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On a dimly lit New York City subway platform, the NFL's highest-paid player watches a group of 10 teenagers goof around. One of the kids hands a video camera to a friend and begins doing a dance reminiscent of Billy (White Shoes) Johnson's touchdown celebration, except slower and more strenuous. The dancer leans his upper body forward while his knees butterfly open and closed, then he finishes by putting the back of his hand against his forehead in a gesture of mock relief. Many in the group chuckle and applaud before turning to the player, who's in blue jeans and a peacoat. They want to see if Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland's 27-year-old Pro Bowl cornerback, can do the Jerk.
Asomugha (pronounced AH-sum-wah) makes as if he's going to accept the challenge, then stops and laughs, perhaps realizing he would have a hard time telling Raiders owner Al Davis how he injured himself just two months after signing a three-year contract worth up to $45.3 million. Many who know Asomugha would be shocked to see him cutting up with the kids. With his head held high and his shoulders back, he has an almost regal bearing, and he weighs his words as carefully as he picks a tie to match the faint pink stripes in a gray suit. Even in the Oakland defense's no-holds-barred meeting room, where pride and sanity are regularly assaulted, Asomugha responds with a chuckle and an "Oh, dear," when caught on tape making a rare mistake.
What wouldn't surprise anyone, though, is that the 10 boisterous teens in the subway are in New York thanks to the generosity of Asomugha, who for the past three springs has underwritten—and chaperoned—five-day trips for high-achieving and often economically disadvantaged students as part of his work with the nonprofit East Oakland Youth Development Center. He has taken this group to see Billy Elliott and Ellis Island, and accompanied them on tours of NYU, Juilliard, Columbia and the New School. "Being from Oakland, they can be so distracted they might never give college a chance," says Asomugha, who took groups to Atlanta in 2007 and to Boston in '08. "This way they are exposed to college life and life outside inner-city Oakland. So far the kids have all ended up in colleges—not necessarily the ones I've shown them, but the point is to get to that next level."
Since the Raiders' season ended last December, Asomugha has held a fund-raiser for Orphans and Widows in Need, the charity his mother founded to aid the disadvantaged in his parents' native Nigeria; addressed the United Nations on ways to fight the spread of malaria; and sat on a panel on the importance of community service with former President Clinton, whose Harlem office he visited with his Bay Area teens. "If I were to choose a verse that would sum up Nnamdi, it would be Proverbs 22:29," says his older sister, Chisara, who's an ordained minister. "It says, 'See a man who is diligent in his business. He will stand before kings.'"
It's fair to say that if Tom Brady or Peyton Manning were to stroll across NYU's campus on a spring afternoon, he'd attract some attention. Asomugha, who in 2009 will earn more than either quarterback, goes unrecognized—even by a man in a CAL T-shirt who nearly bumps into him. Cal happens to be Asomugha's alma mater.
In NFL circles Asomugha is, of course, widely known—and, by offensive coordinators, respectfully avoided. Because Raiders cornerbacks line up in bump-and-run coverage 90% of the time, they're often one mental lapse from being beaten; typically the only help is a safety in the middle of the field. Yet over the past two seasons Asomugha has been targeted 73 times and allowed just one touchdown, according to STATSPASS. When Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers looks out of the corner of his eye and sees the 6'2", 210-pound Asomugha in his crouch, he's immediately struck by what he calls the "presence" of number 21.
"He's the real deal," says Cardinals All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. "He's big and physical and has good hips. He's also very patient and has a high football IQ. You can tell he watches a lot of tape because you see him running routes for receivers. That means he's reading their tendencies."
Yet just three years ago Asomugha was far from the real deal; in fact, he was shaping up as a first-round bust. Picked 31st in 2003, he had been a playmaking free safety at Berkeley, where he returned interceptions for TDs three straight years. But Davis envisioned him as a press corner, and Asomugha struggled to accept the move. He started eight games total in his first two seasons, then watched the Raiders spend their first two draft choices in 2005 on cornerbacks. "I was finishing my second year thinking, They don't like me," Asomugha says.
But when Oakland dealt incumbent Phillip Buchanon to the Texans in April '05, Asomugha finally got a shot at a starting job. His first game was the nationally televised opener against the Super Bowl champion Patriots. On New England's first snap, wideout Deion Branch faked a corner route and broke toward the middle on a deep post. Asomugha expected safety help, but none came. His recollection? "I see that ball in the air, and I'm like, Not the first play."
Though the pass fell incomplete, the reprieve was momentary. Brady completed 24 of 28 throws for 306 yards and two touchdowns in the 30--20 victory. He picked on Asomugha repeatedly, leaving the cornerback shaken and searching.