IN Conversation with Derrick Nnadi

Derrick Nnadi with one of the dogs available for adoption at KC Pet Project. Photo by Ron Berg

The day after the Chiefs crushed their season opener against the Texans, a shelter dog went home with its forever family, thanks to Kansas City defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi. After each Chiefs win, Nnadi, in a partnership with KC Pet Project, pays all the adoption fees for one dog. Following the Chiefs Super Bowl victory in February, Nnadi cleared a whole shelter, paying the adoption fees for 109 dogs to the tune of more than $18,000.

The only thing sweeter than watching the 6’1’’, 300-pound Nnadi plow into the opponent’s backfield is watching him on YouTube effortlessly hoisting and cradling and getting covered in sloppy kisses from his 8-month-old tank of a pit bull, Saint.

Nnadi is a first-generation American, the youngest of seven children born in Virginia Beach, to parents who immigrated from Nigeria.

IN Kansas City caught up with Nnadi on the bye-week Sunday after the team’s 34-20 win in a Thursday night season opener. In a warm, relaxed baritone, he reflected on what playing in a near-empty Arrowhead is like for the team, shared how team leaders Patrick Mahomes and Tyrann Mathieu are very different from each other in one aspect, and described the personalities of his Instagram-famous pit bulls Rocky and Saint (@Rocky_Saint).

You’ve taken some ribbing for being very proud of your hometown, Virginia Beach. What do you miss about it?
Honestly, it’s just the city itself. It’s so bad that I love the city that much! I could have the worst day of my life and the second I touch down in Virginia Beach, all my problems are gone and I feel like, “I don’t care what happens today, everything’s OK.” I’m calling my mom, I’m calling my friends, I’ve got to see everybody, talk to everybody, get my mentals back to where they need to be. It levels me. When I go home and go to the beach, it’s just so relaxing.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Kansas City?
I don’t honestly go out very much. When I do go out, I’m usually out with my friends, my teammates. We go out to restaurants—Eddie V’s, Capital Grille. I take my dogs to the park.

At first, I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t sure how the area was going to be after living in Tallahassee and then back home in Virginia Beach. I’m normally in an area that has a beach. It took me some time to get used to Kansas City. But now that I’ve been here two years going on three, I love it here. It’s a nice, relaxing place to be. It’s got a real chill vibe.

“I’m normally in an area that has a beach. It took me some time to get used to Kansas City. But now that I’ve been here two years going on three, I love it here. It’s a nice, relaxing place to be. It’s got a real chill vibe.”

If you could add one thing to make Kansas City better what would it be?
Oh, by all means, Cook Out. It’s a restaurant on the East Coast, specifically Virginia, North Carolina, Atlanta. I love that restaurant. I would go there every day if it was in Kansas City.

What is one trait you have from your mom and one trait you have from your dad?
Man. [Pause.] So, my mom is a stone-cold fox. Nothing can break my mom. If something is bothering my mom, you would never know. And that’s kind of how I am. When I go someplace, I’m kind of straight-faced. I don’t show any emotion. I hear information and let it soak in and spit some more information back at you without letting it bother me.

My father, on the other hand, he’s a very, very emotional individual for a good reason. He just loves his family, and I’m like that when it comes to anything I claim as family, whether it’s my dogs or my girlfriend. I’m going to be very protective of them.

The thing that I get from both of my parents is their work ethic. My parents are the hardest-working individuals I’ve ever met. From the second they got to this country, they’ve been working nonstop. Before I was born, when it was my parents and two or three of my older siblings, it was a really bad time. My parents weren’t sure if they were going to be deported, and there wasn’t that much money on the table, but they were able to survive.

What was your childhood like?
I was somewhat of a quiet kid. I was pretty much a go-to-school, go-to-practice type of kid, trying to make good memories along the way, trying to make good grades. It was really football that gave me life, that allowed me to open up more to people around me, allowed me to be more vocal about what’s on my mind, and talk to my friends to unwind and help me really unravel the present, so to speak.

When did you first think about becoming a professional football player?
Man, it was before I even knew what football was. My family was watching TV and I walked in and a football game was on. I don’t even remember what game it was, but I remember the Steelers were on and Troy Polamalu was just going crazy the whole game. Watching him made me like, “Wow, I want to play this.”

I looked at my dad and said, “Dad, what is this?” And he said, “It’s football.” At that moment I was hooked.

Where did you get your huge love of dogs?
I’ve loved dogs since I was a little kid. My father didn’t really want to own a dog and my mother was scared of dogs, so there weren’t any animals in the house besides us kids. [Laughs.]

It wasn’t until my senior year [in college] that I got my first dog, Rocky, a pit bull. The funny thing was, I could not tell my parents about him. It was so hard to keep it a secret. Whenever my parents would come visit me in college, I would literally hide him away. I would have someone watch him and I would hide the dog food, the dog treats, the dog bed, so my parents wouldn’t see.

Finally, my mom—being a mom, she’s going to find out about it—a couple of weeks before the last game of the year, she pulled open a random drawer full of dog treats. And after the game she pulled me aside and said, “Why didn’t you tell me you had a dog?” [Laughs.]

Then I got Saint my first year being here [in Kansas City].

How are Rocky and Saint different?
It’s really night and day with those two. Rocky, he’s a calmer individual. He’ll read the room, come up next to me, want to be petted, be like, “Hey, Dad, how ya doing?”

Saint on the other hand, oh my goodness, he is a firecracker. When he sees you, he’s running at you at full speed. He is never tired. All you hear is him panting and running around. At first, I got annoyed and then I was like, nah, that’s just him.

So when you come home exhausted from a game or a workout, Saint is going to wear you out some more, huh?
It’s funny you should say that. Because when I come home Rocky is a different animal—he acts like I’ve been gone for 50 years. When he hears my car pull in, he’s barking at the door and trying to open it, like, “I know you’re here. Let me out!” The second I open the door, he’ll jump on me, run back, grab a toy. It’s a whole lovely 30 minutes of him going crazy. Saint feels the same, but he can’t match Rocky’s intensity. I’m like, let’s go outside and get all the energy out of you both so I can go inside and lie on the couch.

Photos courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs.

What was it like playing the first game of this strange COVID season at Arrowhead?
The part that was kind of weird was there being so few fans. That’s hard to get used to, being in Kansas City, because Arrowhead is literally the loudest stadium in the league. It gets so bad a lot of times that I’ll be on in the game and I can’t hear what my teammates are saying. It’s easier to play at other stadiums because I can hear my teammates. It’s so bad, but I love it at the same time.

So coming in with so few fans, it felt weird. They had that little machine that makes the crowd noise and that helps a little, but it wasn’t as authentic. It reminded me of practice because of how little noise there was compared to how it usually is. I could hear everything the whole line was saying.

Who are the players that have mentored you since you became a Chief?
Allen Bailey—he plays for the Falcons now—gave me kind of a blueprint for how to go through the daily life stuff: being in meetings, going to practice, reviewing film, things like that. Other teammates have helped with other bits of information. Frank Clark, for instance, if we’re in a drill in practice, he’ll step aside and explain why it’s so important that we get this part right.

When I was in rehab, dealing with my ankle, I would see him working and say, “Let me join in with you,” and he would throw in more little nuggets of information. He helped me adapt my game.

Who are the real leaders of the team, on and off the field?
That’s a hard question. If you’re talking about morale, and keeping spirits up, there are a lot of players that do that. There are some funny individuals on the team. [Laughs.]

Like who?
Most of them are in the D-line.

Now, if we’re talking about leaders on and off the field, first off the bat, I’ll give it to Tyrann Mathieu. He’s been pretty much taking a stance since he’s been in the league. Everything he has done has been with a purpose, whether it’s here or back home in Louisiana, he’s always trying to help out the community any way he possibly can.

And, of course there’s Pat [Mahomes]. He’s always trying to help out in the KC community as well as back home in Texas. He’s just always been that type of stand-up guy. They are both very genuine in everything they do.

Do Tyrann and Pat show the same leadership style on and off the field?
Tyrann is completely different. On the field, Tyrann goes from the Tyrann that loves the community to T5, the warrior of the defense. He gets meaner, and I love that about him. You just hear him in the background, “Somebody make the play!” I’m like, “All right, say no more.”

What about Pat?
He is exactly the same guy on and off the field. When things get tough, he’s right in the middle of it, making sure we know what we’re doing, making sure there are no heads down, letting everybody know we’re going to push through this and come out the winner.

Interview condensed and minimally edited for clarity.

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