Uche Nwaneri sees world beyond football
"Monday Night Football" is a chance, most NFL players will admit, to play in a game they know their peers will be watching. But when the Bears faced the Lions in a fierce divisional battle Oct. 22, at least one of their contemporaries had little interest.
"I watched the [presidential] debate, to be honest," said Jacksonville's Uche Nwaneri.
It would not be the first stereotype Nwaneri has broken. Starting guard, businessman, art collector and tattoo connoisseur, Nwaneri regularly brings politics into the locker room and, more impressively, perhaps, considering the old adage about politics or religion, does it successfully.
"The good thing about the guys in our locker room is that everybody is willing to engage in discussion, so it's really not a bad transition being in here and talking about what's going on in the football world to what's going on in the political world," Nwaneri said. "A lot of guys are really up-to-date, paying attention to the debates and they don't shy away from it.
"The discussion can get heated but it's always in a respectful manner."
Describing himself as "very open-minded" and someone who "likes to think outside the box," it should also come as no surprise Nwaneri co-owns a combination "luxury" tattoo parlor/art gallery/lounge/bar under the general heading of Inkaholiks in the Buckhead section of Atlanta.
Connected by massive glass viewing walls, the place is Nwaneri's vision and the result, like many things, of a discussion he had with his father, Chris.
"When the lockout happened, my dad whispered in my ear as he always had before, 'What's your plan if football doesn't pan out the way you want? What goals have you set outside of football? What do you want to do?'" Nwaneri said.
"I'm blessed to be in the position I'm in and I wanted to put my own footprint somewhere in this world, which is what led me to ask myself, 'What am I passionate about? What things do I enjoy trying to create?' And that's what led me to where I am now. But more than anything, it was about me wanting to be unique."
That too, Nwaneri credits to his Nigerian-born parents, who named the youngest of their four children Uchechukwu Eberechukwu, which translated means "God's will."
"My wife [Ada] and I told our children that the only way to succeed in life was through hard work," Chris Nwaneri said. "We tried to make them realize that there's no place like this country, that it's the only country where you can achieve your dream through hard work."
Chris and Ada Nwaneri came to the U.S. in 1974 to attend college and spent their first five years in the country working as janitors at a Dallas-area high school, receiving their U.S. citizenship when then-President Reagan granted immigration amnesty to about 4 million people in the early '80s. Since then, the couple has cast a vote in every U.S. election.
"Local, federal, state," Chris said. "It's the only way you can participate in what's happening."
Chris and Ada Nwaneri, who has since earned a master's degree in gerontology, now own joint home health care agencies, where one son works. Another son is a doctor and their daughter, a lawyer. Life at home growing up, said Uche, was where his interest in politics began.
"CNN or the local news was always on," he said. "I could be in the living room watching anything [else] and my parents would come in and ask why I wasn't watching CNN."
Chris remembered it well. "It's important," he said. "If you're not up to date with current events in the nation, you are lost."
There were Nwaneri family "focus groups," with healthy discourse and disagreement encouraged.
"It all started with my parents and we'd listen in, my mom and dad going back and forth over different policies, and then we'd wait for an opening and jump in," Uche recalled.
He described their politics as more libertarian than democrat or republican.
"We realized ideas can be used for the benefit of people on both sides and our parents always encouraged us to keep an open mind when we were having discussions, that there's always another perspective that can give you more insight," he said.
Their children sometimes used that to their advantage growing up.
"I'm covered in tattoos," Uche said. "They weren't thrilled, but they let me grow into who I wanted to be."
It is the same attitude that Nwaneri, a history and physiology major at Purdue, brings to the Jaguars' locker room, which, said teammate Eben Britton, makes it an interesting place to hang out.
"I think everyone sees Uch as really a thinker, a guy who's passionate about his beliefs and who enjoys challenging a person mentally in whatever it is, politics, religion, whatever," Britton said. "But I think Uch gets away with it because he never, in all the times I've been around, makes his arguments an attack on somebody else's beliefs. He's never throwing out useless information. He's really educated about what he believes in, i.e., right now [President] Obama and [Mitt] Romney, and everyone respects that."
Nwaneri said he has been encouraging his teammates to vote Tuesday, even though he is not ready to make a final decision yet.
"I've always been the devil's advocate," he said. "I feel there should always be power with the people but it's also good to have government involved in certain aspects. For me, my decision will come down to who has the best interest of that college graduate in his second year without a job and still living with his parents. I'm worried about the factory worker sitting at home and wondering whether he'll ever be able to rejoin the assembly line because jobs have been shipped overseas or outsourced.
"I've always felt America's strength is with the middle class people who do the blue-collar work. Any time you lose that line between that and where poverty begins, there's no Democrat solution, there's no Republican solution, there has to be an American solution.
"At the end of the day, the candidate who can prove to me that he has the ideals and principles to govern the country, I can be comfortable making that decision."