From NFL Sundays to Sundance: Nnamdi Asomugha Is Living His Best Life

The former Pro Bowler is suddenly a legit movie star, drawing comparisons to Brad Pitt. How do you start over as a rookie in Hollywood? Leave football, trash talk—all that—way behind you.
photo of Joon LeeJoon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterAugust 15, 2017

Nnamdi Asomugha peeks into the theater to check how much time is left in the screening of Crown Heights. As he inches down the hallway into the auditorium, Asomugha comes face-to-face with himself, his image growing on the 777-inch silver screen as he gets closer. The sound of his character’s Trinidadian lilt, which took months for Asomugha to perfect, fills the room.

The 200 moviegoers are watching the pivotal jail scene unpacking the real-life friendship between Colin Warner (played by Lakeith Stanfield), who was wrongly convicted of murder, and Carl King (played by Asomugha), who spent three decades trying to prove Warner’s innocence.

“Why are you still wasting your time on me?” Warner asks.

“It’s not just about you,” Asomugha, as King, says. “It’s bigger than that.”

And just like that, Asomugha disappears from the Baltimore theater, unable to watch himself on screen any longer.  

(Joon Lee for B/R Mag)

During his 11-year NFL career with the Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, Asomugha had a penchant for watching himself. Not in the big screen, Hollywood kind of way, though. He’d study game footage in his quest to become a star shutdown cornerback. Now, as an actor, Asomugha prefers not to watch himself, despite the praise he’s received in his new, budding career.

“I saw Brad Pitt doing a Jamaican accent once and I was so impressed by the way he was playing a character that was being possessed by a Jamaican,” Leon Morenzie, Asomugha’s Trinidadian dialect coach, says of Pitt in Meet Joe Black. “This is the kind of actor that Nnamdi reminds me of. It might be absurd because he’s a newcomer to make that observation, but that’s what I’m reminded of.”

Four years after his last NFL game, Asomugha is already being compared to the best in his new profession as he promotes Crown Heights, his feature film debut, opening August 18 in select theaters. The movie won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, previously given to films such as Whiplash and Precious, and Asomugha received acclaim for his performance. From Variety’s review: “Asomugha really comes into his own as an actor in this role, dialing down the heroic aggrandizement and instead stressing the sheer weariness that such dedication enacts.”

He has only screened the film twice, though—just to see the final product. He doesn’t want to watch it for critique’s sake. “You don’t want to get stuck in that movie,” Asomugha tells B/R Mag after the screening, part of last month’s NAACP convention. “You want to keep surprising yourself, so if you keep watching yourself, you can’t.”

The movie symbolizes Asomugha’s new life—where he’s a rookie in a position to chase greatness, operates a production company, Iam21, and is married to actress Kerry Washington. In football, he was once on track to be a Hall of Famer. But Asomugha entered free agency in 2011 as the best player on the market, earning a mega contract with the Eagles before things fell apart. “Anytime you leave something you’ve done and where you’ve been for nearly a decade, it’s going to be different,” Asomugha says. By the end of 2013, he was out of the league, forgotten.

Asomugha began his Hollywood journey less than a year later as he started to write scripts and produce films. “I still am entry level,” Asomugha says. “I haven’t been expecting any of what’s gone on. It’s not a doubting. It’s a new world.”

His new world soon became an opportunity to be remembered, again.

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He knew everything before the snap, before the ball even came his way, which it rarely did. And even if there was a wrinkle in the play, he was fit enough to make up for it. For six-and-a-half seasons, few quarterbacks threw at Nnamdi Asomugha (NAHM-dee AH-sum-wah) because it was a waste of energy. In the five years with Oakland that Pro Football Focus graded, Asomugha averaged just 257 yards and 19.8 catches surrendered per season, slightly more than one catch per game.

“There would be several games per season where I would feel invincible,” Asomugha says.

After he became dominant, Asomugha says nobody trash-talked him because they knew what they were up against. The last time someone trash-talked him came in 2005, when Asomugha faced off against Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Johnson finished the game with one catch for 16 yards on seven targets. He says no one tried to talk smack after that.

The cornerback position attracts some of the most legendary trash-talkers of all time, but that was never Nnamdi. He’d watch press conference film of opponents and other cornerbacks talking trash, but that was never the way he wanted to be.

“That was theater to me,” Asomugha says. “I loved when these guys talked, watching the show. The spectacle, I loved it. I could never adopt it. It wasn’t in me.”

None of that mattered because, for a long time, Asomugha’s performance didn’t need any verbal backup. His All-Pro performance in Oakland set him up to receive a massive contract in free agency in 2011 after eight seasons with the Raiders. In Oakland, he’d earned three Pro Bowl selections and first-team All-Pro honors in 2008 and 2010. His confidence was sky high. “Everything in life is about confidence,” Asomugha says. “The more you have, the further you'll go usually.”

Teammates knew Asomugha would be successful at whatever he wanted after his playing career. Even back then, Asomugha talked about pursuing a job in front of the camera, as a broadcaster or an actor.

Jason Babin, who played with Asomugha in Philadelphia, used to exchange books like Freakonomics with the cornerback to discuss politics, economics and history. “We sat and talked about things nobody else wanted to talk about,” Babin says. “It was good for both of us, someone that we could talk to about topics where people would look at us crazy for even discussing.”

The accolades and his reputation made Asomugha one of the most coveted free agents in 2011. For the first time, the spotlight shined squarely on him, a situation he didn’t embrace. Even as he begins his career in Hollywood, where attention is currency and often comes in the form of self-promotion, Asomugha is OK with leading a low-key, quiet life—away from paparazzi and the self-indulgence of social media. He doesn’t answer questions about his marriage with actress Kerry Washington or operate any personal social media accounts.

“I’m really bad at self-promotion. I know that about myself,” Asomugha says. “People told me all of the time, ‘You could be such a big star if you just talked about yourself more,’ but I’m not good at that. It’s always been about team.”

(Amazon Studios)

Peter Berg saw something in Nnamdi Asomugha. Something about him just worked on camera. On the set of a Nike commercial shoot in 2009, Berg, a noted commercial and television director, wanted the Raiders star for his television show.

“I do this all of the time and I rarely get athletes as prepared as you were, as natural as you were,” Berg told Asomugha. “We should get a drink. I want to talk.”

“OK, yeah,” Asomugha said. “But I’ve gotta catch a flight.”

Two months passed before Asomugha’s phone rang again. It was Berg, and he wanted the star cornerback on his television show.

“What’s the TV show?”

Friday Night Lights.”

Asomugha called his agent, who was thrilled. “Do you know who Peter Berg is?” the agent said. “That’s a big deal.” Asomugha had no clue, but it was only natural that the start of his acting career would combine football.

Soon, he was on set getting ready for his scene in the Season Four premiere. He was playing police officer Ken Shaw, who was responsible for introducing Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) to Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). He’d spent hours perfecting the scene. I need to make sure I hit all of these lines, he thought.

When Berg called Asomugha’s name on set, Asomugha felt ready. He was, however, unaware of the famously improvisational nature of the Friday Night Lights set. Actors were free to deliver lines however they saw fit as long as they hit critical plot points. Asomugha was on the spot.

“Work it out,” Berg told Asomugha.

Asomugha ditched the script and delivered lines that felt natural. He realized this could be his second act. “You have something here,” Berg told Asomugha. “Nurture it a little bit.”

“I knew that there was something I could look into when I was done,” Asomugha says. “That was the first moment.”

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Talking about Philadelphia remains a soft spot for Asomugha. Sitting at a table outside the National Aquarium in Baltimore after lunch, he ponders the questions about his time with the Eagles. As the breeze from the Patapsco River helps cool a humid summer day in the DMV, the constant grin that occupies Asomugha’s face turns expressionless as he stares blankly ahead, not making eye contact. He speaks slower, often pausing for four, five seconds mid-sentence. He needs to choose all of the right words. He doesn’t want to make any excuses about that period of his career, he later says.

He felt rushed going into that offseason. The lockout changed things. He couldn’t prepare for the biggest decision of his life. As the NFL and the Players Association negotiated the next collective bargaining agreement, Asomugha rehabbed an ankle injury, unable to talk to anyone from Oakland or any prospective employers. When the lockout finally ended, Asomugha needed to choose a new team in 18 hours without any visits. Maybe, he says, he makes a different decision if there wasn’t a lockout. It’s a moot point, though. Asomugha doesn’t want to play the what-if game.

“It wasn’t like I could spend much time talking about defenses and schemes,” Asomugha says. “It was ‘pick the team, the head coach and make a decision.’ And that’s what we did.”

He chose Andy Reid and Philadelphia, signing a five-year, $60 million contract. He loved Reid, who he still texts to this day, and was excited to move from one passionate fanbase to another. Everyone else took note of the dollar sign, including his teammates. The day the players received their first paychecks after Asomugha received his new contract, the Eagles locker room crowded around their newly minted free-agency jewel, hoping to get a glimpse of the number on the check. All right, Nnamdi. Let’s see yours. Let’s see yours, Eagles players yelled. “It was on everyone’s mind,” Babin says.

Asomugha willingly took on the weight from teammates and fans alike that came with the big-ticket contract. “He had broad shoulders and he took it,” Babin says. “He took the approach of, ‘I get it. I’m the guy. I’m the leader of the team.’ He had the big price tag. He knew what he had to do.”

The entire offseason felt rushed after the lockout. As training camp started, things didn’t jell as personalities clashed in the locker room. “The Dream Team,” a sobriquet coined by Vince Young, started the season 1-4 and finished 8-8, missing the playoffs.

“We all just came in trying to learn and trying to pick it up as quickly as possible,” Asomugha says. “It was never a feeling of ‘I’ve been here before. We’ve done this before. I can come in with the same confidence that I had before.’”

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The defense finished eighth overall, but as the big-ticket free agent, Asomugha took most of the blame for the team’s struggles.  The second year didn’t go any better, as the Eagles finished 4-12. In his two years with the Eagles, Asomugha allowed nine touchdowns in 32 games after allowing just one score in 45 games for Oakland from 2008-10, according to Pro Football Focus.

Then came the report from former Eagles defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, who said Asomugha regularly ate lunch by himself in his car, the 1997 Nissan Maxima that he’s had since high school. Asomugha says it wasn’t an unusual thing to do.

“It was interesting that that came out because guys would go home, guys would eat in their car. It’s not an abnormal thing on any team,” Asomugha says, as he starts making eye contact again. “We’d eat in the training room. We’d eat in the locker room. We’d eat in all sorts of places.”

It was too late, though, for Asomugha. And the more he struggled, the more he became the scapegoat for the team’s failures.

“I have no idea where that information came from, but it seemed written to frame his approach and his actions as a separatist or trying to put himself away from everyone else,” Babin says. “We in the locker room all knew the reality of it.” According to Babin, Asomugha’s teammates knew that he was reserved—that he was the kind of guy who enjoyed time collecting his thoughts, reading and listening to music by himself, and they didn’t take issue with it.

The Eagles and new head coach Chip Kelly released Asomugha in March 2013. He signed a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers, appearing in three games before being released in November. Asomugha’s narrative as a coveted corner, whom QBs feared, changed. He was now the “worst free-agent signing in NFL history,” according to many fans and talking heads.

Asomugha announced his retirement in December 2013, when he began to ponder advice from Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. “Once you finish, take some time and focus on one thing,” Lott said. “Go after the same thing you want in football.”

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He felt the feeling again. The nervous excitement. The adrenaline rush. The feeling he used to feel when the national anthem played before football games. He found it in the tunnel leading up to the stage at the Circle in the Square Theatre in Manhattan. He was taking part in the stage reading of a John Patrick Shanley play, set up through a friend, when it hit him. As he walked on stage, looking out at the cheering audience, he remembered his time working with Berg on Friday Night Lights. “These things were confirming to me that this was something I should test out,” Asomugha says.

He dipped his toe in the water first, writing and starring in his own short film, Double Negative. He started making a full-time transition to Hollywood by producing Beasts of No Nation, which received critical acclaim and earned an award at the Venice Film Festival. Asomugha nearly joined the producing team for the upcoming Denzel Washington movie Roman Israel, ESQ., a big opportunity he didn’t expect.

He felt like a young rising star again, similar to when then-Raiders owner Al Davis moved him from safety to cornerback. “It’s a similar challenge for me, but in a different arena,” Asomugha says. “When you come into the league, it’s about doing something I hadn’t done before, or hadn’t done often.”

Asomugha met director Matt Ruskin through a mutual friend and read the Crown Heights script. He fell in love with the story and immediately pushed for an audition. Ruskin quickly realized Asomugha was his Carl King. Asomugha peppered Ruskin with questions about everything, from his character’s motivations to whether King would hold the door for his girlfriend. “He was so well-prepared,” Ruskin says. “He took direction really well, as well as anyone I had ever worked with.”

Sundance soon accepted two films Asomugha and Iam21 Entertainment worked on. A third, Patti Cake$, which he personally helped finance, reportedly sold for $9.5 million at Sundance, the second-largest sale at the festival. Veteran actor Tony Goldwyn, who acts alongside Kerry Washington on Scandal, gave praise to Asomugha’s Sundance successes on The Rich Eisen Show. “I’m a little jealous of Nnamdi,” Goldwyn said. “This year at the Sundance Film Festival, he had two films. He just got into the movie business. One he starred in. … The other film he produced and sold for a big chunk of money. That doesn’t happen to anybody.”

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It happened to Asomugha, who admits he’s still somewhat naive to the magnitude of his early accomplishments. Asomugha didn’t know Sundance was a competition before he submitted his films. The work he’d put into each one of his movies made massive success seem like an inevitability to him. “Everybody else is doing backflips and going crazy. I just felt like it was the next step.”

The film concludes 45 minutes after the first peek, and Asomugha, King and Warner enter the Baltimore theater to sit on a panel, addressing convention attendees who’ve given the film a standing ovation. Throughout the course of the 30-minute panel, Asomugha speaks once for about a minute, allowing the real-life Colin Warner and Carl King to answer questions about their life story from an enthusiastic crowd. The film and the crowd’s reaction are the manifestation of his lifelong love of movies, from Boyz n the Hood and Malcolm X to Goodfellas.

“He's a total cinephile,” Ruskin says. “He'll send me foreign films or independent films that I haven't even seen.” He watched Dunkirk twice during its opening weekend, once in Los Angeles, once in New York in IMAX. He’s excited to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Detroit, which stars John Boyega, in one of Boyega’s first opportunities to show range outside of the Star Wars universe. “It’s probably important for him that he’s not just living on the Star Wars thing, because he’s super-talented,” Asomugha says of Boyega, seemingly speaking from a place of knowledge.

While his NFL career is in his rear view, Asomugha isn’t sure what the next 10 years in film looks like for him. Morenzie says Asomugha’s poise on screen is unusual for a newcomer.  “There’s no frustration,” Morenzie says. “I teach people all of the time. They want to grab and jump and want to do it quickly. He takes his time and produces for you.”

But for right now, the so-called worst NFL free-agent signing is maximizing this period of his life as a Hollywood auteur. Next up is his film Halfway, which he executive produced, and Harriet, an announced biopic of Harriet Tubman, which he will executive produce.

As the panels ends and audience members rush up to ask King and Warner for pictures, Asomugha takes in the moment. “That’s what all of this is for.”

He feels invincible.

Editor's note: An earlier version of the story misstated Asomugha's connection to Roman Israel, ESQ. Asomugha's publicist later clarified his initial comments to the writer. 

Joon Lee is a staff writer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag.

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