Hometown fit


Chinedum Ndukwe

While Brian Veith pulled a Rudy when he went to school at Notre Dame, Chinedum Ndukwe studied enough film to get chosen in the NFL draft's final round. They've been friends ever since.

"We're both from the Midwest. We've got a lot in common," Veith says. "Chinedum is a steak-and-potatoes guy. His whole thing is bringing his lunch pail to work every day."

Ndukwe, the Bengals safety looking for a full-time gig, winces at steak and potatoes.

"How about fish and asparagus?" asks Ndukwe, whose burgeoning foundation is geared to the health and wellness of the next generation.

How about wine and cheese?

Veith, who grew up in Cincinnati's Mount Lookout and Ndukwe, raised on the fringes of Columbus, are going SoHo next week to raise funds for Ndukwe's foundation as it looks to implement before and after school programs in Cincinnati's inner city Catholic schools.

From 6-9 p.m. Monday at the Taft/Law Center in downtown Cincinnati, guests who pay the number of Ndukwe's jersey ($41) are to be serenaded by live music, an open bar, appetizer buffet, and autographs and photo ops with Ndukwe and several teammates. Also on the agenda are live and silent auctions teeming with NFL merchandise, autographs, tickets and VIP experiences and trips.  

In fact, there are a limited number of VIP packages for a private cocktail hour with Ndukwe and some Bengals before the event. Engaging, charismatic and smooth, Ndukwe can schmooze with anyone. He'll get his chance Monday night when No. 41 meets Fifth and Vine.

"Last year, it kind of turned into a frat party," Ndukwe says of the first fundraiser. "So this year we're trying to make it a little smaller and laid back. We're still trying to get some support."

Ndukwe can direct you to his web site, ndukwe.org, for more information (such as the tickets costing $50 at the door), but that's about all he dares to do. He leaves most all of it to friends like Veith while he escapes to the catacombs of Paul Brown Stadium's projectors and training room to focus on what could be his 26th NFL start in his fourth NFL season this Sunday against Tama Bay with Roy Williams (knee) most likely questionable.

"Once football season gets here, we just don't see the guy that much," Veith says. "We said goodbye to him back in June when he went off to train in Arizona and he didn't come back until nearly training camp started."

Ndukwe emerged Tuesday on his off day to help the Bengals host their Fuel Up to Play 60 Youth Summit at PBS. A total of 13 schools brought 100 of their top students to be ambassadors and bring back the message of staying fit and active. After he wandered through the groups spread out in the red zone and helped them in team building and leadership exercises, Ndukwe posed for a picture with each school and signed its banner with a running commentary.

"My parents both went to West Virginia in Morgantown," he says to the small group from South Point, Ohio, after it made the trip from its middle school on the West Virginia border. "Next year you'll have to bring more kids."

Then while they got lunch and a tour of the press box, Ndukwe left to speak at a University of Cincinnati health and wellness class to talk more about his passion. As he was coming back from Clifton, Veith was leaving his job as a Gilligan Oil accounts executive to coach Cardinal Pacelli's sixth-grade football team at the same Mount Lookout school where he played before he moved on to play for a year at St. Xavier High School.

"The West Side and East Side always had this rivalry at St. X," Veith says. "Well, my little East Side school is 5-1 in the Greater Catholic Youth League and 2-0 against the West Side."

He's also undefeated when it comes to being a hometown guy. After walking on at Notre Dame for a year ("If you're not on scholarship, at some point you have to focus on grades," Veith says), he worked for awhile in Chicago and New York before the lure of family brought him back. He's one of eight kids, not to mention the head coach for Cardinal Pacelli. He's also coaching basketball.

"It's great because you start with the kids in fourth grade and go all the way through with them," Veith says. "You start to build relationships. I remember when I had young guys helping out when I was playing. I'm closer in age to them than I am to their parents and I think that helps a lot. I'm single, no kids. What else am I going to do?"

Veith is also a big help to his college buddy. He had to laugh when the Bengals took Ndukwe in the seventh round. Being from basically the same part of Ohio brought them together at South Bend. Now it would keep them together.

"I called and told him, 'At least you weren't Mr. Irrelevant,' " says Veith of the last player drafted. "Then I told him I'd be down in a few days."

Mike Zimmer, the hard-boiled Bengals defensive coordinator who still isn't as tough on Ndukwe as his father, is always telling him that his vision is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

"I see things out there on the field that I try to do," Ndukwe says, "and it can take me out of the defense doing someone else's job."

That's why he has guys like Veith off the field.

"Chinedum has always had big ideas," Veith says. "I think that's why we hit it off. He comes from a great, hard-working family. His parents are immigrants and all their children are so successful. He's really got some great values."

One of Ndukwe's biggest ideas is to build a health and wellness complex for children.

"But it's just not about being physically fit," Ndukwe says. "It's about being mentally fit, too. Academics. That's why we want it also to be focused on mentoring and tutoring before and after school. Having that balance in your life. Basically, the values we talked about sitting around the dinner table when I was growing up. I understand that not everyone has that opportunity and that's why we want to help. Not only with nutrition, but with education."

The biggest idea is taking it to his parents' homeland of Nigeria, where he has already kicked it around with some of that nation's powers-that-be on one of his offseason trips.

Big ideas.

But he needs people like Veith and Terry Madden, a former president of the Cincinnati Notre Dame alumni club, to help him hammer out the nuts and bolts. Like the programs with the inner-city Catholic schools. Veith is also trying to rustle up support and funds for programs in the Cincinnati Public Schools and in pockets of Northern Kentucky.   

"Brian is a good dude; he's Cincinnati all the way," Ndukwe says. "I'm the chairman and CEO, but it's people like Brian and Terry that make it go. It wouldn't get done without them."

Two weeks after Ndukwe's interception in the final moments sealed the Baltimore victory, Veith can still hear Ndukwe telling him how doing well on the field trumps everything else.

"Brian, I've got to be picking off that pass against Baltimore and making tackles and just do my job on the field or else we won't be able to get any of this done," Veith recounts. "I think Chinedum thinks success in football sets it all up."

When it comes to football, Ndukwe is a proud, fierce player who has taken note that since he's been here the Bengals have signed veteran starting safeties such as Williams and Gibril Wilson. Last year he started 12 games in place of the injured Williams and they still signed Wilson back in May. Wilson is out for the year with an ACL tear and it looks like Williams is dealing with some sort of sprain.

Ndukwe also notes that former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh didn't have his breakout year until his fourth season. The two still talk often. Except the other night, when Ndukwe was at an event with NFL Network's Solomon Wilcots and Wilcots called Houshmandzadeh so he could put Ndukwe on the line.

"He wouldn't talk to me," Ndukwe said. "When Leon (Hall) picked the ball off against Baltimore, I tried to take T.J. out, so he wouldn't talk to me. He will soon.

"We've really had the same kind of career. Both late-round picks. Both had to wait while they brought in other guys. I feel good about it. I'm right where T.J. was heading into my fourth year. It's like he says, 'Fresh legs.' "

Veith knows it is certainly a long way from South Bend. Certainly from that bus ride after his rookie year they took with a couple of buddies from Columbus to the Super Bowl.

"You should have seen all the movies that kid bought along the way," Veith says. "I felt like I was in third grade again. Adam Sandler. Stuff like that."

On Monday, two steak-and-potatoes guys will take a walk down the red carpet for the cause.

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