His tattoos tell his story, and what a story he has to tell, a life played out in front of thousands for four years. If he looked worn down, it’s because, in many ways, he is. Nkemdiche has certainly dealt with his share of adversity as a Rebel, even if most of it is self-created.
Here sat a player who burst onto the college football scene in 2012, earning All-America honors after leading Ole Miss in tackles as a redshirt freshman. Everything was in front of him then. What seemed a slam-dunk historic Rebel career. The NFL. Fame. Fortune.
Until it wasn’t.
Nkemdiche played in 10 games as a sophomore. However, he suffered a knee injury in the Rebels’ season-opening game at Vanderbilt, pushing him to the sideline for SEMO, Texas and Idaho. He wasn’t the same player when he returned. He finished 11th on the team with 35 tackles. His junior season was more of the same. He played in seven games with three starts before breaking his ankle in the LSU game. He was on the shelf for the final five and, as a result, his season totals weren’t pretty. Twenty-eight tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.
But the derailment of his career wasn’t just a matter of health. Nkemdiche became arguably the most-recognizable player on the roster after his freshman season, the first for Hugh Freeze as Ole Miss head coach.
Nkemdiche caught on to his newfound stardom, too. And, boy, did he buy into it.
“I was feeding my ego, the things my ego liked - the publicity, the girls, all that,” he said. “It was strictly for the ego. But now my ego has been put to rest. I can see it for what it is now. It’s nothing but fun. I’ve seen a change, I’ve seen a transformation.”
There was nothing better than being Denzel Nkemdiche two-plus years ago. Everybody wanted a piece of him, the face of the Ole Miss defense and the older brother of former No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche, who is now entering his junior season.
So, he lived it up. But with all the fun came the trials. Video of a verbal altercation between Nkemdiche and some hecklers on a beach during spring break. Loss of focus. A dip in his production. Reduction in playing time.
“It was injuries and mistakes that any other college student or young male may make,” he said. “Now I’m just more aware of others. I like doing selfless acts. I like being selfless now. I find my joy in that.”
These days, his focus and energy are devoted to football. He has one final year to rediscover himself, to redirect his path where it was once headed. Ole Miss certainly needs him. As strong as the Rebels are defensively, they lack depth at linebacker. Nkemdiche, should he return to form, would be a tremendous boost.
“I wouldn’t say sense of urgency, ‘cause it’s not urgent. It’s day by day,” Nkemdiche said. “Every day is a new miracle. It allows football to be nothing but love when I come up here and hang out with my teammates. It’s nothing but fun when you look at every day as a new blessing.
“I’m more focused on why I’m here. I’m not giving any energy to women, to the night life, to hanging out with people and blah, blah, blah. I’m exerting my energy here at the IPF with my teammates, and then I’m resting.”
The 5-foot-11, 208-pound Nkemdiche is setting the bar high for himself. He practiced at No. 1 strong-side linebacker (Stinger) throughout spring practices, and he’s showed no signs of giving up his position with the Rebels set to open fall camp Thursday.
Mainly, though, he doesn’t want to let himself down anymore. Robert is considered a first-round NFL talent. If things go well, the brothers will move on to the next phase of their careers together, as they’ve always dreamed of doing. Big brother and little brother, side by side.
But Denzel has to hold up his end. So far, so good.
“I don’t like disappointing,” he said. “If I’m in charge of other people’s energy, I want it to be at an all-time high. I want everyone to feel that ecstasy of no worries, of just living and being happy. If my play can affect people’s happiness and sadness and ups and downs, I want to take full responsibility that it stays positive.
“Every day, one day at a time, being the best Denzel on the field, off the field, holding myself to the highest accountability that I can hold myself to. That’s the only way I’m going to get the best out of myself.”
And it starts with leading an Ole Miss team entering this season with heightened expectations. A national championship, he said, is the goal.
“If it’s not the goal, you’re not a part of the team,” he said. “That’s what it is. Throughout the summer, you could feel it. Everybody’s energy was towards being the best team in the country.”
Five to 10 minutes had passed. Nkemdiche wasn’t crouching anymore.