Nov. 11, 2005
By Katie Stuhldreher
Notre Dame students have a reputation for being well rounded. They seem to be able to do it all — in the classroom, on the playing field and in the community. Most who come here are involved in a little bit of everything.
Irish head football coach Charlie Weis has his own jack-of-all-trades on the Irish football team. Junior Chinedum Ndukwe can do it all — wide receiver, special teams, defensive back, Apache linebacker, safety, you name it. Ndukwe’s work ethic and commitment to his teammates drives him to take on any task to help the Irish.
Ndukwe has always been a team player. He began playing football when he was in middle school for the sole purpose of making friends.
“I started playing football when I first moved to Ohio from Tennessee in seventh grade,” says Ndukwe.
“One of the first people I met told me that a good way to meet people would be to play football. All the people I knew at first played football. Back then it was really all about making friends.”
One of these friends was Brady Quinn, the current Irish quarterback. At Dublin Coffman High School, Ndukwe and Quinn became a winning combination as Quinn connected to Ndukwe at wide receiver 48 times for 659 yards and 10 touchdowns their senior years in 2002. By sheer luck, the two ended up making plans to continue their performance on a much bigger stage — Notre Dame Stadium.
“[Quinn and I are] definitely real close,” says Ndukwe.
“He’s definitely my best friend here on campus. He’s like the second or third person I met when I came to Dublin. It’s awesome having him here. We both decided separately to come here. Carlyle [Holiday] was a senior and there weren’t many receivers, so it was a good decision for both of us. And it’s nice because then I have a friend for life.”
Quinn and Ndukwe became two of six true freshmen to make appearances for the Irish in 2003. Ndukwe saw action in every game that season, making 71 appearances on special teams and seven appearances as receiver, recording three catches for 14 yards.
During spring drills in 2004, then head coach Tyrone Willingham decided to utilize Ndukwe’s speed and agility on the defensive side of the ball and moved him to safety.
“I think ultimately I’m a receiver at heart, but I’ve had the most fun playing safety at Notre Dame,” says Ndukwe.
“It’s a funny thing how playing time will affect how you view things. Sitting on the sidelines as a receiver my freshman year just kind of ate me alive. As a competitor, it just didn’t sit really well with me. When Coach Willingham said that I could come in and start my sophomore year at safety, I was all about it.”
As a sophomore, he racked up seven tackles — four solos — broke up a pass and forced a fumble in his 87 appearances on special teams. Several injuries cut into Ndukwe’s playing time that season.
“I had some injuries that set me back a little bit and I missed some games last year. I just want to help my team win, that’s the biggest thing,” says the junior defensive back.
“We need to win every game and play every game like it was our last — that’s the main thing. The main thing for me is that I want to keep getting better, maximize my effort. I’m still fairly new at this position. Every day is just another opportunity for me to keep getting better.”
The following spring, Ndukwe got his chance to step up again as the new coaching staff suggested he try on yet another role on the field.
“In the spring, the coaches came in and stressed the need to find a solid player to play the apache position and they were looking at me. I went at it head-on. Every time I switch positions, I don’t really have too many doubts. I just want to do what’s best for the team. If that’s what the coaches say that I should do, then I do it,” says Ndukwe.
Hungry for playing time and a chance to compete, he practiced extensively as both safety and linebacker throughout the off-season. However, Ndukwe has emerged as a big-play man on the Irish defense. Of the team’s 16 forced turnovers, the 6-3, 225-pound safety has had a hand in seven of them.
He recovered a fumble in each of the team’s first four games, forced a fumble versus Washington and intercepted passes against Michigan State and USC. On the year, Ndukwe has 32 tackles, one for a loss and has broken up one pass.
“Being back at safety for the first couple of games, there is still a lot of learning involved and I’m still trying to master my craft. I want to stay there. I’m pretty sure that this is it for me, but who knows?” adds Ndukwe
Specializing in three positions in three years, Ndukwe has had his work cut out for him as on top of all the regular training, he had additional positions to master.
“The hardest part of changing positions was learning the basics of each position,” says Ndukwe.
” I really didn’t get to focus as much on the fundamentals. I didn’t get to focus too much on that because I was trying to learn a new position and I was spending so much time learning these other things. It’s all coming.”
As the new Irish utility man, he has capitalized on his past experiences at different positions to strengthen his performance at safety.
“I feel like I still think like a receiver sometimes,” says Ndukwe.
“I can put myself in a better position to make plays. I can notice if an opponent runs a really crisp route and I need to give him a couple steps, or maybe he doesn’t run great routes and I can play a little bit tighter on someone. These are all things that you see when you watch film and you’ve been a receiver yourself. You know the best way to play then. It all helps.”
In addition to his various and ever-changing roles on the football field, he also tackles another role — student. Ndukwe’s father, Stephen, moved from Nigeria to the United States and became a successful engineer as a result of hard work and diligence, two values he instilled in his son. Education, needless to say, is a top priority in the Ndukwe household.
“My academics always come first at heart,” says Ndukwe.
“It’s something that my dad has always driven into me. Both my parents are college graduates and are very proud to say that they have a college diploma. It was always important to me to go to a school that had a solid academic standard and probably the best place on earth to get a solid, academic foundation is right here.”
Ndukwe is currently pursuing a double major in business management and psychology. He said that his decision to major in business is strictly career-oriented, as football will come to an end one day. Psychology, however, is more of a hobby for Ndukwe.
“I’m majoring in business management and psychology. I’m doing business so I can actually get a job after I graduate, but I’m studying psychology because it’s really interesting to me–the way humans make decisions and the way they work. It just really intrigues me. To me, that’s interesting,” says Ndukwe.
When he is not on the football field or in the classroom, he can be found relaxing with his teammates.
“Mike Richardson, Tommy [Zbikowski], Ambrose [Wooden] and I — we all have a good time and hang out after practice is over and go out on the weekends together. You can always see us together. We just kind of do our own thing and try to have fun,” he says.
In addition to spending time with his close friends on the team, Ndukwe also makes time for the younger players, as he considers himself a more experienced team leader now.
“We’ve got a lot of young defensive backs now and all those guys are solid players. Even when they were here over the summer, I wanted to be there for them as best I could. I gave them my cell phone number and tried to be there as much as I could for them,” says Ndukwe.
Ndukwe stressed that his commitment to his teammates stems from the love and support he has received from his family. He has remained close to his family, especially now that Ndukwe’s older brother and Notre Dame alum, Kelechi, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq to cheer on his brother.
“He’s part of a program to train Iraqi sailors. Praise God that he’s back here safely,” says Ndukwe.
“He was here for the USC game and the BYU game also. I’m always thinking about him and he’s always in my prayers. He’s such a good person. For all the people over there, it really is a big-time sacrifice that they’re making for our country.”
Whether it’s family man, student, utility player, mentor, or best friend, Ndukwe has never hesitated to be everything to everyone in his life.