The origin story of Southeast Polk mega-prospect Xavier Nwankpa
PLEASANT HILL, Ia. — Amy Kelce didn't go easy on her son.
Whether it was a game of "HORSE" on their driveway or a one-on-one hockey match in their living room, Kelce didn't just let her son, Xavier Nwankpa, win. He had to earn it.
She would purposefully score first, so a young Nwankpa would be forced to learn how to compete and battle back.
And he did. Every single time.
"He would come back with a vengeance on Mom," Kelce told the Register.
Kelce's plan worked to perfection — better, actually, than she could have imagined. Today, Nwankpa is a four-star, top-40 national prospect in the 2022 class with offers from the likes of Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State, LSU, Florida, Texas, Penn State, Oklahoma and, of course, Iowa State and Iowa. He is the defensive leader of an undefeated Southeast Polk team that will play Ankeny for the Class 4A title Friday.
His 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame is ideal for a versatile member of a college secondary. As the son of Kelce, who played softball, basketball and volleyball at Des Moines North and college softball at William Penn, and Frank Nwankpa, who holds seven track and field records at Iowa State, his speed and athleticism are elite.
What makes Xavier Nwankpa reach that top-40 status, though, is his ultra-competitive spirit fostered in repeated comebacks against Mom while growing up.
Whether it was grabbing the first spot in the lunch line, raising his hand to answer a question before his classmates or racing his friends at recess, Kelce said her son, who is now the Register's No. 1 in-state 2022 prospect, needed to be the best.
"Even before he could walk, he was trying to run," Kelce said. "He is a perfectionist."
Nwankpa was a standout in Southeast Polk youth sports programs. Baseball, basketball, football, track — he excelled in everything. Rams football coach Brad Zelenovich was well-aware of his future star well before his first day of high school.
He made Nwankpa a team manager in seventh grade, so he could get early experience around varsity football. He had high hopes for Nwankpa. But you never know what you're going to get until a kid actually suits up in high school.
Then, Nwankpa's freshman season happened.
It was 2018. Wednesday, Sept. 19, to be exact. Kelce was walking up to Southeast Polk's football stadium to watch her stepdaughter play in a Powderpuff football game, which would start after the Rams' varsity practice.
Once she got close enough to the field, she noticed something.
Was that Xavier? Practicing with the varsity team?
"I'm like, 'Oh, somebody must have got hurt,'" Kelce remembered thinking when she saw her son practicing with the varsity team. "Or, you know, maybe they just needed him to fill in for a minute."
It turns out neither were true. Zelenovich had seen enough from Nwankpa's first few games with the freshman team. After practice, Nwankpa came up to join his family in the stands and told his mom Zelenovich told him to put his stuff in the varsity locker room.
Great! He'll be able to watch and learn from the sidelines, Kelce thought at the time.
On Thursday, Nwankpa told Kelce he might actually play that week.
Oh, then we definitely need to buy some tickets for the varsity game, Kelce thought.
On Friday morning, Nwankpa told his mom that he was going to start.
"We knew he was different, even as a 14-year-old kid. There’s not too many times you get a freshman that’s ready to play at the varsity level," Zelenovich said. "We knew that he had a chance to be special."
That Friday, against Fort Dodge, Nwankpa recorded two tackles and an interception in his varsity debut.
He finished the rest of his freshman season on varsity, logging 20 tackles and three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. He became close with current Iowa freshman running back Gavin Williams, who recognized Nwankpa's talent and "took me under his wings," Nwankpa said.
He had some early exposure, and he had a future-Division I mentor.
But no one expected the deluge of D-I interest that was coming.
Nebraska offered first. Nwankpa was playing with Southeast Polk's freshman baseball team when Zelenovich called Kelce to say the Huskers wanted to offer.
That was July 1, 2019.
On July 3, Iowa State offered, putting Nwankpa on the Midwest recruiting map.
Iowa became his third offer during a game-day visit in October. Notre Dame offered in November. By April, Missouri, Kansas State, Michigan and Michigan State had offered. He then had a big summer as film from his sophomore season (43 tackles, three interceptions, 215 rushing yards on 35 carries) circulated across the country and coaches made the trip to Pleasant Hill to come see the promising, soft-spoken star.
His 10th offer, from Oklahoma, opened the floodgates in August.
Soon, Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio State, Penn State, Kentucky, Princeton, LSU, Louisville, Arizona State and, most recently, Clemson offered, making Nwankpa one of the country's most sought-after prospects — and, in terms of offers, he could perhaps become the most sought-after prospect in Iowa's history.
"It’s good for our program," said Zelenovich, who saw Williams transfer from Southeast Polk to Dowling Catholic after his junior season. "It’s been good to have a guy like that — one of your better players who’s such a great kid. He’s humble. He’s a hard worker. He’s a good student. That’s exciting. I think the sky’s the limit for him, obviously."
Nwankpa said he has a handful of Zoom calls or phone calls with college coaches every week. He plans to release a list of his finalist schools during the offseason; no schools are really standing out yet, he said. He then hopes to take official visits next fall and make a decision some time before the early signing period, because he's going to graduate and enroll early wherever he goes.
"I was starting to get really nervous for him on how he was going to take (the recruiting attention) mentally and how he was going to deal with it," Kelce said. "But I don’t think it’s really sunk into his brain yet that this is that big of a deal."
Nwankpa agreed with his mom. The four-star talent of few words simply said, "No, not really," when asked if the fact that he's a top-40 national talent has hit him yet.
Instead, Nwankpa is choosing to put everything associated with recruiting on the back burner. That's music to Zelenovich's ears, who is proud that his star safety is prioritizing being the best possible high school football player he can be.
"Just focus on the task at hand. Focus on sports, school and everything. Recruiting is just a secondary option right now," Nwankpa said. "This season is a great ride. A bunch of people bought in. We have a brotherhood on the football team."
After her son's freshman year, Kelce was just happy that he might have a chance to play football at the next level while getting a quality education. Maybe he'd play NAIA sports, like she did with softball at William Penn. Or Division III or Division II at the NCAA level.
Oh, how things can change in two quick years.
"'Be better than anything I ever did' was the most important thing I’ve ever told him," Kelce said. "But now that he’s accomplished so much, there’s still so many more things that he can do to make him even better."
And that's what's so exciting.
Matthew Bain covers recruiting and pretty much anything else under the sports sun for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.