On the third floor of John Paul Jones Arena, junior transfer Kennedy Nwabia sat at a high-top table clad in a pair of Puma sneakers and a navy No. 19 Paul Pogba jersey. It was 2 p.m. on a Thursday, and he was talking about food. Well, about chicken, to be specific.
It’s his favorite food to make, though he’s not partial to any particular preparation of it. Fried chicken, chicken alfredo, chicken soup — you name it. Odds are he likes it. He is partial, however, to Nigerian food, especially Egusi soup. Eating American dishes was one of the hardest adjustments for Nwabia when he first came to the United States in 2013.
“When I came here there were things I didn’t want to try, especially the food,” Nwabia said. “But my host family — they made me try everything wherever we went.”
The Charlottesville newcomer is a native of Nigeria, but this isn’t his first time in Virginia. He left his home country going into his junior year of high school in hopes of bettering his chances to play sports professionally by coming to the United States. After a short stint at a prep school in Omaha, Neb. — where the cold weather clashed with his West African origins — Nwabia transferred to North Cross, a prep school in Roanoke, Va.
Roanoke residents Nancy and Lee Coleman took him in and supported Nwabia’s athletic endeavors, driving him to basketball and then to soccer tournaments alongside their son, Ben, who is also now a junior in college. Avid baseball fans, they tried to convert Nwabia into a fan himself, but even their best efforts were unsuccessful.
Even though the Colemans couldn’t get Nwabia on a baseball diamond, others were able to convince him to join the soccer team. Despite coming to the U.S. to play basketball, Nwabia instantly fell in love with the new sport.
As a basketball player in Nigeria, he’d never played more than a game of pickup soccer until arriving at North Cross. Just two years after trying the sport out, he was a Division I starter for the University of Dayton in Ohio — leading the Flyers in scoring in his sophomore season. But between the distance from his host family in Roanoke to his dislike of the cold weather, Nwabia decided that Dayton wasn’t quite the right fit. He transferred to Virginia in 2017, joining one of the top teams in the country just four years after playing soccer for the first time.
“It just goes to show you what an athlete he is — that he can pick something up that late in life and be as good as he is,” associate men’s soccer coach Matt Chulis said. “It’s scary.”
Chulis noted that Nwabia’s transition thus far has been seamless, adding that his attitude, work ethic and well-roundedness have been essential to the easy adjustment.
Thousands of miles from home, over a hundred miles from his host family, in a new town with a new team, cooking is Nwabia’s way of staying connected to his roots and his values.
“It’s either you cook something and it’s bad and you try again the next time, or you keep trying until you get it right,” Nwabia said. “The first time I tried to make alfredo, I messed it up. I took all the sauce and just threw it in the trashcan. But the next time I was better. It’s an art that way — you do something, if it’s not good, you throw it away and you come back and do it again. You just keep trying.”
That unwavering commitment to getting better is the key to Kennedy’s success both on the field and in the kitchen. It’s repetition, he says — you succeed by working on something until you get it right. The more times you do it, the better you get. That’s the way he was raised, and that’s the way Nwabia approaches any challenge in life.
“He’s in the training room nonstop because he just wants to be on the field,” Chulis said. “He’s so dedicated and just happy to be here. He definitely sees [soccer] as something than can help him in life.”
When he came to the U.S. to play basketball, he’d never played soccer in an organized setting. But when approached about trying out for the team at North Cross, he was all in. Whatever would get him to college and give him a chance to pursue athletics at the highest level — he was game. His flexibility and his drive paid off.
“Moving from Nigeria and from my family I really had to tell myself like ‘okay, this is my goal and this is where I’m trying to get to — I want to use sports to get myself a degree and see what I can do with sports from there,” Nwabia said. “Or [I’ll] fall back on my degree if that doesn’t work out.”
He never expected soccer to be his golden ticket, yet it was. Just like he never expected to enjoy American food, which, for the record, he now does. But neither would have happened had he not been open to trying new things and accustomed to making the most of new situations. That’s what he’s doing now.
“Since the day I picked up soccer, it’s opened a lot of doors for me,” Nwabia said. “I’ll stick with it, just keeping my head down [and] grinding, taking it day by day and giving it 100 percent every day in practice.”
He still has his basketball shoes, but his cleats clearly are his focus now — oh, and beating Virginia Tech, the Coleman’s favorite school. He’s all in on the rivalry.