By Sean Jensen, special to Yahoo! Sports
Other than visiting his native Mexico, Jose Mendoza had never traveled outside of California.
So Mendoza figured he was being punk’d when Regina Jackson, the executive director of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, gauged his interest in an all-expenses paid trip to New York.
He would stay in his first hotel, in Times Square. He would tour several colleges, including Columbia and Julliard. And he would eat at restaurants and meet former President Bill Clinton.
“I didn’t think it was going to be real,” said Mendoza, 17. “To go to New York for a few days? I was like, ‘Whoa.”
It was real. Thanks to Nnamdi Asomugha.
Mendoza and nine other high school students from Oakland, Calif., can credit the Oakland Raiders’ two-time All-Pro cornerback, who funds and plans the annual Asomugha College Tour through the East Oakland Youth Development Center.
Both the person and place are steeped in history: Asomugha became the league’s highest-paid defensive back ever after signing a three-year deal in February that guarantees him $28.5 million, and the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) was founded 36 years ago by former Clorox Company chairman Robert Shetterly.
The center serves as an after-school program for all Oakland youths and their families, and also offers summer programs. There are classes on creative writing, computer, cooking, dance, music, as well as field trips and physical education. There is a track club, rowing team, youth basketball league and karate classes.
The age of kids and young adults using the center currently ranges from 4 to 24, and there also is job training, education and computer services for adults during the day.
Oh, and all of the programs are free.
It was about seven years ago when Asomugha, now 27, heard about the center from a former teammate at the University of California who had grown up at the EOYDC. Asomugha’s initially got involved by hosting five students from the center on an overnight fly-fishing trip. Then he donated Christmas gifts to families before approaching Jackson with the idea for a college tour.
“I think of all the schools and places I didn’t get to see,” said Asomugha, who grew up in Los Angeles. “I’d love to do it, but I wasn’t going to do it by myself. And none of the homeys were going to do it with me.”
Chosen by the Raiders late in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft, Asomugha has come to know Oakland well. He empathized with the challenges facing students in situations reminiscent of his own growing up. Oakland had the fifth-highest crime rate of any U.S. city last year, according to publisher CQ Press. In March, a gunman killed four police officers in two separate incidents in east Oakland.
The EOYDC sits in Elmhurst, a rough part of Oakland where violence, unemployment and dropout rates are high.
“He sought out one of the toughest neighborhoods in California. We’re blocks away from where the police were shot,” Jackson said. “When stuff happens, it always impacts our participants. But he wasn’t shaken by that.”
“We didn’t have much, but we were raised like we had a lot,” Asomugha said of growing up in Los Angeles. “My parents came from Nigeria in the 1970s, and they had to build from the ground up.”
Asomugha admits that the students in Oakland might have it “even worse” than what he faced in Los Angeles, lamenting that they don’t have the “environment that is always conducive to their success.”
“They are complete aberrations to their surroundings,” he said.
He wanted the kids to be exposed to different surroundings, to worlds outside Oakland. He wanted to introduce them to great schools and also get to know them personally.
So Asomugha helps, but it’s not about handouts. The kids have to earn it.
Asomugha and his siblings were not allowed to play sports unless they maintained A’s and B’s in school. So in addition to bankrolling the college tours, Asomugha helps pick the winners, sets the standard (at least a 3.3 grade-point average) and serves as a chaperone – and mini-van driver.
He flies coach with Jackson and the students. He stays in the same hotel, although not always on the same floor. And he doesn’t abuse his celebrity, around the students or at restaurants.
“Before the trip, I was intimidated, because he’s a big superstar,” said Christina Green-Wilson, 18, who attended last year’s trip to Boston. “But once you get to know him, it’s the total opposite. I thought he would say, ‘Get me in here free, because I work for the Raiders.’
“But he was like a normal person.”
And he made the students feel special.
On the inaugural trip, he and Jackson took four students to Atlanta, where they toured CNN, visited historically black colleges and universities, including Clark Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse, and dined at Justin’s, a restaurant owned by Diddy.
In 2008, he and Jackson took six students to Boston, where they visited several colleges, including Harvard and MIT, attended a jazz showcase at the Berklee College of Music and watched the Boston Celtics play.
This year’s trip, though, topped them all.
The 10 students appeared on the popular 106 & Park music show, shopped with actress Natalie Portman, visited with Clinton and television journalist Diane Sawyer, and watched Billy Elliot the Musical.
“It’s really weird, since he’s a professional athlete, and we’re high school students,” said Michael Garrick, an 18-year-old who will attend California-Davis. “But he treats us like he’s our friends.
“For him to actually do this for us,” Garrick said, “it’s an honor, and I really appreciate it.”
The highlight for Garrick was meeting Clinton, whom Asomugha got to know at the 2009 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University. The students spent about 90 minutes with Clinton in Harlem, at the headquarters of the Clinton Foundation.
Among Clinton’s points of emphasis to the students: Don’t be afraid to fail, learn from your mistakes and don’t let emotions get in the way of the task at hand.
“He gave us advice for the future,” Garrick said.
The trips have impacted the students differently.
Garrick was impressed by the culture in New York; he wondered if he might someday move there.
Albert Williams, who went on the trip to Atlanta, was encouraged by his visit to Morehouse, an all-male historically black college whose alumni includes Dr. Martin Luther King, Edwin Moses and Spike Lee.
“It was encouraging, seeing people do the things that I think I can do,” said Williams, who was raised by his mother and aspires to become a mechanical engineer. “It was encouraging to see people like me being able to follow their dreams. It was great to see African-American males not being generalized as a gang-banger.”
Yehoshua Jackson, 18, applied to Berklee after visiting there on the college tour, and he may consider transferring there from Cal State East Bay. One of Jackson’s favorite memories was the late-night jam session with Asomugha on a piano at their hotel.
Yet when asked what was special about his trip to Boston, Jackson quietly said, “That it was available for someone like me.
“I’m not as financially blessed as some people,” Jackson said. “So it was a blessing for me, because it gave me a chance to go outside of the state and be a part of the college experience.”
Asomugha said he is honored to get to know the students, many of whom he is at least familiar with because he tutors at the center throughout the year, including every Monday afternoon during the NFL season.
“Regardless of what they get out of it, it is like a reward for them. They’ve been through a lot,” Asomugha said. “But they’re big on school, and big on doing the right thing.
“The kids need something like [this] to keep their spirits up.”
So Asomugha steadily builds the program, saying he is close to securing sponsorship assistance. True to his low-key nature, though, he doesn’t revel in the media attention.
“I don’t want it to overshadow the importance of what’s going on,” Asomugha said. “I don’t want the kids to be mesmerized by [my celebrity] because there are a lot of people helping in the community, and you don’t want to look like you’re above anyone else.”
Still, with the kind of impact Asomugha is trying to make, some attention is inevitable.
“A lot of athletes play, and play and get close to retirement, then try to figure out what they do next,” Regina Jackson said. “But Nnamdi is living the legacy he wants to be known for right now.”
Sean Jensen covers the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.