Jerry Azumah’s on the field accomplishments are well highlighted and quite impressive. He set NCAA I-AA rushing records as a running back at the University of New Hampshire, and won the Walter Payton award, the I-AA equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. After joining the Bears and making the switch to defensive back, Azumah’s rookie season ended with receiving the team’s Brian Piccolo award, handed out for character and merit rather than stats and speed. The Piccolo award distinguished Jerry as an athlete and a man with a strong sense of giving back and helping others.
“I’ve always been the type of person to give back,” Jerry said during an exclusive interview with RH. “I realize that throughout my journey of getting to the pros, being successful, and getting to the point I’m at right now, it happened with the help of a lot of different people. A lot of different things had to come together. There was always somebody that was reaching out, lending me a helping hand pretty much. So much help has been given to me that it’s almost fitting for me to give it back, sort of like passing the torch.”
Azumah has “passed the torch” by providing his alma mater with a new gymnasium and practice facility for student athletes, as well as his ASAP Foundation, a non-profit that provides assistance to under privileged students in the form of financial scholarships.
Jerry Azumah sat down with RubyHornet at Chicago’s NV Penthouse Lounge to talk about ASAP and its upcoming Texas Hold’em fundraiser, as well as the work ethic that propelled him to the NFL, and his true passions of music and fashion. Check out part I below.
RubyHornet: You came to Chicago in 1999. How long after that did you feel as though the city was your home and you were comfortable here?
Jerry Azumah: Oh God, right when I got drafted [laughs]. I got drafted in 1999. I remember getting drafted in April and I had to come up for a mini camp. I came to Chicago and actually had a little bit of time before mini camp started, so I was just downtown walking down Michigan Avenue, and die hard football fans knew exactly who I was. That’s when it really hit me. I was like, ‘wow!’ I had just gotten drafted a couple weeks ago, I’m in Chicago in downtown randomly walking down Michigan Ave. by myself and people are recognizing me, throwing out my stats and know what position I played, so I thought that was pretty interesting. It let me know there are die hard football fans here. I’ve just built a lot of relationships throughout the years. I don’t think there was one specific instance or one specific time where I would say, ‘I have arrived.’ It just kind of evolved into that.
RubyHornet: You have gotten involved in Chicago Public Schools through your ASAP Foundation, which is the Azumah Student Assistance Program. You started ASAP in 2004 to help disadvantaged students in Mass, Illinois, and beyond. What is ASAP’s primary function, and what led you to start such an organization?
Jerry Azumah: I’ve always been the type of person to give back. I realize that throughout my journey of getting to the pros, being successful, and getting to the point I’m at right now, it happened with the help of a lot of different people. A lot of different things had to come together. There was always somebody that was reaching out, lending me a helping hand pretty much. So much help has been given to me that it’s almost fitting for me to give it back, sort of like passing the torch…I’ve always had that in the back of my head, ‘if I ever get the opportunity to give back, I’m going to give back in some sort of way, kind of like this.’ In 2004, after I went to the Pro Bowl, I was just sitting down with my agent and I was like, ‘it’s about time we make a move and do something cause I really want to give back at the high school level.’ I’d already given back to my college, but I wanted to give back to kids that are in high school, kids that are under privileged, less fortunate, so that they could just have a chance. We came up with the ASAP Foundation. We basically adopted the same philosophy as the Adopt A Student program. We give an under privileged kid an opportunity to attend a private institution without worrying about any financial burden on their shoulders. That’s where that whole inspiration came from.
RubyHornet: Through your involvement in schools, what do you see as a pressing need among students beyond not having enough money to go to a good high school or college?
Jerry Azumah: I would just say direction. There are a lot of kids out there that are just not on the right path. If you can get them in a situation to lead them to go down the right path, let them understand that there’s a future ahead of them, I think that’s really form fitting for them.
RubyHornet: Are you pulling from your connections to get other athletes involved with ASAP?
Jerry Azumah: I want to get as many people in ASAP as possible. As a little kid, my father instilled education in me. He was an immigrant, and I’m the first generation born here. He always stressed the fact that education is so important to excel. With ASAP, I feel like it’s just a good way to give back. I feel that people definitely benefit. I want to spread awareness that there are people out there like me who actually care, and are actually trying to do something to make somebody elses life a little bit easier, to make somebody elses dream a little bigger and push people to have bigger goals and bigger things to aspire for. That’s pretty much the whole mission of ASAP and moving forward.
RubyHornet: How would you say having parents who are immigrants has affected you?
Jerry Azumah: I’ve learned a lot just by their struggles. They came over here with basically no family, little money, little support. They had to internalize and figure out a way just to support themselves and each other within the family and figure out a way to build themselves up from the bottom to the top. It’s been a struggle, I’ve seen a lot of struggles throughout my life within my family, but they’ve managed to do it. They managed to stay strong. That’s one of the most important things right there, just managing to stay strong. There’s a lot of things that will knock you down, but you have a choice whether you want to keep moving or just stay stagnant and basically fall back. My parents are big on just sticking strong, sticking together, and figuring out a way to make everything work and a way to basically provide for their kids and have them have a better life than they did.
RubyHornet: Some Hip Hop artists I’ve interviewed have said they cringe when they see another Hip Hop artist in the news for negative reasons, do you share any of that kind of reaction when you see athletes in the news for doing something stupid?
Jerry Azumah: It’s an interesting topic. As an athlete, or as an entertainer, or as a celebrity, you’re looked up to in high regard and people look at you as not human. Sometimes it’s not really fair because humans make mistakes. Just because I play football doesn’t mean I’m an animal, and people look at me as such. I’m a human being, you can come talk to me and things like that. I think people get caught up in that little stereotype and stigma of, ‘they’re not human, they’re supposed to do everything perfect.’ And celebrities do mess up and they do make mistakes because they’re human. I don’t think you should come down extremely hard on them for some of the things that they’ve done. Now, if it’s just out of the ordinary, and it’s just unacceptable with violence and drugs, and things that are illegal to the system, there’s no excuse for that. But little things, I know a lot of media outlets try to look for negative things. They try to look for negative things about me and they don’t see all the positives. I think it’s just a way of thinking where people need to focus more on the positive things than the negative things. Right now the negative things are selling like crazy. Everyone wants to hear negatives, but they really don’t get that enjoyment on positives, and we really need to reverse that. The media is really the only one that can make that happen.
RubyHornet: Speaking of enjoying the positives. I know you enjoy a lot of what Chicago has to offer musically, and through our fashion scene. I’ve seen you out at different spots, you support local artists here, what are your thoughts on the independent music scene in the city?
Jerry Azumah: I like it. I like it. I’m a music fan. When I play football I always have headphones on. It’s just what I do. I don’t listen to a lot of hardcore Hip Hop or anything like that. I like to slow it down and mellow out. With the intense nature of the game, just listening to certain songs gets me real hyped up and I get out of breathe almost. I like to mellow it down, but with the scene in Chicago I really like it. I really like what people do. They’re really creative, they have a sense of style about themselves, they take ownership in the city as well. It’s good to see people in Chicago supporting other Chicago artists.
RubyHornet: Do you have a “go-to” song right before hitting the field?
Jerry Azumah: I listened to some jazz, some instrumentals, R&B, a little bit of Hip Hop. I’m a fan of just music. I really don’t get into anything over the top or anything like that. I’m just a fan of music in general. There isn’t one thing I specifically play when I’m about to hit the football field, it’s just whatever I’m feeling. Whether it’s jazz, it’s Hip Hop, it’s something that will make me mellow for the time being.
RubyHornet: On a similar note, do you have a favorite local boutique that you like to check out? Fashion wise, what are some brands that you really look to?
Jerry Azumah: First of all, I’m glad that I’m in Chicago as opposed to Green Bay or Minnesota or something like that. There’s a lot that Chicago has to offer. There’s the Magnificent Mile right there, and there’s places that I like to shop at like Gucci and Sax 5th Ave, Bloomingdales, I’ll hit that up as well. There’s several boutiques and little stores I like to hit up around the way as well. G-Star, anywhere in the Bucktown area, LEADERs…That’s pretty much what I’m into. I’m into denim, sneakers, t-shirts, obviously suits cause I do Comcast. I’m a big suits fan. Barney’s is real big for me cause I do suits. I’ll hit that place up like crazy.
RubyHornet: Going back to your playing days for a second. Did you have a teammate on the Bears that was just the worst dressed every time? On the flipside, who do you think had a good sense of style?
Jerry Azumah: Ohhh man. A lot of guys on the football team, on our team, the down south cats they have their own little flavor and unique style. I don’t particularly care for it, but I’m not into Zoot Suits and walking suits and 14 buttons, now-a-lator gators. I’m just not into that, but those cats are. I don’t really want to diss them and say they’re the worst dressed, it’s just not really my flavor. Then you’ll get into some other situations where there’s cats that just really don’t care.
RubyHornet: Like Kyle Orton.
Jerry Azumah: Well, yeah. He’s up there. But he’s sharpened it up a little bit. You’ll see some of the bigger cats, 300 lbs. plus and it’s just like ‘oooh man…’ It’s different. On the flipside, there are guys that come into a little money and they get a sense of style. They get a little stylist and they tell them how to dress, what’s hot. It’s all over the board. It’s funny cause some guys, when they come into the league they look like crap, and then once they sign their first contract, things change drastically, so it’s all over the board.
Check back for part II of our interview with Jerry Azumah coming next week in which Jerry talks about the Bears upcoming draft days, sitting on the bench, and much more.
Photography by: Virgil Solis
Special Thanks To: NV Penthouse Lounge