RICHMOND — In three years of varsity football at Foster High, junior nose guard Chidozie Nwankwo has played in 41 games and counting.
During that time, Nwankwo has been a central figure for one of the finest Class 5A programs in the Houston area. As a freshman, he was a starter on Foster’s 14-1 state semifinalist team. Last season, Nwankwo and the 9-4 Falcons were regional finalists.
Nwankwo is now a cagey veteran, and his influence on yet another run to the Class 5A regional finals is unquestioned. Foster faces off against district rival Shadow Creek in a Class 5A, Division I regional final showdown Saturday at TDECU Stadium. The game will be broadcast on KUBE 57.
In 13 games this season, Nwankwo has 82 total tackles (23 for losses), one forced fumble, one sack and one interception.
“This is outstanding. Wonderful,” said Nwankwo, who has won 32 games at Foster. “To still be playing football with my brothers, my coaches, it’s a good time for me right now. We’re a program that respects the game and gives it 100 percent every down. There’s a lot of fight in us.”
The rise of Nwankwo, a Houston verbal commit who holds 11 other offers, has coincided with the surge of the Falcons. Even before Nwankwo’s freshman year in 2016, however, Foster showed signs of prominence, going 9-2, with a bi-district playoff appearance, in 2014, and 10-3 and a regional semifinal appearance in 2015.
“Third year in the regional final, and the last four years it’s been three rounds or better,” sixth-year head coach Shaun McDowell said. “What we’ve been able to do here at Foster in the last six years has been awesome. It’s a testament to the kids we have and the coaching staff. It’s becoming a tradition for us to be where we are.”
McDowell, whose program motto is ‘Work, work, don’t stop,’ said that tradition is built upon exhaustive evaluation of his own talent and “staying ahead of the curve,” the latter in regard to visiting college coaches, talking to successful area high school coaches, sharing ideas amongst peers, watching videos, reading articles and staying up to date on social media.
“There’s so much information out there,” McDowell said. “Our reach is not just based in Texas. We believe in what we do, but we always want to make sure we’re doing what’s best for our kids. So, it’s a lot of professional growth on our end.”
McDowell has enjoyed some phenomenal players, including CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma), Chandler Speights (Texas State) and Jacob Brammer (North Texas), among others. There are currently 44 former Falcons playing college football.
But the 6-foot, 275-pound Nwankwo has been a steady rock during a period of time that Foster is becoming synonymous with December football.
“He’s played, what, 40-plus games? Holy smokes,” McDowell said. “His work ethic is unbelievable and it really transcends amongst our team. He knows nothing else other than playing hard. He has a professional attitude.
“When you play as many games as he has already, he’s been there and done that. He just keeps pushing and raising that bar, and it’s contagious.”
Nwankwo, the UIL Class 5A state wrestling champion in the 285-pound class last season, said his hands and speed have gotten better, thanks to offseason training with coaches in Cypress, but it’s his leadership that has had the greatest impact.
He credits the seniors during his freshman year for showing him how to speak up and how to teach people. Even being the youngest player on the team then, Nwankwo was encouraged to lead.
That’s been important after the Falcons graduated 65 seniors from last year.
“We have a lot of young players, so it’s about making sure attitudes are right,” Nwankwo said. “They don’t know how to push themselves or how to face adversity. I just talk to them. Talk to them about the weight room, about class, about practice. My job is to push them to go their hardest and never give up.”
Because of that, McDowell said expectations haven’t changed.
“We went into this whole season that it would be a learning experience,” McDowell said. “We’d take our lumps, but try to keep our guys motivated and going. We’re young, and we literally got better and better every week. We didn’t change what we were doing. They had to rise to our expectations and our standards, and they’ve broken through.”
McDowell said Nwankwo has been priceless throughout the process. Nwankwo said it’s been McDowell.
And this season almost never was to be for the pairing.
During mid-March, McDowell accepted a job to join Baylor’s coaching staff before reversing course a week later and electing to stay at Foster.
McDowell said he doesn’t reflect upon that time, only reiterating that “I chose Foster, I want to be here with these guys, I want to coach here.” But players still think about it from time to time.
Nwankwo said that time during the spring was a roller-coaster of emotions. But it isn’t lost on him to this day, as the beloved coach and beloved leader continue to add more chapters to the Falcons’ legacy.
“It was a good decision that he stayed. We’re all family here,” Nwankwo said. “We love him and I know he loves us, too. I don’t know where we’d be without him. It was a crazy time. Everyone was shocked.