Jarvis Jenkins won’t forget his first day as a Chief anytime soon. Rakeem Nunez-Roches is a big reason for that.
This was November 2016, shortly after the Chiefs signed Jenkins, a five-year veteran at that point who knew better than to assume he’d be welcomed by his fellow D-line teammates with open arms. Players are fighting for their careers and livelihoods, and sometimes, that leads to internal competition.
Yet, Jenkins has encountered none of that in Kansas City, and it wouldn’t take him long to drop his guard around his new brethren. Because during his first meeting with his new group of players on the Chiefs’ defensive line, he was sitting in the meeting room, watching them walk in when Nunez-Roches approached him.
“Yo, I’m Rakeem Nunez-Roches,” he said, with an enthusiastic demeanor. “They call me ‘Nacho.’”
Jenkins was impressed by Nunez-Roches’ spirit and wide grin, which was only reinforced by the max effort Jenkins soon after watched Nunez-Roches give on the practice field. That’s when Jenkins realized he was watching a special person.
“You can tell the guy loves football –– that really sets the tone for a D-line,” Jenkins said. “It’s a mentality. Everybody in the league can play, but you’ve got to have at least one guy that gives you a little bit of motivation. That’s one thing he brings to the team and that’s why he’s so valuable.”
After recording 23 tackles and a sack in 282 defensive snaps a year ago, Nunez-Roches, 24, has earned more work this season. He has logged 345 defensive snaps with two games to go and started the last two games –– both victories –– ahead of Chris Jones.
Chances are, you’ve noticed whenever Nunez-Roches has made most of his 23 tackles this season, too. Because whenever he does, an avalanche of a celebration typically follows, where it’s him pumping his fist, viciously nodding his head, pounding his chest or sometimes all three.
To say Nunez-Roches is beloved by his teammates and coaches for his genuine enthusiasm is an understatement.
“Gotta love him, man,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Day to day, he’s like that.”
“He just understands his role and how big of an impact his energy has on his team,” defensive lineman Bennie Logan said. “He just brings it everyday, and I think that gets a lot of people going.”
Even Chiefs coach Andy Reid –– who mostly limits player praise to “he did a good job” –– couldn’t help diving into the details of what makes Nunez-Roches special.
“He’s one of those guys that comes to work every day and he has one speed,” Reid said. “He does it in practice, he does it in the games. So he’s a great example, I think, to everybody on our team.”
Largely, Reid said, because Nunez-Roches –– a third-year pro –– had to show no shortage of internal grit by even haven gotten this far. Early in the 2016 season, with the Chiefs facing a dearth of offensive linemen due to injuries, the club cut him to create a roster spot.
The move left a lasting imprint on Nunez-Roches, a sixth-round pick in 2015.
“Any athlete, when your sport is taken away and you go from a day where every minute and every hour is accounted for to having a day you don’t have nothing to do, it’s different, it’s weird,” Nunez-Roches said. “You have all this free time and you’re like ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ That’s when the mental part kicks in. It’s very hard.”
What’s more, thirty-one other teams had the chance to claim him off waivers, and nobody did. And while he was quickly re-signed to the Chiefs’ practice squad, the concept of being without the sport he loved –– and the realization he might not have many options if the Chiefs were to move on from him –– stoked an internal fire that already burned bright to another level.
“In my head I was doing everything they asked me to, but there was still something they didn’t see in me,” Nunez-Roches said. “In reality, that’s what it was. It’s an ego check.”
And Nunez-Roches resolved to work himself back onto the 53-man roster, which he did within a month or so, by working diligently to improve his football IQ –– he studies tendencies and formations more now –– and making sure Reid and the coaching staff notice him in practice.
“I’m not gonna let you look good,” Nunez-Roches said. “If I line up against you, best believe this is a game rep. Because the one thing I know is that when Andy (Reid) goes and sits down and looks at his film, he’s looking at the (first string), and who he’s gonna see across the ball (from them) is me. So that’s what I’m giving him.”
Nunez-Roches has come to take pride in having a non-stop motor, largely bcause he’s living his dream. Through a tumultous childhood that included multiple addresses and bouts of homelessness, he knows how fortunate he is now, and will always be afraid of going back to that. That’s why his release a year ago struck such a chord.
“Hard times, man,” Nunez-Roches said. “You see a pink slip on the door, an eviction notice. You work so hard (because) as a child growing up, if you see your parents’ face after that you’ll never want to see that again. You never want anybody to be able to take what you’re working for.
“Stuff like that resonates on the field like, you can’t take this from me.”
Time is undefeated, particularly in life. But it goes doubly so for football, a brutal sport where a herd of new, cheaper, potential replacements enter the fray every year come draft time.
However, given the way he’s played this year –– and the appreciation his coaches seem to have for him –– Nunez-Roches figures to have a job, somewhere, for a long time, provided he keeps playing with this type of intensity and enthusiasm.
“You could argue he’s one of our most consistent players on the defensive side of the football,” Reid said. “It’s because of hard work and his attitude. He’s maximizing his potential. Through that, he’s an easy guy to coach.
“You tell him to do something he’s going to do it. He’s not just going to do it against a bag, he’s going to do it live, he’s going to do it 100 miles an hour. My hats off to that kid. He does it with a smile on his face. He brings it. He has fun doing it. I can’t say enough about him.”
It’s an enthusiasm that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, it appears. During a recent morning walkthrough, Nunez-Roches noticed the energy was lower than usual, and what he said next was typical “Nacho,” Jenkins said.
“He was like ‘Hey man, we got to play some music or something — we can’t go out there like this,’” Jenkins explained. “We’re like man, Nacho, we just woke up. He’s like ‘I don’t care, man. We gotta get this energy up.’
“Anytime you feel like it’s gonna be a long, dog day, this is the guy that motivates you because he comes to work every day and he wants to play. You’ve got to love playing with a guy like that.”