Nnamdi Asomugha--pronounced Ah-sum-wah--believes there are two keys to his profession, which is to prevent some of the swiftest, surest-handed athletes on the planet from catching our national oblong obsession, the football. The first, says the All-Pro cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles, is patience. When defending a receiver, if you lean in too early--whoosh!--he is blowing by you, cradling the quarterback's spiral and chest-bumping his teammates in the end zone. You, meanwhile, are alone, toast, the target of taunts from Philadelphia's famously ill-tempered fans.
The second? "You have to be able to dance," Asomugha says during an early-September interview at a New York City trattoria while his fellow Eagles are enjoying an off day. He's wearing black jeans and a Beastie Boys T-shirt. "You're shuffling, you're spinning, you're doing a lot of stuff that your feet have to be great at." He has quizzed cornerbacks around the NFL, Can you cut a rug? The good ones brag about their skills; bad ones lament their lack of rhythm. "I may be crazy, but I believe it," he says. So when a photo of him dancing past 1 a.m. shows up on the Internet, don't fret, Philly. It's just late-night practice.
There's also a third aspect to his game: Asomugha leads the NFL in philanthropy. The former Oakland Raider has a lot to give. He was the prize free agent of this condensed NFL off-season--after the lockout ended in late July, football-starved fans anticipated his signing decision as if he were LeBron James. Asomugha signed a five-year, $60 million contract with Philadelphia, which also splashed for defensive end Jason Babin and quarterback Vince Young. The Birds are a popular pick to make it to the Super Bowl (though they have started the season 1-1).
Asomugha is a no-fly zone. According to the statistics site Football Outsiders, in 2010 opposing quarterbacks tossed just 31 passes, or 7.9% of their total throws, in his direction. The next best corner faced 54 passes--75% more. "He's taking the position to a new level," says Rob Ryan, defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, who coached Asomugha in Oakland. "If I had to put my life on the line and pick one guy to cover someone, I'd go with Nnamdi Asomugha."
The son of Nigerian immigrants--his dad, who died in 1994, was a petroleum engineer; his mom is a pharmacist--Asomugha, 30, grew up in a strict household in Los Angeles. He missed out on classroom chatter; Asomugha's parents made him read rather than watch the latest sitcoms. "It was a little struggle," he says. Asomugha, more so than his three siblings, who've all earned graduate degrees, wanted a TV. He finally got one, but when his mom caught him watching the cheesy '80s movie Mannequin, she took it away. Nudity--plastic or otherwise--was unacceptable.
The Asomughas would regularly visit homeless shelters and lead food drives. So even before 2009, when he signed for $28 million in guaranteed money with the Raiders, Asomugha had a habit of giving back. Today, he chairs two philanthropic programs. One supports vocational-skills training, business loans and health care for orphans and widows in Nigeria. The other takes a select group of inner-city students on spring tours of colleges like Harvard, Howard, Georgetown and NYU.