Kene Nwangwu's speed has long been his introduction, whether he is becoming the first NFL rookie since previous star Vikings kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson to return two kickoffs for touchdowns, or he is making his first returns for Heritage High School in Frisco, Texas.
Former Coyotes coach Che Hendrix remembered a skinny freshman with "Coke-bottle glasses" housing a kickoff for the first time, then realizing the caliber of athlete in Nwangwu.
"Hit it like a locomotive train," Hendrix said. "No cuts, zero fear."
It's a familiar track for Nwangwu, who has topped 20 miles per hour while scoring on two returns, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, for the Vikings this season. Those closest to the fourth-round pick say there is little reason to believe he won't keep running with what could be a growing role for the Vikings after running back Dalvin Cook's shoulder injury.
"You just have to give him the ball," said his mother, Ogonna Nwangwu. "He can change the dynamics of a game. He's showing it again. We're just so excited for him."
After taking his first NFL carry in the offense last week at San Francisco, Nwangwu is expected to get more on Sunday at Detroit as the No. 2 back behind Alexander Mattison. That's provided he isn't sick; the Vikings put him as questionable on the injury report Saturday because of an illness.
The Vikings intended to use him as they use Mattison to spell Cook, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said last week, and "try to figure out things he's doing really good, and hopefully use him in those."
Nwangwu's journey to Minnesota began with a childhood rooted in education and his Nigerian family, making sports secondary. But he is drawn to speed; his dream is to open an auto shop with his two brothers. He is also one of the fastest-rated players in the "Madden" football video game this year, but he said he "hasn't played a sports game" in over a decade. They're too slow for him.
"My little brother had almost every single 'Need for Speed' game," Nwangwu said. "One of my favorite racing games back then was 'Need for Speed: Most Wanted' and 'Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.'"
Nwangwu is the second of three sons to Jerome and Ogonna, who both grew up in Nnewi, a city in southeast Nigeria, before moving to north Texas nearly 30 years ago. They have long known their middle child had wheels, even if the 6-foot-1 Kene wasn't going to be as tall as the older 6-foot-4 Emeka, who ran hurdles at the University of Texas-Arlington.
Ogonna Nwangwu has repeatedly told a story about Kene, roughly 6 or 7 years old, outrunning kids twice his age at a family picnic hosted for dozens from Nigeria. A family friend approached her, saying Kene should run track. She laughed it off.
Clearing the bar
Kene Nwangwu (pronounced kuh-NAY WAHN-goo) didn't play league sports until Maus Middle School in Frisco, where he still holds an eighth-grade long jump record. His mind wouldn't stop racing either; his mother figured Kene wasn't challenged enough academically. Nwangwu, whom former coaches describe as "sneaky funny," acted out in class like middle-school kids can do.
"I'd get so many calls [from the school]," said Ogonna, a surgical nurse. "'Kene, I'm in surgery, I can't be taking phone calls. You need to stop.' "
The hijinks dissipated with upper-level course work in high school, but Kene liked to dissect electronics, turning the floor of his childhood home into a graveyard for the toys belonging to his little brother, Adi.
"I'd always try to dismantle them," said Nwangwu, who earned a mechanical engineering degree from Iowa State. "Figure out how they work and stuff. He's six years younger than me, so it'd be a little telephone or RC car. Always getting the screwdriver and opening it up, taking the wires out."
Nwangwu didn't know much about football when he started playing in seventh grade. But unteachable speed made him an immediate standout at kick returner for Heritage High School in a suburb a half-hour north of Dallas. His junior year, Nwangwu broke out with 1,367 yards and 15 touchdowns as the leading weapon in the school's first playoff team.
"He really exploded," said Hendrix, then the head coach. "He was all-everything. Just really our team leader and just a stud, there's really no other way to put it."
Nwangwu might have been more accomplished in track and field, where he holds grade-school records in relay, long jump and high jump. He blew away the competition, winning the Class 5A state title in high jump by 4 inches with a 6-foot-10-inch jump. Nwangwu twice went for what would have been a personal-record 7-foot high jump, but barely missed.
"He had plenty of height," said Patrick Villa, a Coyotes football and track assistant coach, "and clipped it with the back of his heels."
But Nwangwu went under the radar with his college recruitment. He was a three-star football recruit with a strong enough academic record to get offered by Northwestern, but coaches said he didn't attend combines and chase attention. He chose Iowa State over Iowa and Indiana, among others.
Nwangwu became a leader in the Cyclones running back room despite not leading on the field behind David Montgomery, now with the Bears, and then Breece Hall, who recently repeated as the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. He overcame a torn Achilles in 2017, suffered during an offseason exercise involving hurdles, which Nwangwu loathes. He returned and was surpassed by Hall on the depth chart in 2019 and 2020.
There was no questioning Nwangwu's speed as he earned All-Big 12 honorable mention last fall as a senior kick returner. On offense, he took a career-high 61 carries while mentoring Hall and his younger teammates.
"Breece, you're going to see, he'll pop off in the NFL," Nwangwu said. "But it's always about the team, never about myself. I always feel everyone is pouring so much effort and passion into it, you don't want to be the one to ruin it."
Running with opportunity
The 20.6 mph Nwangwu reached during his first touchdown, a 98-yard kickoff return against the Ravens, is the fastest a Vikings ball carrier has been tracked this season. That's evidence he needs for the internal debate over who's the fastest on the team, but it doesn't solve the issue of their 4x100-meter relay team.
Nwangwu said he's got himself, receiver Dan Chisena (a former Penn State track runner) and cornerback Kris Boyd, but needs a fourth teammate. Special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken judges his players by who travels 30 yards on kickoff coverage the fastest.
"Josh Metellus is always getting there," Ficken said. "Chisena, Boyd, [Myles] Dorn has gotten it a couple of times, so we have some speed."
But not every track star can excel in football.
"The term we'll use is 'football speed,' " quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I know that track people have tried to come out and run routes. There's a difference between being straight-ahead fast and being able to stop and go.
"You'd like to think Kene has both tools, and that's a large reason he's been so effective."
And not every kick returner can be a good NFL running back. Nwangwu's next step is becoming a complete player: picking up blitzing linebackers, running the right routes, and hitting the right hole as a runner. A relative lack of college experience might lengthen his learning curve.
"Protection is always the toughest thing," coach Mike Zimmer said. "It's not really running with the ball; it's the protections, it's understanding your route concepts, where you have to be on certain routes and things like that. He's still learning some of the run game."