For some reason, when Derrick Nnadi met a scared, timid, 10-week-old puppy with dark fur and white paws, he didn’t see what was there. He saw what was possible.
Months later, the Chiefs’ 22-year-old rookie defensive tackle and Rocky, a 14-month old American Bully, have become companions. Rocky, once wary of everything from loud noises to a stranger attempting to pet him, has come out of his shell and become the adorable star of pictures and videos on his own Instagram account (@rockynnadi) operated by his “Pops” — Nnadi.
“It was so bad that if you tried to touch him, he’s going to bob and weave,” Nnadi said. “That’s literally why I called him Rocky. It really took him a long time to get him accustomed to everything around him. Now, he’s not as shy. He’ll approach you, but he still won’t let you touch him if he doesn’t know you.”
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While Nnadi clearly came out of high school as a gifted individual and sought-after recruit, it took the vision of a sage man who could also be a bully of a coach to extract from Nnadi the vast potential he saw in a monstrously strong son of Nigerian immigrants.
A 6-foot-1, 310-pound native of Virginia Beach, Va., Nnadi turned himself into a dominant force for Florida State as a defensive tackle. He impressed the Chiefs enough that they traded a pair of draft picks this spring to move up when they saw that he was still available in the third round of the NFL Draft.
Molding Rocky, who Nnadi said initially grew up with little to no contact with humans other than a breeder, had become an off-field project for Nnadi. Nnadi gradually broke down those metaphorical walls Rocky had put up around him through tender love and care.
Odell Haggins’ old-school approach tended to favor tough love over TLC.
Haggins, Florida State’s defensive tackles coach and associate head coach, played for FSU in the late 1980s before a three-year stint in the NFL. He has been back at his alma mater as an assistant for 25 years. He has coached 18 defensive linemen who became NFL draft picks, including the third overall pick in the 1998 draft, Andre Wadsworth.
That track record alone will attract talented players like Nnadi, but that doesn’t mean they always know what they’ve gotten into.
“You know how many times this man came up to my room just to check up on me?” Nnadi said, the tempo of his speech quickening with each word. “Sometimes I would just sit up in my room. It was so bad my freshman year during camp, after I don’t know how many weeks, I’d be trying to go to sleep and I could hear him yelling in my dreams. I’d wake up looking left and right, and I know he ain’t here. Oh my goodness.”
Nnadi, who missed two days of training camp because of an elbow injury, and didn’t dress for Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Houston Texans, recounted those moments with a slight chuckle and an abundance of reverence. While there were times when Nnadi questioned his relationship with Haggins, he now lauds his former coach for being a role model on and off the field, and a teacher of life lessons.
With hindsight having provided a different lens, Nnadi looks at his freshman season in Tallahassee as a blessing because Haggins didn’t cut him any slack — not in practice, or in terms of making grades. And Haggins was not the slightest bit shy about giving constructive feedback.
“When I first go there I was like, ‘I hate this man,’” Nnadi said. “I know this guy don’t like me. I don’t know why he recruited me here. He’s just bullying me. Come on man, I thought we was cool. When he recruited me, we had a heart-to-heart and all this. Now, he’s just tearing me up limb from limb.
“As the years go by, all the stuff he was saying to me just really started clicking. So a lot of stuff started making more sense.”
The realization hit Nnadi that all those things he thought he hated were actually making him better.
“I don’t treat everybody the same way, I treat everybody fair,” Haggins told The Star in a phone interview. “Knowing this kid right here, coming in here at Florida State, he was big, strong and didn’t have much technique. Really, I had to break him, strip him down and teach him technique.”
Haggins said in recruiting Nnadi it was hard to get him to even say much. At first, Haggins had to pry information out of the young man.
Haggins, who is a father, recalled spending an hour and 15 minutes on the phone with Nnadi’s father, Fred. During that call, Haggins accepted the responsibility of not just looking after Nnadi but also pushing him hard, making sure he did the work in the classroom, stayed out of trouble. In short, Haggins promised Fred he’d return a better product than he received.
Because Haggins looked at Nnadi and saw what could be instead of what was there, he started from square one. Haggins believes ardently that you can’t progress in teaching a player until he has gotten the fundamentals down. There’s no room for skipped steps, or, as Haggins framed it, the player must learn from A to Z, not from B to Z.
“He really didn’t understand that because he thought, ‘Man. I’m beating this guy. I’m throwing him off,’” Haggins said. “But you didn’t do it the right way. You didn’t take the proper steps. You kept your pads too high. You’re going to get a big bully just as good as you are, too. You better get fundamentally sound. That’s what I was trying to instill in him.”
A three-time All-ACC selection, Nnadi started 37 of his 48 college games at nose tackle. He caught the eye of a Chiefs team that made adding depth, youth and toughness on defense a priority this offseason. They also had a major need to bolster their run defense.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach credits southeast area scout David Hinson and director of college scouting Ryne Nutt for the initial legwork on Nnadi. The Chiefs kept coming back to Nnadi as an ideal fit after each step in the draft-evaluation process: from the first time scouts saw him, to the first time they watched him as a staff, to when the staff met him at the scouting combine, to his pro day, and to discussions they had with is previous coaches.
“I always had high expectations for him,” Haggins said. “We recruit a kid from Virginia, from that area, we’re expecting him to come in and one day be a starter and also be an NFL player. I knew this kid could be an NFL player because with his build and his physical abilities and his upbringing — his father, they did a really good job with this kid — I really knew Nnadi could be an NFL player one day. He’s hard working kid, very determined and he loves the game. He don’t like the game, this kid loves the game.”
Chiefs offensive lineman Cam Erving’s college career overlapped with Nnadi’s at Florida State. Nnadi’s freshman season came in Erving’s final year before Erving became a first-round draft pick. Erving moved from tackle to center that season, so he matched up with Nnadi at times.
“First impressions of Derrick Nnadi when he was a freshman at Florida State was he’s still probably one of the strongest guys on this football team,” Erving said. “I told guys when we drafted him here that he’s going to be one of the strongest guys on this football team coming out of college. That’s one of those things that you can’t hide.”
YouTube houses video clips of some of Nnadi’s weight-room exploits at FSU, including bench-pressing 525 pounds and squatting 750.
While that strength still sets Nnadi apart, and Erving said it didn’t take the Chiefs’ offensive linemen long to realize that, he has noticed the strides Nnadi has made in how he wields that strength.
“His hand placement,” Erving said. “I mean, you can look and be real technical about everything, but me knowing him then and knowing him now, there’s definitely a difference in his play. Me watching him a couple years while I was up here in the NFL and he was in college and being able to see his growth, it’s been amazing.”
Meanwhile, Rocky has stayed with close friends of Nnadi’s in Virginia during training camp. That transformation, the relationship between Rocky and Nnadi, has also been awe-inspiring. The puppy that once hid from everyone and everything — Nnadi included — has started to grow into the embodiment of man’s best friend.
“Even when I came home, he was going to look at you,” Nnadi said. “His tail was going to wag a little bit. He’s going to be like, ‘OK, how you doing?’ Now when I come in, he’s jumping straight to my forehead, happy as I don’t know what, going crazy, trying to bite off my shoelaces because he wants me to take (my shoes) off so he knows I’m not leaving.”
The two are the result of very different approaches, but they’re proof that there’s often more there than what’s visible on the surface.