Pro Bowl To Broadway, This NFL Star Says The Stage Is Another 'Team Sport'

Feb 2, 2020
Originally published on February 4, 2020 11:26 am

There aren't many people who can say they started the decade at the Pro Bowl and ended it on Broadway — but Nnamdi Asomugha can. The four-time All-Pro NFL cornerback is making his Broadway debut in a revival of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Soldier's Play.

It's been "a pretty surreal journey," Asomugha says.

Asomugha grew up in Los Angeles, the son of Nigerian immigrants. He played for UC Berkeley and then in the NFL for 11 seasons, mainly with the Oakland Raiders, as one of the most respected cornerbacks in the game.

"I could be biased, but I think it is the most difficult position to play in sports," Asomugha says. "You're covering someone and they know exactly where they're going, and your job is to figure out where they're going and get there before them — while running backwards."

Even as he put fear in the hearts of quarterbacks and wide receivers, Asomugha was thinking about a life after football. While he was playing for the Raiders, he filmed a Nike commercial with director Peter Berg, who hired him to play a recurring role as a parole officer on the TV series, Friday Night Lights. After Asomugha retired in 2013, he turned toward film and theater.

"I think filmmaking and theater is very much a team sport," Asomugha says. "It's a group of people that are coming together with a common purpose to achieve a goal. And no one person is bigger than the team — I'm trying to think of all the cliché things that they tell you in football."

Asomugha has now produced and performed in a number of films and co-produced American Son on Broadway, starring his wife, Kerry Washington. He co-starred in the 2017 film Crown Heights, which won an Audience Award at Sundance.

Nnamdi Asomugha (center) plays Private First-Class Melvin Peterson — a role performed by Denzel Washington in 1981 — in the Broadway revival of A Soldier's Play.
Joan Marcus

A Soldier's Play is about a platoon of former Negro League ball players in the Army in 1944. "At its surface level, it's a whodunit play," Asomugha says. "At its core, it's a play about interracial and intra-racial complexities."

Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon says Asomugha is at the beginning of a "great all-pro" Broadway acting career. "He has a sense of truth and authenticity," Leon says. There's an "effortlessness" to Asomugha's acting that "you can't teach," the director explains.

Asomugha plays Private First-Class Melvin Peterson — the role Denzel Washington performed in the original 1981 production. "He's the new guy to the group," Asomugha says — and as a new Broadway actor, he can relate; his fellow actors "have been in a million plays and this is my second," Asomugha says.

When it comes to discipline and focus, starring on Broadway and starring in the NFL aren't really so different. "It's been difficult," Asomugha says. "It is definitely a workout, doing eight shows a week."

Still, just last week, Asomugha spent his day off at the Sundance Festival, where his new period romance, Sylvie's Love, had its world premiere. The film is about two teens falling in love in 1950s Harlem and Asomugha, as an actor and a producer, has been wearing multiple hats.

"You literally do go from 'Cut!,' to taking business phone calls about the film, to 'Action!' and then you're back in the scene ..." he says. "It is extremely tough and also gratifying at the same time."

As for who he'll be rooting for at the Super Bowl on Sunday? Asomugha says Andy Reid, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, was one of his great mentors — "So I'm really rooting for him," he says.

Ted Robbins edited this story for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Here's a story for Super Bowl Sunday. The critically acclaimed revival of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "A Soldier's Play" features the Broadway debut of an actor who was a four-time All Pro cornerback in the NFL. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Nnamdi Asomugha says he has a lot to be grateful for.

NNAMDI ASOMUGHA: I mean, this has been a pretty surreal journey. I was saying the other day that I started the decade at the Pro Bowl, and I ended the decade on Broadway.

LUNDEN: And he could add that, in between, he produced and co-starred in a couple of films and co-produced a Broadway play starring his wife, Carrie Washington. Asomugha grew up in Los Angeles the son of Nigerian immigrants, played for UC Berkeley and then in the NFL for 11 seasons, mainly with the Oakland Raiders, as one of the most respected cornerbacks in the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: There's a reason why teams don't throw at Nnamdi Asomugha. The guy's got long arms. He's a great cover corner. He jams you, disrupts your timing and rhythm at the line of scrimmage. And he could cover in space.

ASOMUGHHA: I mean, I could be biased, but I think it is the most difficult position to play in sports. You're covering someone, and they know exactly where they're going. And your job is to figure out where they're going and get there before them while running backwards.

LUNDEN: Even as he put fear in the hearts of quarterbacks and wide receivers, Asomugha was thinking about a life after football.

ASOMUGHHA: You're not in what is standard retirement age. You know, a lot of times, you're 23 years old. You know what I mean? The average player plays, you know, two years.

LUNDEN: While he was playing for the Raiders, he filmed a Nike commercial with director Peter Berg, who hired him to play a recurring role as a parole officer on the TV series "Friday Night Lights." And after Asomugha retired in 2013, he turned towards film and theater.

ASOMUGHHA: I think filmmaking and theater is very much a team sport. It's a group of people that are coming together with a common purpose to achieve a goal, and no one person is bigger than the team. I'm trying to think of all the cliche things that they tell you in football. And there's a director there or a coach.

KENNY LEON: This is the beginning of seeing a great grade, all-pro Broadway actor.

LUNDEN: Tony Award winner Kenny Leon is director of "A Soldier's Play," about a platoon of former Negro League ballplayers, which is not only a murder mystery but looks at race and power in the Army in 1944.

LEON: He has a sense of truth and authenticity and a effortlessness that he has in his acting that you can't teach.

LUNDEN: Asomugha's playing a role that Denzel Washington did in the original 1981 production, Private First Class Melvin Peterson, who immediately gets into a nasty conflict with his sergeant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Melvin Peterson) They let him in the Army because they know he'll do anything they tell him to. Yeah, I seen this kind of fool before. Somebody is going to kill him.

LUNDEN: For his part, Nnamdi Asomugha says being in a Broadway play requires the same kind of discipline and focus as starring in the NFL.

ASOMUGHHA: It's been difficult. It is definitely a workout doing eight shows a week.

LUNDEN: Still, just last week, Asomugha was spent his day off at the Sundance Festival, where his new romantic comedy, "Sylvie's Love," had its world premiere. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.