When coaches at Central-Phenix City talk about Rakeem Nunez-Roches, his infectious smile is one of the first things they remember.
A big kid with an even bigger heart, Nunez-Roches transferred to Central before his junior season in 2009 and immediately made an impression on the coaches, teammates and classmates around him. While his athleticism for his size was eye-opening, it was his easy-going demeanor and a grin that he almost always displayed that remain the hardest to forget.
It’s been over a decade since Nunez-Roches wrecked offensive linemen on the field at Garrett-Harrison Stadium. His path from Phenix City led him to Southern Miss and then to an NFL career, which reaches a major milestone Sunday when Nunez-Roches’ smile can be seen on football’s biggest stage.
Nunez-Roches will be playing defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when the Bucs take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. The showdown will be the ultimate highlight for Nunez-Roches, who has endured hard times and obstacles going back to his youth but repeatedly bounced back while keeping his dream of playing football alive.
“It didn't matter whether he was working down the hall talking to you or you're talking to him in the cafeteria or you see him on the practice field, Rakeem always had a smile on his face. He was a fun-loving type person that loved life,” said Ron Nelson, Nunez-Roches’ head coach at Central in 2009. “I'm just so glad that he's getting to enjoy what he's accomplished right now.”
'Opened our eyes'
Nunez-Roches was born in Dangriga, Belize, and he spent the early part of his life there before moving with his mother, Nancy, to the United States. The two were constantly moving over the next few years — from California to Colorado to Kentucky — before they landed in Georgia, where Nancy found work.
Nunez-Roches was a junior starting his first year at Central High School in 2009. Defensive coordinator Bobby Wright remembers seeing Nunez-Roches out on the field for the first time and realizing rather quickly the Red Devils had another gifted athlete on their hands.
“When he walked in, he just caught my eye immediately. Then he walked out on the field and started doing agility drills. I had some pretty good defensive linemen, but he was kind of running rings around those guys because he was just more athletic,” Wright said. “It pumps you up as a coach. Me, I'm a defensive coach, and I like to get after people. I knew right then that, hey, this one's going to be special.”
Nunez-Roches had raw athleticism, and after working with Wright and Nelson on the fundamentals — and, as Nelson pointed out, making the jovial Nunez-Roches a little bit meaner — he made strides toward turning potential into tangible results.
Wright and Nelson were eager to see what the defensive lineman could do in the 2009 season opener, a matchup against Columbus’ Shaw High School, which had been one of the area’s top programs over the previous decade. The coaching staff had high hopes for the junior, but the show he put on against the Raiders went far beyond their own expectations.
As Wright recalled, Nunez-Roches racked up four sacks — with about three of them in the first half — and quickly forced Shaw to double-team him. His rare athletic ability totally caught Shaw off guard, and Wright chuckled as he remembered the Raiders’ quarterback scrambling for his life as Central’s new stud chased him play after play.
“He just totally dominated the game,” Nelson said. “In that ballgame he really opened our eyes. We thought we had a pretty good player, but at that time we knew we had a great player.”
Nelson retired after the 2009 season and was replaced by Central alum Woodrow Lowe, who knew a thing or two about playing football at the highest level.
A standout linebacker at Alabama for head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant who later played in the NFL, Lowe recognized natural talent when he saw it. He could see right away Nunez-Roches was different, and as he settled in at his alma mater it was apparent to Lowe that the lineman could go on to the next level.
As Lowe watched him work, it was clear he had the work ethic to get him there, too.
“I'll tell you the truth: he was a humble kid, but he was so big you would think otherwise. He was humble. If you didn't bother him, you were on the good side. I can see that big smile right now,” Lowe said. “I knew one thing: he wouldn't talk back to you when you were trying to get him to do something. The only thing I think he understood was the running part. We used to do a lot of running when we were there at Central. He didn't like to run that much, but you know, he pulled through.”
That humbleness was also evident in Nunez-Roches’ willingness to give to others. Even as a high schooler, he and his mom delivered food and supplies to local homeless people, routinely giving to those who found themselves in the same position they were in not long before.
Nunez-Roches’ time at Central ended in 2010, and the 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior wrapped up his high school days with 132 career tackles, 17 sacks and four forced fumbles. He parlayed that into a scholarship at Southern Miss, where he played for four years before moving onto the NFL.
Nunez-Roches made history as the first Belizean-born player drafted in the NFL when the Chiefs selected him in 2015. Even with that accomplishment, he was no stranger to tough times as a professional.
Drafted by the Chiefs in the sixth round, Nunez-Roches played in seven games as a rookie then in 11 games his second season. He played in all 16 of Kansas City’s games in 2017 and re-signed with the team the following offseason only to be cut one month later.
Nunez-Roches signed with the Indianapolis Colts in the summer of 2018 but was cut before the season. He then landed in Tampa and appeared in three games for the Bucs that fall and followed that up by appearing in all 16 games in 2019.
Nunez-Roches was a backup for the Buccaneers in 2020 when defensive tackle Vita Vea went down with an injury in October. Nunez-Roches stepped in and put together a productive campaign in the former first-round pick’s absence by racking up 20 tackles with three quarterback hits.
Throughout his ups and downs since leaving Phenix City, Nunez-Roches has maintained his giving heart. He regularly organized donations for those less fortunate while at Southern Miss, and he’s talked about starting his own foundation as he continues his NFL career.
Nunez-Roches hasn’t forgotten about Central, either. He sent back one of his jerseys for the Red Devils to display on campus; more importantly, Wright said Nunez-Roches caught wind last year of a Central player in need and immediately sent a box full of athletic equipment for him to use.
Nunez-Roches’ high school coaches are anxiously awaiting kickoff on Sunday, when they can see their former player help his team vie for the second Super Bowl victory in franchise history. Nelson noted how much Nunez-Roches’ playing career means to the youth in Phenix City, who can look at where he came from and strive to fulfill their dreams just like he did.
Nunez-Roches didn’t spend the bulk of his youth in Phenix City, but he’s shown it still has a special place in his heart even as he battles the NFL’s best. Likewise, the Central coaches and community he became acquainted with were only around him for so long, but the mark he left on them remains today.
“The biggest thing that I'm proud of is — I think the quote that he had was, 'It's not the number of plays that count, it's how you make them count,'” Nelson said. “It's just a remarkable feeling on our part to know that he came from Central, and we're proud of him.”