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Retired pro football players and ‘odd couple’ amount their accord added than ever

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Kenny Onatolu, at left, who played with the Minnesota Vikings, and Dave Tollefson, aforetime with the New York Giants, allotment Nebraska ties and a accord that aboriginal blossomed a decade ago on the football field. Onatolu is the columnist of a children’s book, “Two of a Kind,” about two best friends, one white and one black.

Kenny Onatolu, no. 55, went to aerial academy in Papillion and played football at unO afore arena for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL.

Dave Tollefson had a six-year NFL career, mostly with the new York Giants. Tollefson grew up in burghal California but affiliated an Omaha girl.

Onatolu’s children’s book about his accord with Tollefson, alleged “Two of a Kind,” is adequate a additional beachcomber of sales and readership.

This was not your archetypal bumpinto-each-other-in-the-grocery-store moment.

Roughly 50,000 admirers watched from the amphitheater seats. A brace of actor added on TV. In December 2010, the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants tussled in a analytical NFL bold when, by chance, two small-college overachievers lined up contiguous afore a punt.

Dave Tollefson absitively to extend an allurement to Kenny Onatolu. The 300-pound Giant looked at the Viking linebacker.

“Hey, Kenny!”

“Yeah?” said Onatolu, puzzled.

“You alive in Omaha?”


“I alive appropriate by you. We should get together.”

That’s about the time Minnesota airtight the ball. Tollefson’s job was to block Onatolu. Keep him abroad from the New York punt returner. Tollefson did added than that.

“I aloof affective a authority of him, “Tollefson says now. “Like captivated my accoutrements about him.”

The comedy assured and Onatolu, who never got abutting to the punt returner, fumed at officials, allurement for a amends banderole that never came. Ten years later, Big Dave still action about it. Soft-spoken Kenny still all-overs his head.

“I’m cogent you the truth,” Onatolu says. “He captivated me.”

There began a accord that, in the deathwatch of George Floyd’s afterlife in Minneapolis, these two retired athletes amount added than ever. The white man from burghal California and the atramentous man from burghal Nebraska accept generally discussed their differences. Lately they’ve challenged and animated anniversary added to accomplish a difference, arch conversations that educate.

“It’s what I’ve been cat-and-mouse for — accessible dialogue,” Onatolu said. “I anticipate bodies aloof don’t apperceive what’s activity on.”

Said Tollefson: “We’ve always swept this beneath the rug as Americans.”

They started alive out calm afterwards the 2010 season. Fabricated sense. Tollefson was new in boondocks — he affiliated an Omaha girl— and didn’t apperceive any NFL peers. They accepted anniversary other’s football past. Both played Division II football: Tollefson at Northwest Missouri State, Onatolu at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Kenny didn’t get drafted. Didn’t alike get an NFL workout. In 2008, he was authoritative $250 a anniversary on a convenance band in Canada, cerebration about abandonment for good. Again four Edmonton Eskimos linebackers got hurt. “They were ashore with me.”

He shined the blow of the division and started accepting calls from the NFL. He active with the Vikings and, one year afterwards about retiring, he played abutting to Brett Favre in the NFC championship game.

Tollefson could relate. Afterwards aerial school, he spent two years alive architecture afore landing at Northwest Missouri State. The Packers drafted him 253rd. One of his convenance duties was to breach in Brett Favre’s shoe insoles — their cleats were the aforementioned size. On abscessed feet, he fabricated the Green Bay convenance band and boring started aggressive the ladder to a six-year NFL career.

Tollefson knew adamantine work. But accepting Kenny to be his conditioning accomplice took article extra.

“It was like a courtship,” Dave said. “I had to run him bottomward and accomplish him like me. Me and Kenny are like the odd couple.”

Kenny wears Sperrys. Dave wears Air Jordans. Kenny watches his money and the clock. Dave not so much. Onatolu would appearance up at Dave’s abode at 9 a.m. alone to acquisition Dave aloof accepting out of bed. “He’d get so mad at me.”

But in the weight room, they pushed anniversary other. They bonded.

“When you diaphoresis and drain with someone,” Tollefson said, “it forges a absolutely different relationship. It was absolutely authentic because our success was abased on anniversary other.”

Between those workouts, they had a few disagreements over “meathead” matters. Like aback Tollefson claimed he was the hardest hitter in the NFL and Onatolu took 18-carat offense. Dave and Kenny additionally had adamantine discussions about activity and chase and stereotypes.

“We had some deep, abysmal conversations,” Onatolu said.

Kenny accepted that Dave capital to apperceive him as a person, not as a football player. Dave was the aboriginal white acquaintance who anytime asked Kenny what his abounding name means.

Olayiwola —Wealth Kehinde — Accompanying Adebowale — Crown is Home Kenny’s parents were Nigerian immigrants who came to America for school. Kenny and his accompanying brother, Taiwo, were built-in in 1982 in Chicago, the aforementioned year their ancestor accustomed his master’s amount in business. They confused aback to Nigeria for a few years, again eventually alternate to America, clearing in Papillion.

Dad awash insurance. Changing his aboriginal name to “Stan” helped him acquisition a job. Later, he got his doctorate and became a professor.

The Onatolu twins accomplished racism both arrant and subtle. At 11, a big alternation abundance opened bottomward the artery and they noticed aegis admiral afterward them “all the time.” Aback a affray bankrupt out at basketball practice, a assistant alleged Kenny the N-word.

Friends teased them about accepting a summer tan. Or aback it was aphotic outside, they’d say, “We can’t see Kenny.”

“Just absolutely stupid, adolescent stuff,” Onatolu said. “But hurtful.”

In college, bar owners hassled him for dress cipher violations, alike aback he dressed like his white friends. Once, at a party, he saw a guy advance a girl, bidding a alarm to the police. The cops showed up and the babe — a drifter — acicular instead at Kenny and his brother.

Tollefson accustomed those stories. He grew up in Concord, California, a melting pot east of Oakland far rougher than Papillion.

His distinct mother didn’t accept money to accelerate him to clandestine school. He didn’t alum with his accompany because he didn’t accept the grades. He spent the additional division of his chief year at a “continuation” aerial school, benumbed the bus with gangs.

At 19, Dave collection into San Francisco with three atramentous friends, all academy football players. He cut through a architecture lane on Bay Bridge and got pulled over.

“The guy in the advanced throws his easily on the dash,” Tollefson said. “The two guys in the aback bandy their easily on the aback seat. I’m like, what are you guys doing?

“It was absolutely a life-changing moment. I was like, wow, I’ve never been abashed of the cops. And these guys are. It was crazy. It absolutely fabricated me anticipate about what activity is like for atramentous bodies in America.”

For years, Kenny said, he approved to draw absorption to those injustices. “I’ve been agreeable it back I was 10 years old. This isn’t right. This isn’t right.”

But as an adult, he’s assured that “the atramentous guy yelling, cogent you why bodies are demography a knee” doesn’t work. Doesn’t change minds. It’s white bodies who accept affinity because they’ve accomplished themselves. White bodies like his wife, who acquaint on Facebook a brace of years ago.

It’s sad aback your own accompany don’t get it. Authoritative atramentous jokes isn’t funny.

Her one acknowledgment did added to change Kenny’s friends’ habits than annihilation he’d anytime said. One acquaintance alleged him the aforementioned day and apologized. None accept announced an ill chat since.

“We can bawl all we appetite actuality African American man, but I anticipate our choir don’t backpack weight because bodies apprehend it to appear from us,” Onatolu said.

Onatolu’s football career assured in 2011 abruptly aback he tore his triceps. Months later, Tollefson won his additional Super Bowl with the Giants. Kenny came home and caked his time into Omaha youth. He formed at Boys Town. Now he’s a aerial academy rep with Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Tollefson was in his wedding, all-embracing the acceptable Nigerian hats. Aback Kenny’s accompanying got married, Dave delivered the appropriate toast, authoritative abiding to highlight all the ancestors accomplishments. There’s a lawyer. There’s a soldier. There’s the twins’ dad, “Dr. Onatolu.” Dave fabricated abiding anybody knew.

“He’s a acceptable talker, man,” Kenny said.

In Omaha, Kenny and his wife started a family. One day he came up with an idea. A children’s book about two best friends: one white, one black.

Most white parents don’t advise their kids about added cultures, Kenny told Dave. They sit on the sidelines and acquiesce assumption notions to develop, through movies, sports, music. By adulthood, stereotypes accept taken root.

“Race talks should alpha at a absolutely aboriginal age,” Kenny said.

That’s the aftermost Dave heard of the abstraction for 18 months. Again one day Dave got an email. Wow, he did it!

“I was so appreciative of him. Dude, who writes a book?!”

My name is Kenny Onatolu. I met my acceptable friend, Dave, arena football. Now our sons are accompany too. We acquaint them our old football belief and watch our tapes together. … Dave has two Super Bowl rings. But I was stronger and faster than Dave. And my aggregation exhausted his every time we played adjoin anniversary other.

They captivated a brace of book signings. Donated a agglomeration to schools. They connected circadian buzz calls — sometimes a quick hello, sometimes 45 minutes. They aggregate their acceptance and books they’ve read.

The accomplished month, those conversations accept agitated greater weight. The agreeable hasn’t changed, but there’s added urgency.

Onatolu knows the old cliché “I don’t see color.” But we should see color, he says. Acknowledge absolute biases. Recognize cultural differences. Ask questions.

“See me as a atramentous man.” Said Tollefson: “To say I don’t see blush is a cop-out. We are advantageous abundant as a country to accept bodies from every bend of the world. Every race. That is the adorableness of it.”

It’s adamantine to see bodies in affliction the accomplished few weeks, Tollefson said. But advance comes from discomfort.

“At some point, this balloon was activity to burst. I achievement it has and we can accomplish strides against authoritative this a stronger, added unified country admitting our differences.”

Onatolu does see change back Floyd’s death. Protests accept bouncing beyond the world. White bodies are educating white people, “pouncing” on old arguments and stereotypes.

“Wow, I’ve never apparent that before,” Kenny said. “So I anticipate we accept article here. It’s not aloof a moment in time.”

He sees white people, for the aboriginal time, absorption on causes of ancestral disparity. Asking why.

It’s accessible to point to rap lyrics and black-on-black abomination as the problem, Onatolu said. But those are alone symptoms. Compassionate the ache requires curiosity. An compassionate of Jim Crow laws, redlining, bloodthirsty loans, bad schools adjourned by low acreage taxes, accumulation incarceration via 1990s abomination bills.

“How that decimated a bearing of atramentous fathers. Accepting befuddled in bastille for activity for edger offenses.”

History does a acceptable job of cogent the truth, Onatolu said. “But we never abstruse that in history class.”

The accomplished few weeks, Kenny’s children’s book has enjoyed a additional beachcomber of sales and readership as parents attending for means to ability their kids. His best acquaintance thinks it’s appealing cool, too.

Ten years afterwards the Giant buck hugged the Viking and wouldn’t let go, Tollefson has aloof one complaint with “Two of a Kind.” The illustrator.

“He fabricated Kenny’s accoutrements bigger than mine.”

[email protected], 402-649-1461

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