Recently retired NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha visited Chicago on Mar. 29 to receive the Common Ground Foundation's Global Impact Award. Asomugha, married to actress Kerry Washington, was honored for work his Asomugha Foundation does with inner-city youth across the country and with widows and orphans in his native Nigeria and in South Africa. | Jeff Schear for the Common Ground Foundation
Updated: May 13, 2014 6:05AM
Recently retired NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha spoke softly, a fire just below the surface, about his parents’ experience as African immigrants.
He could have been talking, in a way, about my own Nigerian American family.
“My parents came here with nothing. And then they had four kids,” said Asomugha, 32, like me the child of Nigerian parents who came to America seeking a better life.
Mine settled in Chicago, raising their seven children on the Near South Side and in southwest suburban Woodridge. Asomugha was born in Lafayette, La., and raised in L.A.
“As a child, we can probably look back and think, ‘Oh, we were fine,’ but they were struggling. It was difficult on them,” said Asomugha, who is married to “Scandal” actress Kerry Washington. “But they came with nothing, and made a living for themselves.”
The football player and noted philanthropist spent eight years with the Oakland Raiders — during which time he was the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history — followed by two years with the Philadelphia Eagles and a year with the San Francisco 49ers before being waived in November. But on this day he was chatting about our shared Nigerian heritage.
Our back stories are very much the same. So Asomugha, in town last month to be honored by actor/rapper Common’s Common Ground Foundation, agreed to an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. We sat down just before the March 29 gala.
What I was most interested in, as in my past interviews with mega-successful Nigerians and other Africans here, was how he and his family give back to their homeland.
It is something that seems inbred, as I’ve found in interviews over the years with people such as Chicago Bear Israel Idonije and former Chicago Bull Luol Deng.
“This was something that my Mom started. It was her way of giving back,” Asomugha said of the Orphans and Widows in Need program founded by his mother, Dr. Lillian Asomugha in 2005. “She said, ‘I want to go back to Nigeria, to where I’m from, and impact the people that are there’ — the youth, the orphans, and the widows.”
Her work is funded by her son’s Asomugha Foundation, which received Common Ground’s Global Impact Award. The foundation has garnered its namesake high accolades for not only its work in Africa, but its work with inner-city youth in cities where he played.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, oil-rich but marred by third-world poverty.
Asomugha’s foundation provides food, shelter, medicine, vocational training and scholarships in his mother’s hometown of Umuahia, in Abia-State. It supports two community centers there and recently has expanded its work to South Africa.
“My father passed at a young age, so there was a connection from my mom, my siblings — all of us — to orphans and widows,” said Asomugha, whose father, Godfrey, died in 1994.
“My mom saw what she struggled with as a widow, and being an American, she said, ‘Well, I can’t imagine what they’re struggling with in Nigeria.’ So the plan was ‘let’s go back to Nigeria and let’s start a foundation there. Let’s start giving back to those that are in need. Let’s go give back to the country we’re from,’ ” he said.
Asomugha is of the Igbo tribe, as am I. His parents came to this country in 1972 with the clothes on their backs; as did mine, in the late ’60s.
My father had been attending Northwestern University here when the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1966-1970 broke out, and he worked to bring his wife and six children out of a country ravaged by ethnic cleansing and famine. We arrived in Chicago on June 9, 1969.
Both of us lost our fathers as children, mine died in 1981. And our mothers struggled to raise their children on their own. In the end, their children would be successful.
And both widows demanded their children never forget their homeland.
My mother’s efforts started in 1996 when, during an annual trip to Nigeria, she was disturbed to find women and children suffering from kwashiorkor — severe malnutrition — which had been rampant during the war, spurred this time by a devastated economy.
Her ensuing endeavors led to her charity, Voice of a Woman for Humanity, which brought soup kitchens, a waterpipe system and electric generators to her hometown of Okwu, in Imo-State. Through the nonprofit, she distributes clothing, medicine, medical supplies and scholarships to the poor; and start-up capital to poor women to start businesses.
She accomplished it all by lovingly shaking down her children, whom she’d taught that to whom much is given, much is expected, and that you have to help the homeland.
Asomugha, Idonije, Deng, they all said they were raised with the same understanding.
“Our Nigerian background, it’s all about education. It starts from a very young age, an extremely young age. Even if you aren’t necessarily into it, as a child, it’s something that becomes grounded and rooted in you from the start,” he said. I nod in agreement.
“You know how it is when you’re growing up, you don’t have any money, but you’re made to think that you have everything,” he continued. I said I knew.
“And then I ended up going to Berkeley, and it was just a great experience being at Berkeley for those four years. So I said, I want some of these other students that are coming from the situations I came from to experience what I experienced, just seeing that there is something else out there,” he said of launching his Asomugha College Tour for Scholars in 1996, which takes inner-city youth on an annual all-expense-paid tour.
Recognition for his philanthropy ranges from the Clinton Global Initiative to the President’s Volunteer Service Award, from the Jefferson Award to the NFL’s highest honor for community service. But Asomugha says his work with his mother in his homeland is among his most cherished. And he and I agreed it’s just a Nigerian American thing.