Nkemdiche matriarch hopes sons play together
SNELLVILLE, Ga. -- Beverly Nkemdiche will take her seat in Sanford Stadium Saturday afternoon, a bit envious of another mother, Allyson Ogletree.
Nkemdiche's middle son, Denzel, is a starting linebacker for Ole Miss. Her youngest son, Robert, is the nation's top-ranked high school prospect. Robert Nkemdiche, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound strongside defensive end from Loganville (Grayson), Ga., will watch the Rebels and the seventh-ranked Bulldogs as an unofficial visitor.
If Beverly has her way, it will be the closest Robert ever gets to the UGA program. If Beverly's wish is granted, Robert will be on the field with Denzel at Ole Miss next fall.
"I'm not going to hide it. I can stand on top of the hill to say it," Beverly Nkemdiche said Friday during an interview with Rivals.com at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Snellville. "Can you imagine if he goes to UGA and Ole Miss is playing UGA? There would be two brothers playing against each other. That competition would be there, and there would be some kind of bitterness and animosity that would develop.
"But if they play together, I would go to one side. Whose side would I go to if they were playing against each other? Will I go with my young son because he's so talented? Or will I go with my middle son who has worked himself to where he is? I'm proud of both of them."
Beverly's favorite football season was 2010. Denzel was a senior was at Grayson. Robert was a sophomore. That fall, she said, was "wonderful. It was magical. Honestly speaking, it was magical. I don't know the terms they use, but they would give each other signs. When they had a touchdown, they would look for each other right there and jump up together and bump their chests like men do. As a mom watching that, it was thrilling for me. It made them get closer. They bonded so much."
Beverly said she would be jealous of Ogletree Saturday. Ogletree's twin sons, Alec and Zander, play for Georgia. She said she often thinks about what a powerful experience it would be to see her boys wearing the same uniform on such a large stage.
"I can't even stop smiling. I visualize them. I imagine them, the Nkemdiche boys. …Oh, it would be awesome. It would be great. I can't even stop smiling just thinking about it, coming to a place and seeing my two boys. I wonder how Mrs. Ogletree feels about her boys playing together and doing great. That would be so nice. That would be really awesome. That would be good."
Beverly believes if Denzel and Robert play together in college, they would forge a bond that would endure the rest of their lives. She is also confident they would win.
"They would do well together," she said. "They would build a stronger defense for whatever school they were in, and right now, Denzel is at Ole Miss. If Denzel were to be at Clemson, for example, Ole Miss wouldn't be in the picture for me. If Denzel were to be at Notre Dame, Ole Miss wouldn't be in the picture. I wouldn't be talking about Ole Miss. I would be talking about wanting my boys to be together, even if it were in Alaska."
NOT YOUR TYPICAL FOOTBALL MOM
Saturday's game in Athens is Ole Miss' ninth of the season. It will be the first, however, that Beverly has attended in person. The daughter of a former Nigerian supreme court justice, Beverly won election as a state legislator in her native Nigeria in 2011. She has an office in Awka, the capital of Anambra State, Nigeria. The city is some 300 miles east of Lagos in southeastern Nigeria.
Beverly Ikpeauzu moved to Oklahoma prior to her senior year in high school and attended college in Oklahoma City. She married a doctor, Sunday Nkemdiche, and built a family in the United States. After her parents passed away, Beverly began returning to Nigeria and "started seeing a need for change and a need to intervene. My passion is for the youth and for young girls. There's a need to educate them, to give them more, to motivate them.
[Recruiting: Ole Miss in on another 5-star defensive end?]
"So we are working on skill acquisition to empower them, to do better. The ones that can do the classroom, we develop skills for them like head dressing, baking, cooking, things like that. I started noticing a need and I knew I could make a difference in people's lives, especially in my constituency."
She is serving a four-year term in Nigeria, returning to the Atlanta area three or four times a year to catch up with her family, which also includes her oldest son, Bryan, a 21-year-old aspiring musician currently living in Los Angeles.
"My kids are grown, so to speak," Beverly said. "I've given them and instilled in them the best things I can. If I go home, I can be coming and going, but there are people who actually need me there."
The work in Nigeria, she said, has been "awesome. It's not easy though. It's not as easy as I thought it would be. There's more than you see. When you get down to it, there are more people who need help than we see. Now I need more to help people. I have so much to do. The youth are just wasting away, so we're trying to create jobs in my state. We need infrastructure. We need good roads. We need a good education system. We need health assistance and all that. It has not been so easy.
"But it's been fulfilling for me because I see a need and you have to solve that need. That is the reason that God created us, trust me - to go out there and help solve a problem, whether you're making money solving the problem or you're not. It doesn't matter. If there's a need, there's a solution."
FOOTBALL FROM AFAR
Awka is five hours ahead of Atlanta and six hours ahead of Oxford, Miss. She is unable to watch Robert's or Denzel's games on television from Nigeria, meaning Beverly must find other ways to keep up with her son's exploits on the gridiron.
"I didn't want them to play football," she said Thursday, laughing. "They didn't start playing until the seventh grade because I didn't want them to get hurt. When Robert was playing for Grayson recreation, I wanted to chase the one trying to tackle him until I saw he was the one tackling other people. I didn't want my kids to play ball because I thought it was too physical.
"With Robert, it's just a talent God blessed him with. He's just so masculine, so I couldn't do anything but accept that the boys will play ball. My first game, I closed my eyes. I wanted them to play tennis and all that."
On Fridays, Beverly said, she waits for texts from her husband about Robert's games. On Saturdays, she does more of the same, though she isn't satisfied until she receives an update from Ole Miss defensive backs coach/co-defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff.
"Oh my God, I love that man," she said. "He will text me when they finish the game, whether they lose or win. He will text me and always let me know what's going on. The first thing he always says is, 'Denzel is fine.'
"My husband, oh, I drive that man crazy. I say, 'Keep texting me. What's going on? Did they hurt my son?' With Robert, he said, 'Beverly, stop. Robert is the one you need to be concerned about hurting somebody.' I worry. I sincerely worry for my children."
Denzel was lightly recruited during his senior season at Grayson. He appeared destined for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College as an academic casualty before shoring up his grades and making the needed score on a standardized test.
Ole Miss was the first school to offer Denzel, and an official visit to Oxford sealed the deal. He redshirted last season, watching from the sidelines as the Rebels limped to a 2-10 record, one that resulted in the firing of Houston Nutt.
Former Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze replaced Nutt in December 2011. The move revitalized Denzel's career. Denzel moved from safety to linebacker in August and has thrived in his new role. Entering Saturday's game at Georgia, Denzel has 52 tackles, two quarterback sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Last Saturday, in the Rebels' 30-27 win over Arkansas in Little Rock, Denzel intercepted Razorback quarterback Tyler Wilson.
[Related: Denzel no longer in brother's shadow]
"When he caught that ball, I jumped up and yelled at the TV, 'Go Nkemdiche! Yeah! Go! Go!'" said Beverly, who had arrived in the United States from Nigeria just 24 hours earlier.
Denzel's emergence as both an elite defender and an unquestioned team leader has been a surprise in Oxford and throughout the Southeast. Neither development has surprised his mom.
"People don't know Denzel," Beverly said. "Denzel is a fighter. He reminds me so much of my father. Denzel is a leader. He has always been, even when he was this high (holding her hand a foot off the floor). He's always made his voice hears. He doesn't care who you are or what you're trying to tell him. He's done well at Ole Miss. He's thrived."
Like many who follow Ole Miss, Beverly has become quite a fan of Freeze.
"Coach Freeze is a father to those boys," Beverly said. "He's a good man. He's a good Christian man. He's God-fearing. I had the opportunity to talk to him one-on-one when I went to Ole Miss back in the summer, he and some of his staff as well. I like him. I spoke to his wife (Jill). He's a good person. He has turned the team around to positive. He loves those kids genuinely."
Ole Miss is 5-3 overall and 2-2 in the Southeastern Conference entering Saturday's game. More important than the turnaround on the field, Beverly said, is what Freeze has accomplished off of it. Freeze inherited a program in disarray academically. It lacked discipline. Less than one year into the job, the number of academically at-risk players has been dramatically reduced and the program has enjoyed precious few off-the-field issues. Freeze and his staff, Beverly said, have earned her trust.
"I want the best as far as education for my children," Beverly said. "Football is for a season, a period of time. If they don't accomplish anything in the university and come out, it would be a disaster because they have to have something to fall back to.
"Ole Miss has done something that truly touched my heart. About two months ago, Denzel's grades started shaking. They pulled him to the corner and even emailed me. And he quickly turned it around because he wants to continue to play. That really touched me. I don't want my kids to be beasts on the field and stupid outside the field. No."
While Denzel is vocal and charismatic, Robert is more reserved.
"He's a laid-back person, a little more like his father," Beverly said of her youngest son. "He can be firm. Sometimes when he says no, you can't get him to say yes. He's very humble and he has a big heart. He loves children."
While Denzel was not hotly pursued, Robert's recruiting has been a veritable circus for the past three years. Robert has scholarship offers from virtually every major college football program in America. His has become a household name in fan circles, and his every move and word is dissected by media eager to break news regarding his college choice.
"It's unbelievable," Beverly said. "Being in the media, for me, it's nothing compared to what's going on with Robert. It reminds me of soccer players in Europe and Africa, how people buzz about them. They hunt them down. The only part that really bothers me is they have forgotten that regardless of his size, he's a young kid. They put so much pressure on him to say things and some turn those words around to make him seem cocky and all that. I don't want so much pressure on him. It's just so much."
Beverly and Robert stay in constant contact, using Facebook and phones to talk and exchange thoughts. However, when Robert gave a verbal commitment to Clemson on June 14, the news was shocking to his parents.
Robert took the unofficial visit to Clemson with high school teammates Wayne Gallman and David Kamara and without his father, who had made every previous college visit with his son. Gallman had already committed to Clemson. Kamara committed to the Tigers on June 13.
Sunday Nkemdiche was watching basketball on television when he saw news of his son's commitment to Clemson on the scroll running across the bottom of the screen. Sunday called his wife in Nigeria to break the news.
"My blood pressure went up," Beverly said. "I'm not kidding you. What hurt me was this is a man who has worked for his son. For him to be watching basketball and they flashed this, that was not nice.
"I'm not saying I will not forgive them, but to me, they disrespected my husband. My husband has always gone everywhere with my son. This one time that he didn't go, he said, 'Yeah, I like it. I'm going to play here.' (Clemson) got the media to blab it without calling the child's parents. …I didn't like that. You don't do that without a parent. If I were the coach, this is how I would've handled it: I would've said, 'Let's call your dad or your mom.' Because they know dad goes everywhere with Robert. …That didn't sit well with me and it would not sit well with any parent who truly loves their child. This is a big decision. To me, it was so unceremonious."
Yet as recently as Thursday night, following his team's 48-0 win over Archer, Robert maintained his commitment to the Tigers.
"He's going to continue to say that. He is so scared of the media," Beverly said. "He said, 'Mom, if I say anything else now, everyone will come down on me.' He's so afraid in his mind, honestly. That's what I've gathered."
A MOTHER'S WISH
Beverly drew headlines and criticism earlier this week when she strongly expressed her desire for Robert to sign with Ole Miss in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"I want folks to understand, I'm not trying to dictate where Robert goes," Beverly said. "They're making it like, 'Oh, that poor child wants to go to Clemson but the mother is not letting him go.' I'm not going to be traveling all over the United States. It's my wish.
"If tomorrow Robert were to say, 'Mom, I love you so much, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but if I don't go to Clemson, I won't play again,' I won't be in his way. But I'm telling you, it's not going to happen. He won't say that."
On Saturday, Robert will visit Georgia and sit with other recruits checking out Athens. He said Thursday he is open to the Bulldogs, and UGA coach Mark Richt called Beverly earlier this week. However, Beverly said Robert won't sit with the Ole Miss family and friends group "just to avoid people making up their own conclusion or whatever. But deep down, deep down, I know he will play for Ole Miss.
"This is a family that we've always worked together. This one is not going to be different. Robert is not going to do anything to hurt his mom."
Beverly said she expects backlash if Robert reneges on his commitment to Clemson and chooses Ole Miss.
"They're going to take it away from him and lay it on me, which I can handle. They will say, 'Yeah, Mama has gotten her wish,' and they'll have the sympathy for Robert. They would say, 'Oh, he would have really loved Clemson and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.' But at least he wouldn't have it on him. It would be on me, which, honestly, to me, what people say about this is water on a duck's back. It will not break me because I have not done anything wrong.
"What I have done is wish the best for my kids and for them to be together and for them to bond. The Ogletree brothers are playing together, so why is this (different)? It's because Robert is the No. 1 prospect."
Beverly said she has never spoken to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney or his staff.
"To be fair to them, they sent me an email message inviting me to come to Clemson," Beverly said. "I told them if and when I have a chance, I will come. That was how I left it."
Perhaps surprisingly, Beverly saves some of her highest praise for Alabama, a school that was long considered the favorite to land Robert's signature prior to his commitment to Clemson.
"I love Alabama," Beverly said. "I love everything. The coach, (Alabama defensive coordinator) Kirby Smart, when they went to have their baby, he told me. He and I had a wonderful rapport on Facebook. I like him. I see him as a gentle character. I haven't met him though. He kept pressing for me to come, but again, I refuse to go to any of the schools. The only reason I went to Ole Miss was to visit with Denzel. Alabama is undefeated. They are wonderful. They have an excellent academic program."
Beverly said she once told Robert Alabama might provide him the greatest level of exposure to the NFL
"Robert told me, 'Mom, even if I play in the smallest school, the NFL will find me, so don't worry about that,'" Beverly said, adding Robert won't end up signing with the Crimson Tide "because of Denzel. I don't want them playing against each other. In the NFL, that's fine, if they both make it. They'd be grown men. But now, sibling rivalry, if it starts now, it might end up breaking them up."
THE END IS NEAR
The entire Nkemdiche clan, including Bryan, will convene in Oxford next weekend for the Rebels' date with Vanderbilt. The family reunion spurned speculation that Robert might switch his commitment to Ole Miss while the family was gathered together.
That won't happen, Beverly said.
"Nothing will happen until February," Beverly said, adding that she plans to return to the U.S. for a high school all-star game in Orlando, Fla., in January and then again in time for a signing day ceremony at Grayson on Feb. 6.
Beverly said she had wanted Robert to announce his college decision in September on his birthday. He begged off, she said, saying, "All this madness will start up again."
So the drama will apparently continue for another two-plus months. When it finally ends with the signing of a binding national letter-of-intent, Beverly plans to "kneel down and thank God. I'll say, 'Lord, thank you.'"
The recruiting process has brought the family closer, Beverly said, but that's not how she'll remember these last few months.
"We've always been very close," Beverly said. "It's actually driving everybody crazy."