The past three seasons were not the best of times for football at Southern Mississippi, the years defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches opened as a starter. The Golden Eagles went winless in a dozen games in 2012, and over the next two seasons, the program went 4-20, and Nunez-Roches spent most of one of those years rehabbing a knee injury.
For many, these are the circumstances that test resolve and dedication. To Nunez-Roches, who moved from Belize in Central America when he was 8 with his mother looking for better opportunities and struggled to the point where they found themselves homeless and sleeping in a car, football and where it has taken Nunez-Roches is a blessing.
“I may not have been the most fortunate,” Nunez-Roches said. “But everywhere I’ve been made me who I am today.”
At the moment, he’s a candidate to join an NFL roster. The Chiefs selected Nunez-Roches in the sixth round, adding depth to the middle.
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Nunez-Roches is a raw talent that in the first week of full-squad practices looked powerful on some snaps, lost on others, experiencing typical rookie inconsistency. He’s learning, Nunez-Roches says, and taking every day, every snap with a singular purpose.
“I’m so focused on making the roster,” Nunez-Roches said.
If that happens and he becomes established, Nunez-Roches has plans to take his charity work to new levels. Starting a foundation, perhaps. There will be greater involvement to carry on the practice of giving that his mother and he started once she landed a job as a medical coder at a hospital near their Phenix City, Ala., home.
“When I got on my feet, that’s when we started giving back,” Nancy Nunez said. “I didn’t know if we were going to make it. But we did. There is always someone less fortunate.”
As a 10th grader, Rakeem worked with Nancy to collect blankets, clothes and non-perishable food items, stuff them in backpacks and deliver them to the homeless. Sometimes to shelters but on other occasions just those they saw in need while driving around town.
“We didn’t go through an organization,” Nancy Nunez said. “We would collect items and see people on the corners with signs and hand out items.”
Rakeem brought the practice to college, helping brighten Thanksgiving and Christmas for the homeless. When Nancy Nunez saw a flyer her son had put together while organizing his donation drive, she broke down.
“To see my son continue something we had started, and to know how busy he was as a football player and a student, it touched my heart,” Nancy Nunez said.
Rakeem couldn’t imagine not continuing what he and his mother had started.
“The idea was near and dear to me,” Rakeem Nunez-Roches said. “We helped the homeless because I’ve been homeless. I know what the feels like.”
Nunez-Roches was 8 when he and his mother left his hometown of Dangriga on Belize’s Caribbean coast for California. They had a connection. Nancy’s sister was married to a soldier and wherever he was stationed, that’s where the Nunezs landed, living near the base.
Nunez-Roches rattled off some of his boyhood address, bases in California, Colorado, Kentucky and Georgia. When they decided to strike out on their own, the Nunezs were in Georgia. Jobs came and went, and on two occasions mother and son were without shelter.
“But we had to try to make it,” Nancy Nunez said.
They did, once Nancy Nunez found permanent employment. Nunez-Roches grew into a solid football prospect, although he says baseball was his first love. He played football, baseball and basketball at Central High in Phenix City. But as he grew to over 300 pounds, his sports destiny became clear, and Nunez-Roches was a fast riser on the recruiting scene. Southern Miss became the choice over several others, including Arkansas.
Now, he bids to become the first NFL player from Belize since at least 1926. The nation has produced no Olympic medalist and its national soccer team has never qualified for the World Cup. An NFL player from a nation of less than 350,000 residents would be a big deal.
“That would be special,” Nunez-Roches said. “I give my country hope, and I can give the little kids motivation.”
Nancy Nunez didn’t allow herself to have expectations when the draft rolled around. Some had Nunez-Roches projected in the middle rounds, others late.
“They shouldn’t put a parent through anything like that,” she said. “You can have a heart attack waiting for the news.”
When the call came from the Chiefs, mom glowed watching her son.
“His eyes were full, he looked like my 5-year-old boy once again,” Nancy Nunez said. “I was so proud. I always have been of him.”