Edith Ihenacho never wanted her sons to play football. It was a violent game, she believed. Too violent. And surely her boys would get hurt.
For a while, Duke Ihenacho respected his mother’s wishes. He and his older brother, Carl, funneled their athletic abilities into basketball. They played flag or two-hand-touch football with friends and relatives but avoided the organized, full-contact version of the sport.
That is, until Duke decided otherwise.
Before his junior year at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, Duke’s thinking changed. Persuaded by an assistant coach and gym teacher, Steve Garcia, he decided to try out for the football team. His brother, a senior at the time, followed suit.
“Once you do it, she can’t tell you not to,” Duke said Monday, flashing a grin. “You know what I mean?”
Ihenacho did not deliver a hit on the football field until he was 16 years old. Now, he does it professionally and, as of Sunday, for the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins claimed Ihenacho on waivers after he was released by Denver, where he started 17 games at strong safety last season, including a loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Ihenacho could start in place of suspended veteran Brandon Meriweather in Sunday’s season-opener against the Houston Texans. At the very least, he will get playing time on special teams.
No matter what his role, Ihenacho said he will bring one strength to the field on every play.
“I’m physical,” he said. “It’s pretty simple.”
It’s also pretty strange, considering the circumstances.
When Duke and his brother first joined the high school football team, they didn’t know what it felt like to get hit. Perhaps more importantly, they didn’t know how to properly deliver a hit, either.
“That was the toughest transition,” Carl Ihenacho said. “We kind of picked up things through drills and things like that. Our coaches in high school really did a good job of preparing us, but also we were just kind of fast learners.”
Junipero Serra coach Scott Altenberg said he and his staff had to occasionally give the brothers some additional instruction. But in a way, their inexperience almost made them easier players to teach.
“We had a kid who was a complete sponge,” Altenberg said of Duke. “He didn’t have all the Pop Warner stuff and all the bad habits to weed through. He had no habits. He was a blank canvas.”
Altenberg said Duke immediately showed a natural feel for the game, an innate comfort on the field “that you’d think a guy playing 10 years would have.” He embraced the contact and was unafraid of getting physical. In fact, Altenberg still remembers Duke flattening opposing players in his first varsity game.
“You know, a lot of guys pause before they hit,” Altenberg said. “He had no pause button. When he hits somebody, he goes right through you.”
By the beginning of his senior season, just his second year of competitive football, Duke had grown to be one of the team’s best players. He also was voted as a team captain by his teammates. “That’s the kind of kid he is,” Altenberg said.
Duke stood out on the field and garnered college interest from San Jose State, where his brother was getting significant playing time as a freshman. He followed his brother to the school and, in his five years there, became the first three-time all-conference player in Spartans history.
But despite his college success, Duke was not drafted and signed with the Broncos as a free agent. He was cut three times before latching on as a starter.
When Denver signed T.J. Ward in the offseason and Quinton Carter emerged as a healthy backup, Duke again became expendable.
“It’s tough,” he said. “But you know, I’m still blessed. You’ve just got to look at it like that. I just look at it as another opportunity, just getting back to work.”
Ihenacho admitted he was surprised by being cut for the fourth time in his career. First-year coach Jay Gruden shared that sentiment.
“He started a lot of games last year for Denver,” Gruden said. “We didn’t know who was going to come available. We saw that he was there, we put a claim in to him because of the experience level and special teams experience. We thought he could be an immediate help for us, and luckily we got him.”
After finding out that he’d been claimed, Ihenacho caught a 5 p.m. flight out of Denver and arrived in Washington late Sunday night. He got a physical and practiced Monday morning on little sleep, with many of his belongings still in suitcases at a hotel.
As he adjusts to life in a new city, Ihenacho must also adjust to a new locker room with 51 new teammates. The only player in the room he knew before arriving Monday morning was cornerback Tracy Porter, who played in Denver last season.
Carl Ihenacho said the rest of the Redskins will soon get to know Duke as he is: funny, outgoing and humble at his core. He is active on social media, a huge fan of movies and, in his words, “just a cool guy.” Teammates have already taken to calling him “Nacho.”
As for his playing style on the field, his brother landed on one word: energetic. He also compared Duke to Brian Dawkins or Ed Reed.
“He’s very, very aggressive and loves to hit, but also he’s good enough to play one-on-one and big enough to go against tight ends, and things like that,” Carl said. “He’s a hard-hitting safety. … Get your popcorn ready.”
After leaving San Jose State, Carl had a brief stint in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders before becoming a personal trainer in California. Their younger brother, Glen, is a freshman defensive back at Oregon.
Somewhere, Edith Ihenacho is probably shaking her head, wondering how this all happened.
“She loves it. She loves it, man,” Duke Ihenacho said, smiling. “Somehow, I just convinced her it’s going to be all right.”