SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Here's a story for Super Bowl Sunday. The critically acclaimed revival of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "A Soldier's Play" features the Broadway debut of an actor who was a four-time All Pro cornerback in the NFL. Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Nnamdi Asomugha says he has a lot to be grateful for.
NNAMDI ASOMUGHA: I mean, this has been a pretty surreal journey. I was saying the other day that I started the decade at the Pro Bowl, and I ended the decade on Broadway.
LUNDEN: And he could add that, in between, he produced and co-starred in a couple of films and co-produced a Broadway play starring his wife, Carrie Washington. Asomugha grew up in Los Angeles the son of Nigerian immigrants, played for UC Berkeley and then in the NFL for 11 seasons, mainly with the Oakland Raiders, as one of the most respected cornerbacks in the game.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: There's a reason why teams don't throw at Nnamdi Asomugha. The guy's got long arms. He's a great cover corner. He jams you, disrupts your timing and rhythm at the line of scrimmage. And he could cover in space.
ASOMUGHHA: I mean, I could be biased, but I think it is the most difficult position to play in sports. You're covering someone, and they know exactly where they're going. And your job is to figure out where they're going and get there before them while running backwards.
LUNDEN: Even as he put fear in the hearts of quarterbacks and wide receivers, Asomugha was thinking about a life after football.
ASOMUGHHA: You're not in what is standard retirement age. You know, a lot of times, you're 23 years old. You know what I mean? The average player plays, you know, two years.
LUNDEN: While he was playing for the Raiders, he filmed a Nike commercial with director Peter Berg, who hired him to play a recurring role as a parole officer on the TV series "Friday Night Lights." And after Asomugha retired in 2013, he turned towards film and theater.
ASOMUGHHA: I think filmmaking and theater is very much a team sport. It's a group of people that are coming together with a common purpose to achieve a goal, and no one person is bigger than the team. I'm trying to think of all the cliche things that they tell you in football. And there's a director there or a coach.
KENNY LEON: This is the beginning of seeing a great grade, all-pro Broadway actor.
LUNDEN: Tony Award winner Kenny Leon is director of "A Soldier's Play," about a platoon of former Negro League ballplayers, which is not only a murder mystery but looks at race and power in the Army in 1944.
LEON: He has a sense of truth and authenticity and a effortlessness that he has in his acting that you can't teach.
LUNDEN: Asomugha's playing a role that Denzel Washington did in the original 1981 production, Private First Class Melvin Peterson, who immediately gets into a nasty conflict with his sergeant.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Melvin Peterson) They let him in the Army because they know he'll do anything they tell him to. Yeah, I seen this kind of fool before. Somebody is going to kill him.
LUNDEN: For his part, Nnamdi Asomugha says being in a Broadway play requires the same kind of discipline and focus as starring in the NFL.
ASOMUGHHA: It's been difficult. It is definitely a workout doing eight shows a week.
LUNDEN: Still, just last week, Asomugha was spent his day off at the Sundance Festival, where his new romantic comedy, "Sylvie's Love," had its world premiere. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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