Derrick Nnadi has emerged as a force on the interior of the Florida State defensive line. In a way, he has an ill-fitting track singlet to thank.
Back in middle school, Nnadi decided he wanted to play sports for the first time. He decided on track and field. Nnadi had no idea how fast he could run, but during the tryouts, he raced past many other boys.
“I was like, 'Oh, snap! I’m going to be on the track team! My first sport! I’m going to run track!'" Nnadi recalled in a recent interview.
The following day, he went to the coach’s office to check the final team list and find his name. He looked up and down, and could not find his name. He checked again. And again. Five times. Nothing. Nnadi wondered, "How did I get cut?"
He went into the coach’s office.
"What’s going on?" Nnadi asked the coach. "You timed me yourself. I was faster than a lot of kids."
The coach looked at Nnadi, nearly 6 feet tall and close to 290 pounds.
"'I’m going to be real with you,'" Nnadi recalls the coach saying. "'We just don’t have your size.'"
Nnadi looked at the coach incredulously. "Why didn’t you let me know before I started running?" Nnadi asked. There was nothing for the coach to say. Nnadi left the office feeling hurt and dejected.
But the pain did not last long. He turned his focus to football, the sport that first got his attention as a child when he saw former safety Troy Polamalu make a big interception on TV and said to no one in particular, "I want to play this."
Had Nnadi made the track team, no one knows which way his sports career would have gone. He could have ended up playing football anyway. But perhaps the rejection got him into football much sooner. Nnadi suited up for the first time in eighth grade. He says now, "Football, it clicked."
That first year, his team played home games at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where his older brothers played. Nnadi remembers seeing his brother Bradley and screaming, “Bradley, I’m about to play!” His father, Fred, recalls one play in which Nnadi carried other kids on his back because he was so much bigger than them.
Fred began calling Derrick “Steel” and reinforced one simple message: "Nobody’s bigger than you; nobody’s stronger than you." He was right about that. Nnadi became a four-star recruit in the 2014 class and looked hard at Virginia Tech and Florida State.
Fred stayed on his son, trying to instill a work ethic he learned from his own father in his native Nigeria. Fred immigrated to the United States as a college student to study engineering at Old Dominion. Once he decided he wanted to stay in the United States, Fred brought his future wife to the country with him, and they settled down in Virginia Beach. But it was hard in the early going, as they started their family and Fred had to work odd jobs while he completed first his bachelor’s degree and then his master’s degree.
After they had four boys and two girls, Derrick, their youngest child, was born. But it didn’t mean Fred took it any easier on him. Fred Nnadi is not one to sugarcoat things, so not only would he praise Derrick for his strength and toughness, but he urged Derrick to prove it every single day, every single play or risk getting benched.
"My father, he was the tough guy, and he always carried that to his children," Derrick Nnadi said. "If you’re going to do something, do it to the best of your abilities."
Though his father preferred for him to stay closer to home, Nnadi opted to attend Florida State. His parents supported the decision, but the change was hard for the mild-mannered Nnadi. Especially when defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins got on him in practice.
"Freshman year, coming up, I thought, 'This man hates me, why is he being hard on me?'" Nnadi said of Haggins. "It took year in and year out for a lot of the things the coaches were saying to stay in my head."
"He never knew how good he was," head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "He was so naive. He took everything you said literally, and even when he messed up, you hated to yell at him because there was no malice or intent. But he’s grown into the game and understanding how to play the game."
That finally happened last year, before his junior season. Nnadi earned first-team All-ACC honors from the coaches after finishing with 49 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Before every game, his father still tells him, "No one on the field is stronger than you; no one is faster than you. You go in there, and you destroy your opponent. You have to prove that you’re the best of the best of the best."
"When I first heard him say it, I was like, 'OK, Dad,'" Nnadi said. "As I keep listening, I just learn a little bit more, and as he’s telling me this, all of it is, 'Yeah, if I put my mind to it, I can do it, simple as that.'"
Nnadi thought about leaving school early for the NFL draft but opted to return for his senior year. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. lists Nnadi as the No. 2 senior defensive tackle heading into this season. Fisher says Nnadi "has a chance to be one of the most dominant guys up front" on a Florida State defensive line that is loaded with talent.
He has a chance to prove that right away in the opener against Alabama. His "track speed" could end up coming in handy in his football uniform.