The Oppy staff is proud to continue a new feature for the paper called “Stern Somebody” to tell the stories of remarkable classmates and how they became the exceptional people that they are today.
All members of the Stern community hope to overcome professional challenges. For most of us, that doesn’t typically require forcibly pushing around 300-pound men. Nnamdi Obukwelu is an exception. After a decorated college football career as a defensive lineman for Harvard, Obukwelu fulfilled a childhood dream by signing as an undrafted free agent with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts in 2014. Later that year, Obukwelu retired due to back injuries. After transitioning to the business world, he is now wrapping up his MBA here at Stern.
Obukwelu recently took some time to tell us about his experiences as he pursued his NFL and business goals.
Your parents were Nigerian immigrants, who worked as a cab driver and a nurse’s assistant, and yet they sent multiple sons to Harvard. How large an influence has that work ethic had on you as you’ve pursued an NFL career and now your MBA?
My parents’ work ethic definitely had an influence on me as I worked towards making the NFL and then subsequently getting my MBA. I always attack challenges with a full head of steam, and this stems from seeing them continuously sacrifice for their children and continuously working to make ends meet.
In previous interviews you’ve brought up two situations in which you made a choice to play the odds with major life decisions. Your mother encouraged you to play football because there were more players on a roster than on a basketball roster, and you later signed with the Colts rather than the Chiefs because they would likely have greater need for young defensive players. Is this a coincidence or have those situations taught you something about making rational choices with the best chance for success?
These situations have taught me to always consider the best possible decision with the information I have. I do my best to always make informed decisions, and weigh my options, in an effort to put myself in the best position to succeed.
In recent years there have been a number of NFL players of Nigerian descent. You did not play football until high school, but were you aware of guys like Osi Umenyiora, who were having success in the NFL at that time? Did their experience in such a quintessentially American sport have an impact on you?
Osi was definitely a player that I admired while I was in high school. He played defensive end, the same position I played, so I would watch his technique specifically. But I’m a nerd when it comes to sports, so I also did my homework on older players, including Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, who was a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 80’s to early 90’s.
Was signing an NFL contract something you had seriously entertained in high school or college, or was it completely surreal when it actually happened?
Since I was a little kid, I envisioned being a professional athlete, so it was always something I had been working towards. But nothing tops the feeling of putting ink to paper and signing the contract. It was the culmination of years of hard work, and it was a blessing to have my family by my side when I signed that contract.
Unfortunately, back issues forced you to retire soon after you signed with the Colts, but how formative was it for you to test yourself against and work with the top players in the world while you had the opportunity?
Competing everyday against the best athletes in the world was awesome. As an Ivy League guy there were always those whispers of whether I’d be able to compete at that level, but I was able to dispel those doubts. Going forward, I’ve been able to use that same “can do” mentality in my subsequent pursuits. So, I truly view my experience in the NFL as invaluable.
While you were in Indy, did you ever try the famous shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo Steakhouse? Was that a bigger challenge than practicing with an NFL team?
While living in Indy, I went to St. Elmo more often than I’m proud to admit! It’s truly a staple of the Indianapolis community, and they were always very hospitable when my teammates and I would stop in for a bite. I loved the shrimp cocktail, but lining up against an All-Pro offensive tackle every day at practice was by far a much taller task.
What concepts from playing at Harvard and the Colts have you found relevant as you look toward your business career and complete your degree here at Stern?
Playing at Harvard and then for the Colts helped me become comfortable working within ambiguous situations and excelling in high pressure circumstances.
In an episode of Stern Chats last year you talked about your love of poetry and writing. How important has it been to have a creative outlet while pursuing the NFL and now business?
I think it’s important to be multi-faceted, and have the ability to bring a creative lens to the work you do. And let’s be honest, not many expect a football player to be able to recite Langston Hughes poetry at the drop of a hat…so it makes for great material at networking events and work outings!
You wrote for your school newspaper at Boston College High School, so when are you going to write some columns for The Oppy?
I wish I had the time to write for The Oppy. But between being Co-President of Stern in Africa (SiA), VP of Admissions for AHBBS, a Graduate Assistant in the Admissions Office, a Career Mentor for the Office of Career Development, and a Teaching Fellow, I unfortunately don’t have the bandwidth to take on anything else!
Photo credit: Indianapolis Colts
If you would like to nominate a classmate for future features of the Stern Spotlight, please email the Oppy staff at Oppy@stern.nyu.edu.