A nice-sized crowd had gathered, many with Ole Miss gear on. This was Ground Zero, a well-known blues club founded by renowned actor Morgan Freeman, located at the dead end of a sleepy street in Clarksdale, a modest Mississippi Delta town known for its historically significant blues culture. Sam Cooke was born here. Muddy Watters, Howlin’ Wolf and others once played the local dives and bars.
Now sat junior Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, a consensus first-round 2016 NFL Draft pick. He was the night’s main attraction, the bigger-than-life personality nestled into a chair onstage, glove on his playing hand and his band gathered around him. His older brother, Bryan, played the guitar. “On the Low” is what they called themselves, and they played song after song for nearly three hours with some breaks in between, finishing with Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.”
“Sax, I’ve always had this weird addiction to it,” Nkemdiche said. “Music in general, but saxophone has been my connection, I guess, with the world. It brings me so close and gives me this weird kind of peace and relaxation. I just love it, and I just love the fact that you can speak so much through music.”
There were two female Ole Miss students decked out in Christmas attire sitting on stools by the bar. Across the room was a boy out way past curfew. He was propped up against a wall littered with signatures of previous musicians and artists who had passed through Ground Zero. They were all here for Nkemdiche.
Christmas lights hung from the ceilings, as did an upside down Christmas tree and ornaments over the bar where a near-capacity crowd congregated for their drinks. Former Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert’s brother, sat at a table. He didn’t say anything to anyone, only looking down but for the few times he allowed a smile when approached by family and friends. His father, Sunday, sat alongside. Denzel was hospitalized for an undisclosed reason in November. He missed the final two games of the regular season, and he’s not expected to play in the Sugar Bowl.
Denzel and Sunday were here to show their support for Robert, the football player who’s uniquely himself, refusing to live by a stereotype.
“Music is a universal language for everybody, and you can interpret it for anybody,” Robert said. “You can say so much through music. It’s another way I can get my message across. It’s another way for me to speak without using words. It’s really fun.”
A few older Rebel fans nestled in their chairs close to the stage. ‘Hotty Toddy!’ rang out as Robert blew his horn. He smiled, then broke into laugher when a ‘Hail State!’ came from the lone Mississippi State fan in attendance.
Robert Nkemdiche has lived his life in the spotlight since he was in high school. Three years ago he was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the country by Scout.com. He’s currently the anchor for an Ole Miss defensive line that ranks Top 3 in the SEC and Top 22 nationally in tackles for loss, interceptions and takeaways. He was named a second team Associated Press All-American on Sunday, and he has three offensive touchdowns and a blocked field goal to his credit as well.
The spotlight is all he’s known. He’s handled it all by throwing himself into the things he cares about the most. And for the last “seven, eight months,” as he tells it, that’s been the saxophone.
“Music is the connection to everybody,” he said. “I love football, but football only reaches a certain amount of people. Not everybody can relate to football. Music? Everybody connects to music. Music is played anywhere you go. Music is the sound that everybody can connect to in any way. All different kinds of music, and there’s so much different kind of music. Blues, reggae, rap, country. Everybody can relate through music, and you don’t have to use words, especially with organic music with instruments. You can make people understand you and really feel you. It’s your instrument in this world. How much do you give back? How much are you going to let the world use you in the ways it can use you? Don’t section things off. Do everything you want to. Play music. Do football. Write. Rap.”
The fact that Nkemdiche is even playing saxophone these days is remarkable. He fell from a wall - about 15 feet - outside the Grand Hyatt Atlanta in Buckhead last weekend and was taken to a local hospital by responders on the scene. He was later moved to the Atlanta city jail and booked on one count of possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, a misdemeanor.
Officers and paramedics responded to the hotel around 11:20 p.m. Saturday, according to Atlanta police incident reports released Monday and reported in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. As written in the report, authorities believe he broke out the double-paned window of his fourth-floor room and got out onto the ledge, where he fell. Police found Nkemdiche laying on the concrete. He was conscious and stable.
Nkemdiche honestly doesn’t remember what happened. He blacked out. What he does know is he won’t play in the Sugar Bowl between Ole Miss and Oklahoma State Jan. 1 at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. His conversations with head coach Hugh Freeze this week decided as much. Nkemdiche wasn’t at either of the two practices media were allowed to view last week. He’s set to head to Miami, Fla., Saturday with Bryan for some time off before he gets rolling with draft prep.
Nkemdiche, though, lives in the here and now. And that now is music.
“I’m a lot of people, actually,” he said. “What makes me me is I know me. Not the fake me. Not the ego me. Not the me that everybody wants recognition for. I know the me that’s selfless. I know the me that’s for everybody else and is working for positivity for the universe. I’m the me that wants to move this world forward and not make us run around in circles. I want people to understand there’s no such thing as a stereotype. You can do anything you want in this world. Anything goes. There’s no one way to do things. Just like a math problem; there’s so many different equations to a certain sum. You can do so many different things. Why not maximize life? I believe in totality; I believe in it wholly. In anything you do, make sure you’re total with it. If you’re playing the saxophone, if you’re playing football - whatever you’re doing, maximize life. That’s a cliche, but maximize life. You’ve got one shot. You can’t section things off. You’ve got to live in the moment.
“It’s weird because people talk about it, but how do you really live it? There’s a way to live in the moment truly instead of just talking about it. There’s a certain way to do it. Football season’s over. It’s time to do other things. When it’s time for me to start training for the (NFL) Combine, I will. I like to get my hands in a lot of different ways creating things and just giving back to the universe.”
Nkemdiche stood backstage with a handful of people around him. He was asked if he needed a drink, and he politely declined. He doesn’t drink alcohol, and he wasn’t about to start now. Besides, he was soon to take the stage for his final set. So he simply agreed to a few pictures before grabbing his instrument - his release - and heading out the door.
He settled into his chair again and started playing. In four months, he’ll very likely be meeting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the NFL Draft stage in Chicago, Ill., his name called as a Top 10 selection. And he’ll hug Goodell as top picks do and smile for cameras as photographers take his picture while he holds the jersey of the team that took a chance on him.
But his story won’t end there. Not even remotely. There’s more to Robert Nkemdiche than most everyone knows, or will ever know. Just take a lazy late-December night in Clarksdale as proof.
“It’s so simple, man,” he said. “My purpose in this world is to show people the light in a way it can be very positive if you open your mind a little bit to let things unfold, instead of sectioning things off and being so closed-minded.”