NEW YORK -- The best thing that happened to Oakland this year was the re-signing of All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and I don't mean it was the best thing for the Raiders ... though it probably was. Nope, I mean it was the best thing for Oakland, and I can call on 10 teenagers to prove it.
They're from the city, belong to local youth groups and wouldn't be in New York last week without Asomugha. He not only arranged a five-day trip that had them going to NYU, the Juilliard School of Music, Natural History Museum, Empire State Building and Columbia University; he had them in Bill Clinton's office to meet the former President and spend a half-hour with him.
|Nnamdi Asomugha is often recognized for his off-field contributions. (US Presswire)|
"It is hard to quantify the places we went and the people we met in such a short period of time," said Regina Jackson, executive director of the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EDOYDC), one of two non-profit groups represented on the trip. "It was a great experience that was part educational, part cultural and part social, and it is something they can tell their grandchildren and great-grandchildren about."
And that's where Asomugha comes in. Without him the trip doesn't happen. He not only planned it; he financed it. Do the math: It wasn't cheap. But that's not the point. Asomugha pulled the tour together because he wanted to, which is why he organized a trip of EOYDC kids last spring to New England where teenagers visited Harvard, Brown and Boston Universities, MIT and the Berklee College of Music. And why he sprung for another hike two years ago for a college tour of Atlanta.
Each year it's a different city, and each year it's Asomugha who arranges, funds and leads cross-country trips for inner-city youths -- trips heavily tilted toward cultural and educational experiences.
"Maybe someone's passion is cars," he said while walking the halls of the Natural History Museum. "Mine is travel and public service. That's the reason I started something like this."
I know 10 young men and women who are grateful. Members of the EOYDC and Young Musicians program, they were part of Asomugha's traveling party last week. All but one had never been to New York City, while 16-year-old Alejandra Parebes had never been on a plane, period. I met the group shortly after one young musician had an audition that morning at Juilliard. The day before another went through a similar process -- with Asomugha whisking her to Lincoln Center after their plane landed.
"He's meant a lot to us," said Brittany Moses, 18. "He's been around and put in his time. It really is a big deal, and I appreciate him for doing this. I never thought I'd get a chance to get to New York.
"Really, I didn't know much about him before he came to us. I just knew he played for the Raiders. But I appreciate him coming around and teaching us about education and how you can do anything; telling us to make sure you get an education, graduate from college and do good things."
The message must have gotten through. It's common for EOYDC participants to go on to college. Moses, for instance, is headed to San Jose State. Michael Garrick is going to UC-Davis. Jose Mendoza is off to Sacramento State. Each of the 10 students that were here has a GPA of no less than 3.0, and each expresses interest in moving on to a secondary education, which is a tribute to Asomugha's work off the football field.
But it's a credit to the EOYDC and Jackson, too, and those 10 teens who were in town can serve as witnesses again. They were on the subway with Jackson when she unexpectedly ran into an EOYDC alumnus who graduated from Georgetown University, where she majored in English, and now lives and works in New York City. Jackson hadn't seen the young woman in three years.
"She looked up and said, 'Miss Regina!' " Jackson said. "So, of course, I cried and the whole deal."
It was Jackson who first got Asomugha involved in the EOYDC after a chance meeting between the two when he was a senior at Cal. There was an EOYDC grad at Berkeley who knew him, believed in him, thought he might be interested in getting involved ... I think you get the picture. Anyway, he became involved with the center and its programs and jumped at the opportunity to mentor inner-city youths to push them toward meaningful lives.
Sometimes he goes to the EOYDC to speak. Sometimes he tutors students with homework. He has been known to help out with cooking classes and is only too willing to join in with track-and-field activities. Bottom line: He gives something more valuable than money to the program. He gives his time.
"I'm 27," Asomugha said, "but, at the same time, I still love my college experience at Berkeley. And that fuels me to give that experience ... or to open people's eyes to that experience ... to people like these kids.
"I'm looking at it through their eyes. I know what I went through at Berkeley and how those four years changed my life. And I don't want people to miss out on their opportunities. If they can see this, and it opens their eyes maybe it will help them."
Yeah, I like the sound of that, too. And if you met Asomugha, you would like it even better. He's committed to helping young people, and he's committed to doing it through education -- which makes sense when you consider he comes from a family where everyone except Asomugha has a master's degree. Asomugha graduated from Cal with a degree in corporate finance.
"I get something out of this," he said of his annual trips. "The greatest satisfaction is the fact that they [the teenagers] feel like college is 'cool' after going on these tours because we don't just go to colleges. A lot of times when a kid hears college he thinks, 'Oh, we're going somewhere else, and all it is is books, books, books and I'm going to be bored. I don't want to do it.' But we're showing them the city and different things around the city. It just lets them know there's life somewhere else, and education is not just books."
It also lets them know they're fortunate to have Nnamdi Asomugha around. Had he not re-signed with the Raiders in February he could've become an unrestricted free agent, available to the highest bidder, and a line would've formed immediately. In all likelihood, the Raiders wouldn't have allowed that to happen -- making him their franchise player instead -- but there was always the possibility. Now there isn't, and count the kids of Oakland as winners. "A lot of people talked about how fabulous his deal was," Jackson said, "but my message to him was: I'm so glad you're still going to be in Oakland."
I know 10 teenagers who will second that. And they should.