Calculated confidence: Cal football cornerback Chigozie Anusiem’s heritage meets his swagger

Anusiem
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A s he sat in front of his computer reflecting on the teammates he was supposed to leave behind for the NFL, Cal football team captain and All-Pac-12 cornerback Cam Bynum couldn’t help but say it.

“I guarantee he’s going to be one of the best corners in the country these coming years,” a smiling Bynum said.

Anyone who has spoken to Bynum, notably one of Cal’s most articulate and well-spoken leaders, knows that’s a bold claim coming from his mouth. But not to Chigozie Anusiem.

“I 100% agree with that statement. I have high expectations, not just from myself but from other people,” explained Cal redshirt sophomore cornerback Anusiem, who now starts opposite Bynum. “But at the end of the day, I have to execute.”

Anusiem’s confidence isn’t anything new. He credits his older brother, who handed him his fair share of childhood losses in backyard sports, for developing his competitive drive. Six-year-old Anusiem was originally drawn to football as a way to let his aggression out, and his fiery attitude has only intensified since then.

Chris Gonzales, the cornerback’s former assistant coach at Sonora High School, remembers being constantly reminded of whom he was dealing with during practice.

“I’m going to be the best player you’ve ever coached,” Anusiem would tell him.

All it takes is one look at Anusiem’s favorite NFL player, Jalen Ramsey, to see the type of energy that he wants to exude on the field. Ramsey is an All-Pro cornerback and undoubtedly one of the best players in football — and he lets his opponents know. Just read his ESPN feature, fittingly titled “The Man, The Mouth, The Legend.”

Frankly, you will rarely find Anusiem batting down a pass without jawing a few words at the opposing team afterward.

“Chigi was super confident, but he backed it up,” Gonzales said. “Anytime you can get under your opponent’s skin, I enjoy seeing that. I think that’s part of football.”

It’s not just him — the entire Cal secondary oozes with confidence. Not all of the “Takers” talk the talk like Anusiem, but they all walk the walk.

Having held its opponents to a mere 34 passing touchdowns over Cal’s last 28 games, the Bears’ secondary knows its worth, and it expects more of the same this year, even despite a rocky start to the 2020 season.

“We have to be the best in the country — the team goes how we go,” Anusiem said. “So we have to be the best in the country. That’s our goal.”

With Bynum back after originally declaring for the NFL draft, Cal’s defensive back unit is still loaded with talent, and it is leading the charge to turn around a turbulent season that is hanging in the balance with the Bears sitting at 0-2.

Under head coach Justin Wilcox, Cal has had its identity start and end on the defensive side, but much of that chemistry was built off the field. The core defensive backs all live in the same apartment complex, and they have gained a reputation for the immense amount of extra preparation they put into mastering their games.

“We’re extremely close — it’s a culture that’s been at Cal even before I got here,” Anusiem said. “If you need anything, you can just hit one of them up.”

Photo of Chigozie Anusiem

October 18, 2020; Berkeley, California, USA; Cal Football Media Day; . Photo credit: Kelley L Cox/KLC fotos

Extreme confidence often tends to elicit notions of personality traits that are more on the egotistical side — cocky, loudmouthed, arrogant. When his helmet comes off, though, Anusiem is anything but.

Soft-spoken, reserved and calm are some of the more fitting adjectives Anusiem’s teammates and coaches use to describe him.

For as much as Anusiem talks on the field, he listens plenty more.

Whether in the film room, in the classroom or on Zoom, Anusiem listens intently, operating under the philosophy that he “never knows everything.” Gonzales likes to describe him as a “yes, coach,” “yes, sir” type of guy.

Thanks to his newfound affinity for watching film, this is the first year he feels like his best asset is his technique rather than his athleticism, which he admits carried him through a lot of his younger years. When you can physically dominate opponents, it’s easy to let the intricacies of the game take a back seat. But since he’s gotten to Cal, Anusiem has learned to embrace the work that goes into perfecting his craft.

His disciplined, humble demeanor is easy to trace back.

“My childhood was very different than most,” Anusiem said. “I was raised like a Nigerian kid, not like an American kid. I’m very grateful for how my parents raised me. They taught me how to be a man at a young age.”

“Being from Nigeria, you have to be very, very respectful,” said Blessing Anusiem, his mother. “We are Christians, and we go to church; we read the Bible; we pray together. You do what you can to stay safe and to help others.”

Apart from respect, honor and humility, Nigerian culture heavily preaches the importance of academics. Before meeting and eventually marrying his wife in Nigeria, Anusiem’s father, Moses, immigrated to the United States in 1984 to attend college with his brothers.

“For us, education is everything,” Blessing Anusiem said. “Once you get that knowledge, it’s something that nobody can take away from you.”

Education was such a priority for Chigozie Anusiem that the only offers he truly considered were those from Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame — all prestigious academic institutions. He opted to become a Bear because Cal wanted him the most. He felt like he belonged.

Even as Anusiem’s teammates forged themselves into one of the most stout secondaries in the country in 2018, he couldn’t help but get down on himself during his first season with the team.

“That was the toughest year of my football career for sure. Going my whole life being ‘the guy’ to redshirting was tough,” Anusiem said. “But I was only 17 that year. I needed it for my body to develop and my mind to mature.”

He wasn’t originally supposed to redshirt, but with the secondary boasting incredible depth and production that year, the coaches felt they could bring Anusiem along slowly. He appeared in just two games and didn’t record a single statistic.

But watching his fellow defensive backs, led by Bynum and 2020 NFL draft picks Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins, enter the national spotlight only motivated him even more. He began perfecting his footwork every day with his teammates in their free time, and more than once fell asleep on the couch in Bynum and Elijah Hicks’ apartment while breaking down film of NFL stars. Nigerian culture emphasizes the family over the individual, and that’s what Anusiem feels he has in the defensive backs room.

In 2019, the Bears’ secondary was still loaded with talented veterans, as the previous years’ record-breaking unit essentially remained entirely intact. Anusiem again found himself stuck with a more limited role than he would’ve liked, though this time around, he was playing meaningful snaps in almost every game. He appeared in 12 games off the bench, but the highlight of his season came in the Redbox Bowl, where he earned himself his first career start.

“The first drive, I was a little bit nervous,” he admitted. “But after, I felt like I belonged.”

That afternoon, Anusiem notched two pass breakups — including one that saved an Illinois touchdown — en route to Cal’s season-ending victory.

Photo of Chigozie Anusiem

October 18, 2020; Berkeley, California, USA; Cal Football Media Day; . Photo credit: Kelley L Cox/KLC fotos

Blessing Anusiem often thinks back to a time that reminds her of the kind of son she raised.

On a family trip to his father’s home village in Nigeria, a young Anusiem noticed many children, about the same age as him, walking around with bare feet and little clothing.

Not long after, his suitcase was empty.

“Chigozie made it a point to give all his clothes away that trip,” his mother said. “We had to go buy him more. He has a big heart; he’s very giving and generous.”

Showing compassion and repaying the community have been among the Anusiems’ core family values for generations. Even during dark times, Anusiem is always looking for ways to give back.

“As a Black man in America, we are going through hell right now,” Anusiem said. “We’re going through so much, and I’m just constantly praying for everybody’s family. I know my mom worries about me — she calls me all the time, just making sure I’m OK.”

Even amid all of the social and political turmoil in the United States, Anusiem is focused on being part of the solution. He is nearing the completion of a degree in legal studies and intends to become a defense attorney after his football days are over.

His favorite course at UC Berkeley thus far is a criminal law class he took this past summer taught by Trina Thompson, a judge for the Alameda County Superior Court. Anusiem said it exposed him to how corrupt the legal system is, particularly toward minors.

“I know a lot of people that go into the system and get lawyers who don’t even know their names. Trying to defend them — it just doesn’t go well,” Anusiem explained. “So I want to make an impact in that way.”

Even in football, his propensity to pay his dues forward has been duly noted.

“One thing Chigi always took pride in was staying after practice and helping some of the younger guys,” Gonzales recalled. “That’s just the type of guy he is. He wants to help the team, and he wants to make sure everyone around him is getting better.”

With Bynum set to depart after this season, Anusiem’s time to be called on as a true team leader will come soon. But for now, he’s doing his best to support his teammates, especially during a season as turbulent as this one.

“More than football, I want everyone to remember me and be like, ‘That’s a good dude right there; that’s a great person,’ ” Anusiem said. “I’m pretty closed off, but once you get to know me, I think I’m pretty cool. If someone is having a bad day, I just want to bring a smile to their face.”

Anusiem’s favorite aspect of playing cornerback is simple: locking up receivers. One-on-one, man-to-man. Facing receivers on his self-coined “Chigi Island” will demand the utmost respect from opposing quarterbacks sooner rather than later.

This season, one of the main focuses for Marcel Yates, Cal’s new defensive backs coach, is helping Anusiem understand how to use his length to his advantage. As one of the bigger cornerbacks in the conference at 6’1” and 200 pounds, he has all the athleticism he needs to be dominant, so discipline and technique are his main priorities right now.

Only time will tell if he can become one of the best cornerbacks in the country as Bynum predicts. But beyond that, Anusiem will be the first to tell you that he aspires to play in the NFL one day: He says he believed it was a realistic possibility the day he stepped onto campus.

Before that can happen, though, Anusiem must make it through this year’s unique season, which has already been littered with incredibly challenging circumstances created by the pandemic. As the Bears head into the 123rd annual Big Game this Friday without a win, he knows he has his work cut out for him. But if anyone is up to lead the fight, it’s Anusiem and his brothers in the defensive backs room.

“I’m excited for him to go out there and play consistent football snap after snap,” said Cal co-defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon. “I know he’s got the tools and the talent to do it. Now, the development is the consistency of making that happen every single day in practice and every single snap in games.”

As for which Pac-12 receivers Anusiem is looking forward to hosting on his private island?

“I’m just focused on me, my technique and being dominant,” Anusiem said. “I’m not really worried too much about what they got going on.”

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].