldn’t dance after a touchdown. Rob Gronkowski shouldn’t party after a loss. And Robert Nkemdiche shouldn’t play saxophone or hang out with Morgan Freeman in his spare time.
That’s right, Nkemdiche and Freeman, 78, are friends. They met through a professor at Ole Miss.
“He’s a voice of reason, a very wise and intelligent guy,” Nkemdiche says. “He actually helped set up the gig I played at Ground Zero Blues Club, that’s Morgan Freeman’s place. It was fun. It was amazing. He was there. He was cool. The older he gets, the better his voice sounds.”
To some, those stories are “distractions” in a league where that is the only dirty word. Football is serious business. But Nkemdiche understands that.
“Whatever team eventually gets me, I’m going to play so hard for that team for the fact that they believed in me and trusted me. I’m going to play like a maniac,” he says. “They’re going to love me. When I meet the people that have doubts, it’s going to be a happy moment when they say, ‘Why did we doubt you?’”
Turns out, Nkemdiche is a fan of John Coltrane’s sax and John Randle’s sacks, both artists from eras that predate a young man with an ear and eye for timeless talent.
(Quick history lesson: Coltrane might be the greatest saxophonist ever, solo as well as accompanying the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk; Randle is a Hall of Fame pass-rushing 3-technique defensive tackle who might be the biggest overachiever in NFL history, after being undrafted out of Texas A&M-Kingsville.)
“John Randle, he’s my favorite D-lineman of all time. His motor, man. With the war paint, he was so nasty,” Nkemdiche says, sitting up at attention while he discusses one of the masters of the craft.
“He was tenacious. He was in the moment of football when he was playing. He was rowdy and intense. He didn’t care about anything else. He was spastic, that’s how I like to play my game. I don’t care about anything else, I’m a spaz and I’m just trying to be in the backfield. He was reckless. He was in the backfield ruining plays. He was chaotic; that’s how I want to be.”
The energy Nkemdiche shows while talking about Randle makes it hard to believe that words like “motor” and “effort” are red flags waving around a pedigreed athlete who was a two-time second-team All-American (as a junior and sophomore), after being a Freshman All-American, following an All-Everything prep career. That trajectory is often followed by All-Rookie and All-Pro honors at the next level. But the next step is by far the biggest.
“It’s the best of the best, and every game is ‘Alabama.’ I just know me as a person and how hungry I am to be great and how hungry I am to be the best,” he says. “I know what I can do and I’m going to fulfill that. It’s really just staying focused and being disciplined. I’m a very disciplined person. I’m a very reserved person, very positive person at all times. I’m a very pure person.”
Photography by Matt Hernandez // All photos taken at Fox Theatre in Atlanta