'Chido' is the cure for a Super Bowl hangover
Nigerian roots... kidnappings... chess... a brain that reads the play before it happens. Everything turned Chidobe Awuzie into one of the game's best corners and exactly what the Bengals need in 2022.
CINCINNATI, Ohio — Nobody ever gets to peek inside the locker room of a Super Bowl loser. Not in those precious few seconds when wounds have just been sliced open and the defeat stings worst.
After these Cincinnati Bengals removed their pads one final time, the reality of how close they came to winning it all hit everyone at once.
They were one play away from football immortality. Legacies could’ve been completely rewritten if one or two inches go their way: If an official keeps a flag tucked in his belt on a suspect defensive holding, if Joe Mixon stays on the field, if Aaron Donald doesn’t toast Quinton Spain and quarterback Joe Burrow hits a wide-freakin’-open Ja’Marr Chase on the final fourth and 1, the Bengals could’ve been the team basking in confetti.
Instead, they were here. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie can still picture the scene inside the bowels of SoFi Stadium. Televisions perched above were broadcasting the Los Angeles Rams’ full celebration. Sean McVay kissed the Lombardi Trophy, then Matthew Stafford gently dangled his fingers hello for the cameras with a wry smile, then the game’s MVP (Cooper Kupp) choked up. It was torture. All of it. The volume was turned so high that the Bengal players could hear exactly what was said up on that Super Bowl platform. The interviews. The hooting. The hollering. “Everything,” adds Awuzie, with a tint of disgust.
Most of America might’ve viewed the Bengals as a plucky underdog lucky to even be playing in this game but not the Bengals players themselves. They knew how unbelievably difficult it was to get to this point, only to lose 23-20.
Awuzie would rather not supply the full details. But know this: It was ugly.
“The locker room,” Awuzie says, “was a mess. Everybody’s yelling and emotional. It didn’t feel good. Whatever you think it looked like, that’s probably what it looked like.”
Awuzie was one of the first players to exit the locker room. He ambled onto the team bus, took a few moments to reflect and then — at 8:39 p.m. Pacific Time — tweeted out two simple words:
At some point, Cincy would need to move on. Why not when emotions were running hottest?
“I just wanted to put out that message and hold myself accountable,” Awuzie says. “Hold our team accountable. Because I know who we are. I know we’re very resilient. I saw that as another obstacle to get back there. No matter how long it takes, as long as we’re here, we know we have that opportunity. So that’s always the goal: to be back.”
Historically, Super Bowl losers do not get back because the hangover is very real. Only one team the last 27 years has returned to the big game after losing it. That’s not a quirky coincidence, no, there’s an undeniable psychology to this all. Because with the exception of Tom Brady and the ’18 Patriots, the last six Super Bowl losers have won an average of only 8.8 games the next year. The tone of most nationwide coverage is that these Bengals will follow suit, that they struck lightning in a bottle last season.
Perhaps this team has been shoved to the back of everyone’s minds for good reason. The AFC became an arm’s race.
But the antidote to all of this talent flooding the conference — the player who’ll eliminate any semblance of a hangover — is right here, crouching into a low stance to chat after an August training camp practice. Chidobe Awuzie, pronounced “CHIH-doe-bay” and “ah-WOOZ-yeh,” will not allow the Bengals to atrophy into a state of mediocrity. There’s his play on the field. In 2021, he shadowed No. 1 wide receivers, finished as PFF’s third-best corner and, for good measure, picked off a pass in that Super Bowl loss. Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 74.8 targeting him and arguably no player in the sport has done a better job defending Tyreek Hill.
There’s much to love about “Chido” — the shutdown corner — but his imprint on the franchise goes beyond blanketing receivers. The league’s most savage secondary is built to re-climb the summit because Awuzie is. That “be back” promise was no cheap attempt at likes. Nor was it a quick swig of Pedialyte to temporarily ease the pain. Rather, it was an extension of the perspective that’ll ensure these Bengals are here to stay. For good. You know Joe Burrow. You know Ja’Marr Chase. Yet there’s a good chance you do not know the cornerback sharpening this defense’s edge into the 2022 season.
There may be no more important player in the AFC than “Chido,” the corner on an island manning up a gauntlet of No. 1 wideouts.
You can support our independent journalism at Go Long by subscribing today. We’d love to have you join our growing community:
This conversation begins with Awuzie promising he never lives in a state of satisfaction.
“I set out to play this game for respect, most of all,” Awuzie says. “I want people to see my name — kids, peers, people I went to school with, family members, people I don’t even know — I want them to see my name and associate it with competitiveness, excellence, a humble guy, God-fearing, all of those things. That’s what motivates me every day, that this is a platform for me to use and show people that I can do it. And it’s a constant battle within myself. I’m always talking to myself. And it excites me to have that challenge every day to go out there and be competitive and try to win against some of the best guys in the league.
“I like my back against the wall. I like that. This game provides that for me. It challenges me every day to be my best self.”
And it is precisely this constant battle that fuels Awuzie every day. Everyone has been in a situation where they truly want something, he explains. It consumes your mind. That’s how he treats the cornerback position.
He transitions into what he calls a “complete lock-in mode.”
“Because,” he adds, “this isn’t a game for the kind-hearted or for the weak.”
Awuzie glides his hand up and down. Far too many players, he explains, ride an emotional roller-coaster. Staying steady is a battle he intends to win. And, OK. Before you sigh deeply and proclaim that this is exactly what every red-blooded professional football player claims, understand Awuzie’s roots. His Nigerian roots. His Igbo roots. Pronounced “e-bow,” Igbo is an ethnic group of Nigeria. A “culture,” Awuzie says, a “tribe.” The No. 1 reason he sacrifices so much — hitting the town, talking to girls, etc. — is that so many kids from that specific community are looking up to him.
When his parents emigrated to America it wasn’t to have fun. “Awuzie” translates to “I have arrived” in his culture and that’s how they lived. They wanted to find their place in the world, earned their college degrees, settled down in the Bay Area and their son went on to earn his own business degree at Colorado in three years. Chidobe has returned to the homeland to visit. This past offseason, he attended a few conventions and the kids here? He was blown away. They view him as larger than life.
“I’m their superstar. I’m their role model. So obviously, it puts a little weight on me. I like that weight. It keeps me honest. It keeps me very motivated. It keeps me in very need of discipline. So, it’s beautiful.”
Being a role model for kids in Nigeria is, well, different.
We tend to complain about trivial nonsense here in the states. Mainly because we’ve run out of real problems. Far too much oxygen is expended on feelings along an endless quest to discover something new that offends us. That is not the case in Nigeria. For his “My Cause My Cleats,” in 2017, Awuzie brought attention to the 276 girls kidnapped in Nigeria, 100-plus living in captivity and the cruel reality that such issues in Africa garner virtually no attention.
This isn’t a problem Awuzie has merely studied from afar. He lived it.
Out of nowhere, Awuzie relives an experience that was traumatic for his entire family. When he was a high school student living in San Jose, Calif., his own grandmother back in Nigeria was kidnapped. And held for ransom. For two full years.
Awuzie glances up to see the dropped jaw of this visitor, and adds one more nugget: This happens all the time in Nigeria.
“That builds you into iron,” he says, “and gives me a world perspective. I’m not one of those guys who’s really sensitive about a lot of subjects. I’d probably be cancelled if somebody got me on a podcast or something. To me, life at its core is very tough for a lot of people.”
He was young. The details remain a bit murky. But this was standard kidnapping procedure in Nigeria. A group of younger kids in their 20s were looking for money so they, quite literally, stole a senior citizen. Often in these cases, the police get involved but they can only do so much. The kidnappers demand an insanely high amount of money from the person’s family and then family members do everything in their power to rummage funds together to retrieve their loved one.
That was the case here. Awuzie’s family paid the ransom fee.
Only, in this case, they didn’t get their beloved rock of the family back. Awuzie’s mother’s mother, Justine Uwakwe, remained in captivity and it understandably took a toll on everyone. Uwakwe was confined in a basement or a room, as Awuzie recalls, but… she’s also one of the strongest (and smartest) human beings he knows. Over time, her captors got lax. They started to assume this older lady was weak and would not escape. Uwakwe did a good job of softening them up and — when the time was right — she escaped.
She climbed out of a window and fled to safety.
That’s a major reason Awuzie returned to Nigeria in the offseason. To see her. Uwakwe is his last surviving grandparent and, lordy, he knows her DNA is in him.
“A story of resiliency and strength,” Awuzie says. “How strong a woman can be to be in that situation.”
“It just gives me another layer. I don’t have to rely on my own strength. I like to rely on God’s strength and my family’s strength, knowing what they’ve gone through. People I’ve grown up with. A lot of the friends I have here. Just seeing how everybody responds, I try to take stuff from people. That’s how I’ve always been. I’m very visual. I see how somebody’s been through something and I want to replicate that. So, it’s all built into one.”
Maybe that’s why he won’t outright trash the Dallas Cowboys for giving up on him. A second-round pick in 2017, Awuzie played out his rookie deal before inking a three-year, $21.75 million contract with the Bengals. He was part of the free agent class that sparked this whole Super Bowl run, one of the (many) outcasts in Cincy with a reason to play angry. We’ve caught up with them here at Go Long. Mike Hilton never received an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Eli Apple was rejected as a malcontent and a bust. Awuzie was essentially deemed part of the problem by Mike McCarthy’s new staff, yet goes out of his way to praise the strength coach (Mike Wojcik) and trainer (Britt Brown) and coaches like Jason Garrett and Kris Richard.
There’s no bad blood, he promises.
“I’m just glad that when I did have a chance to choose,” he adds, “I chose here.”
That may be true but Hilton knows Awuzie is quieter by nature. Deep down, he believes that the Cowboys “absolutely” serve as a source of motivation. This may be a name fans struggle to pronounce — let alone bring up as the best cornerback — but “turn on the tape,” Hilton says, “and you can see how much of an impact he has.”
“When we know he’s out there on the island,” Hilton says, “we know he’s going to handle his business and make our jobs a lot easier. We have a lot of confidence in him to go out there and do what he’s supposed to do. He’s one of the best corners in all of football and needs the respect. If you’re following a top target that means you’re confident in your ability and your team is confident in your ability. That’s what we feel about Chido.”
The term is regurgitated so much that it has almost lost all meaning. So many pros anoint themselves shutdown corners when the actual list is quite short. Even the cover corner universally heralded as the best of the best, the corner on a five-year, $100 million contract was nearly an all-time Super Bowl goat. The Rams’ Jalen Ramsey fell down in coverage on that fateful fourth-and-1 play. If Burrow isn’t tagged by Donald, he hits Chase for a 49-yard touchdown that replays forever. No position is more difficult to play in the modern game. Rules exponentially put the pure cover corner at a disadvantage.
The profession demands a supreme level of technique and physical attributes. But breaking into the category of the truly elite, as Awuzie did in 2021, takes more.
“When you’re on an island with a great receiver,” Awuzie says, “you can’t have any lackadaisical moments. If you do, it’s a touchdown because that’s usually their No. 1 threat. The quarterback is going to be looking that way. Your adrenaline. Your mind. Everything has to be on point. To another level. Even if you have a good practice week, a good walkthrough, good meetings, when you get to the game, it has to be in my mind that, ‘I have to turn it up another notch. This is now everybody counting on me.’ People talk about the ‘zone.’ If you’re not in that zone trying to man up guys who are really good, it’s going to go really funky quick.”
The “zone” is also thrown around too liberally. A true shutdown corner locked into a true zone is one of the rarest sights in sports. The groundbreaking self-help book, “Atomic Habits,” captures the essence of the zone. As author James Clear explains, such a “flow state” becomes downright addictive because it blends hard work and habit. It’s a serene state of effortless attention in which your conscious and nonconscious sync up.
Awuzie found it last season. He credits an adherence to a strict routine.
By Saturday, he has that week’s gameplan down pat. Third downs. Stem routes. He has zero questions, zero concerns.
On gameday, he wakes up and listens to his grandmother’s music. She’s an artist, too. (“It gets me pumped up. It gets me going.”) Next, it’s on to some traditional Igbo music. He’ll slip into the hot tub or the sauna to clear his mind and get his blood circulating. Then, he’ll return to his room to get ready and his pregame routine doesn’t resemble the theatrics glorified on NFL Films and cinema alike. He’s not screaming in the faces of teammates. He’s not even plugging airpods in because Awuzie wants to “feel” the energy of the locker room and “feel” the energy of the stadium. Usually, he’s the first Bengal on the field. That was the case for the Super Bowl. Pumping music into his brain would be far too distracting and it’s not like he’d be able to listen to a rap song during the game itself so, in his mind, it makes no sense in pregame to do so.
The goal is to master his environment. Every smell, every sound, every sight. “Be present,” he says, while following the exact same warmup routine.
He returns to the locker room to stretch, reads Bible verses, chats with Mom or Dad on the phone.
“And then,” he finishes, “it’s go time.”
Not in This is Sparta! fashion, either. Awuzie stays in his state of calm to see a different game than everyone else. Since college, he’s been an avid chess player. He loved how the game helped him in everyday life: diagnosing situations, projecting outcomes, protecting what’s important. And this past July, Awuzie staked his claim as the best chess player in the NFL by winning Chess.com’s first “BlitzChamps” tournament. Six NFL players competed for the title — and $25K to be donated to their charity — with Awuzie outfoxing Larry Fitzgerald in the semis and taking down ex-teammate Amari Cooper in the final. Of course, these two will now be squaring off twice a year in the AFC North.
Chido views the football field through a chess lens.
This absolutely helps him decode formations and anticipate routes.
“When I’m playing chess — and someone’s put in a certain position — and I recognize that I’ve been there before? It’s kind of the same thing on the field,” he says. “Like, ‘OK, you have a speed guy at No. 2, No. 1 is a possession receiver, and it’s a slot formation. The tight end is on the backside. Oh, I’ve seen this before. Oh, there’s speed at 2. Two has a very high possibility of going vertical. They’re trying to burn the top off the defense. One might be slow and running a dig or a curl.’ It’s that type of stuff that it helps me with: To recognize where I’ve been and then when I see it again to have the appropriate action to respond to it.”
He's been playing long enough to realize that’s how the NFL works. Labels are put on receivers.
A “speed” guy may be able to pretzel corners with acute route running but his offense is bound to utilize him as that “speed” guy and send him vertical more often than not. A slot receiver like Cole Beasley or Hunter Renfrow, he adds, could play the “X” position along the boundary but they’re going to be used in a very specific role inside to “wiggle, wiggle, wiggle” and get open.
On the field, he sees pawns and knights and bishops and kings and queens and puts all of the pieces together.
Adds Awuzie: “You have a picture in your mind before the play starts.”
The ball’s snapped and those initial two seconds tell him so much, too. The chess pieces begin to move and two seconds are an eternity in his mind.
How quickly we forget what the Bengals’ defense did to the Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs. Twice. In a Week 17 matchup, Cincy erased a 14-point deficit to win. Awuzie guarded Hill most of that game and only allowed 31 yards and two first downs while being targeted eight times, per PFF. In the playoffs, Cincy erased an 18-point deficit to stun KC. Mahomes had a ghastly 12.3 passer rating after halftime. This all from the same Chiefs offense that, in-between, torched the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills in the playoffs for 84 points and 1,030 yards.
Cincy has a formula that works. Up front, ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard consistently cave the pocket. In the secondary, all DBs work in unison better than any other group in the AFC. Each of Cincinnati’s playoff wins featured an interception on the defense’s final possession. Oh, they’ll need Jessie Bates back. The safety has been skipping all of camp in a contract dispute. Even then, however, the front office covered its bases by drafting Michigan’s Dax Hill 31st overall. Shutting down all of these prolific offenses in the AFC, Awuzie says, will be “a combined effort.” He also cites Tre Flowers as a key addition. This former Patriot will be the DB matching up on tight ends.
After a full year of playing together, Awuzie also expects coordinator Lou Anarumo to get more exotic with his coverages.
There’s a chance the Bengals come crashing back to earth this season. A chance all of those career seasons were aberrations. Awuzie included. The danger of a few players backtracking is real because we’ve seen it before. Teams like the Atlanta Falcons (2016) never recovered from crushing Super Bowl losses. The Bengals’ hope is that these DBs discarded by other teams are genuinely stronger together. Players here are closer than anything Awuzie has ever experienced, and it goes beyond the DB room. He sees players across different positions hanging out all the time. Once the work is done at Bengals HQ, they’ll go out to eat and chill at each other’s homes.
Newcomers to this 2022 team were taken aback.
“They’re like, ‘Wow. I see why you guys got to the Super Bowl,’” Awuzie says. “Here, we’re very, very tight.”
That’s rare. That’s powerful. Football can be a game of chess but — at its core — it’s a sport rooted in blood, sweat, emotion. It’s a beautifully barbaric occupation that requires a different level of trust. In chatting with Awuzie, I couldn’t help but think of an old conversation with Chris Borland. Of course, he’s the former 49ers linebacker who sent shockwaves through the country in March 2015 by retiring at age 24 due to concussion concerns. But even this linebacker who was able to walk away admitted one year later, fresh off playing in a rec soccer game no less, that football’s raw violence instills the sort of teamwork no other sport can touch. If you’re a middle linebacker, he explained, and the strong safety forgets to shout “Crack!” then there’s a decent chance a 275-pound tight end clocks you in the jaw. (“I might not eat solid food for eight weeks,” Borland said. “It's a different level of being a good teammate.”)
How teammates in this sport connect matters. Profoundly. Authentic camaraderie is absolutely feeding the Bengals’ success. That’s how they came back to beat KC two times and cut a 24-0 deficit to 24-22 against the Los Angeles Chargers. Even the overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers early in the season fed belief.
“That trust,” Awuzie says, “of, ‘OK, I can count on this guy. He’s been with me through the wars, the very hard battles where things didn’t look as happy and he stayed the same.’ That stuff matters. Practice is always fun. But when you know you’ve been to war with somebody, they don’t have to prove themselves in practice. We practice hard and we try our best. But I know on Sundays I’ll be able to count on that guy. And that matters.”
It pays to pit a No. 1 corner against No. 1 receivers who’s weathered for such combat.
This 27-year-old has many more stories to share. Back in college, he once fell on a football in practice and lacerated his kidney. Awuzie didn’t even know anything was wrong until he went to the bathroom and started peeing red. It was scary. He missed the rest of that sophomore season and returned to morph himself into an NFL prospect. That Cowboys run was full of obstacles, too. Dallas’ defense was historically bad in 2020, allowing the most points (473) and second-most yards in franchise history. Awuzie missed half of that season with a hamstring injury, too.
No use looking back.
Awuzie loved swapping the Cowboys’ glitz for the Bengals’ grime. Ahead of the Super Bowl last season, he did sneak a mini jab in when asked about the change of scenery. The change, he said, showed him that football could be played “without all the lights.” Whereas Jerry Jones built The Star at Frisco, a palace of a practice facility, these Bengals don’t even have an indoor facility. “It all goes back to that blue collar mentality,” Awuzie said then. “That’s the kind of person I am.”
He's not alone. Hilton is the 5-foot-9 bottle rocket in the slot. Apple is the trash-talking soundtrack. Vonn Bell is the spirit of the group who got this whole party started by demolishing JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2020. Bates will return and, for this secondary to ascend, it’s on Awuzie to silence the offense’s No. 1 receiving threat. When he’s able to make a talent like Hill disappear, everything else just… flows.
Other cornerbacks aren’t shy to declare themselves the best in football.
“They can stake the claim all they want,” Awuzie says. “I like to go off the film.”
All the validation he needs is young corners around the NFL — and even at the youth level — telling him they watch his film. That’s what brings Awuzie joy.
“Words don’t matter,” he adds. “It’s all about action.”
The road back begins on Sept. 11 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team still seething over a pair of blowout losses to their old AFC North punching bag. That’s another thing about winning your conference. Everyone’s now gunning for you. It’ll take a whole lot of “action” to get another crack at the Super Bowl.
Possibly, history repeats itself and these Bengals are never able to move on from what could’ve been that night at SoFi. The images on those TVs could haunt them forever. Or, possibly, it gets late the night of Feb. 12, 2023 in Glendale, Ariz., and Awuzie has another decision to make with that cell phone in his right hand.
A different decision.
To capture the raucous scene of a Super Bowl-winning locker room or, you know, to tuck that phone away in his bag so it’s not drowned in champagne.
Miss a past Bengals feature at Go Long?
The Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr. also joined the Go Long Podcast for an hour of Bengals talk last week.