Mathias Nkwenti, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 2001-2003
First, can you let us know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL?
Well, I’m back in Africa and enjoying life overseas, back here at home in Cameroon. I’m older now and realize what life is really about. Having two homes – here and in the United States – in both continents is paradise. It’s like being on vacation/
What was it like coming here from Cameron and ending up in the NFL?
There are lots of Camaroonians now in the NFL. Ndamukong Suh is from Cameron – and Romen Oben is as well. I spoke to him a lot when I was playing and looked up to him. I was the second man from Cameroon to be drafted. A lot of people have misperceptions about Africa – it’s a beautiful place. Cameroon is a third-world country but it’s beautiful – and every country has it’s problems. Look at the United States. But once you are on your own and have to pay your own bills, you see what life’s really about.
How did you get started playing football?
My father was from Cameroon and worked for the embassy. We came to the United States when I was twelve for his work. I was a big man amongst kids even then. The coaches begged me to play – they saw this big guy running around next to all these smaller kids. They wanted me to play basketball and football. My parents didn’t want me to play football though – they were scared – they thought I’d break my neck. So I lied and told them I was doing track and field. Once they started seeing the letter come in from the colleges though offering scholarships they told me to I shouldn’t dare to stop playing! They loved the idea of free school!
You were drafted by the Steelers in round four. Were you surprised?
I was surprised yes – I wasn’t planning on it at all. Honestly, I thank Jesus Christ. I never planned on being drafted. it was like a tornado came and twisted my life around. It was the craziest year. I switched positions the year before – from defensive line to offensive tackle. The scouts, they come see us as juniors in college and I was this big 285 pound guy that ran a 4.7 forty. That opened a lot of eyes. I just wished I switched earlier – I would have been a first-round pick! Temple wasn’t a big school known for players either, so that may have held me back too.
Who helped you adjust most to life as a Steeler and the city in general – both on and off the field – and how did they do so?
Myself really. I was mature beyond my years. My parents lived in Africa so I was used to taking care of myself. I worked while in school and had some family friends to help me, but I was really on my own. I had to grow up quick – and I loved to travel. So, it wasn’t difficult adjusting. I just was glad I wasn’t drafted by a team in the sticks – like Green Bay. A lot of players in college talk about that sort of stuff and I remember I was happy not to go there.
What was your biggest adjustment to the NFL and how did you work to make that adjustment?
It wasn’t much different than college really. I know it sounds funny, but if you’re good you’re good – and you and others know it. Your play speaks for itself. And it helps if you stay healthy. The vets know you’re there to take their money and their jobs.
The NFL has changed since when I played though. I have no respect for the NFL now. before players could celebrate when they made a sack, you know? Now, it’s not a man’s game. Guys show no emotion. They are scared straight. They aren’t allowed to show any emotion. You look at things like Twitter – it just hurts these guys. It’s like Pandora’s box now. I won’t even use it.
Did anyone help you the most that you can remember?
Coach Grimm did as a coach. he wanted me – he was the reason they drafted me. I was green at the position and he thought I could be an All-Pro in a few years.
But, not many others. I wasn’t an ass-kisser. I hated the politics of the game. Like some guys were running for player rep or something. It’s a business and I get that. But I didn’t kiss ass. If you respect me I respect you. The NFL is like a completely different kind of corporate job and you need to remember that.
I remember the scouts – I made friends with some of those guys. They know everything – they are like gnats on the walls. They’d tell me all the things people said about me when they wouldn’t say it straight to me. What people were really saying. It was like women gossip stuff. If I was sucking or letting up sacks I’d understand more, but that kind of politics bothered me. If I didn’t like you, you’d know it. I’d tell you to your face, not behind your back.. My father hated the politics and I did too.
How did all of that affect you?
It motivated me. I wanted to be in the NFL for six years – to play for a certain amount of time then leave. The NFL was a stepping stone for me. I knew I was blessed but I saw myself as a business man. Not an athlete. I was an industrialist, like my dad. And the NFL was a means to an even bigger end for me.
But you had to leave the NFL after only three season. What happened?
I was offered a ton of contracts, but I injured my back. I knew I was done. It would have put my ability to be healthy later in life if I kept on playing. I knew it was a life-long injury…
I was depressed – it wasn’t how I wanted to end my career. I could have easily had that six-to-eight year career I wanted. But I could hold my head high – it was my injury, not the NFL that pushed me out. I could have played for a dozen teams – I contracts coming in. As a left tackle you are invaluable in the NFL…
Who were the characters on those teams and do you remember any funny experiences/examples of how humor played itself out on the team?
Joey Porter was always funny – he made it fun for everyone. there are so many stories I can’t tell – that says a lot about me then!
I remember initiation and our rookie dinner though. Thank God we had three offensive lineman in that rookie class. Me, Keydrick Vincent and Chucky Okkobi. We were at Mortons and everyone was ordering – guys were ordering for their wives who weren’t even there! Bottles of Louis XIII – $50 a shot! Well, the bill came out to over $18,000. Keydrick was an undrafted free agent – I don’t even think he got a signing bonus. So, he pretends to go to the bathroom and is trying not to pay, because the three of us have to split this bill.
I was watching him before – I mean, he was sweating the whole time. He was a big guy – weighed over 330 pounds, sweating like nobody else. So, he’s gone for thirty or forty minutes – this really long bathroom break! But he didn’t know we had already told the Maitre De to split the bill into thirds. He thought we had already paid it when he came back. He didn’t know we took his part of the bill and slipped it next to his steak like garnish. he ate some of the steak when he saw the piece of paper and when he saw what it was his face just changed like he saw a ghost. I think the food fell out of his mouth. He just pushed his food aside – he said he wasn’t hungry anymore!
Any last thoughts for readers?
I’m retired, relaxing, and enjoying life. I’m traveling…and doing rehab for my back. I won’t use the crutches though – I refuse to use those. But I am very grateful for all I have, and for my time in Pittsburgh.