Cardinals LB Owen Pappoe went from ‘PE All-American’ to NFL

May 9, 2023, 10:08 AM

Arizona Cardinals rookie Owen Pappoe seems aware of his circumstance.

A five-star recruit out of high school, the linebacker and fifth-round draft pick by Arizona spent four seasons at Auburn, the last two of them as captain of a team struggling to meet expectations. Now, he joins an NFL team with a focus on fixing things, and he’s aware rebuilding and tough times could be ahead.

Pappoe didn’t grow up with an NFL dream.

But it’s clear that football — what he on Tuesday called a metaphor for life — is his thing now when he says stuff like this:

“Football means everything to me, man,” Pappoe told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Tuesday. “You get to go out there and physically abuse somebody for four quarters straight without getting arrested. … You get to change your family’s life, too, financially.”

His parents, who are from Liberia, influenced his interest in soccer and basketball playing as a youngster. Pappoe played everything, he said, just not American football.

“I was a PE All-American,” he joked. “I never played any organized sports at all.”

Until one three-on-three basketball tournament in seventh grade changed things.

Kenyatta Watson, the father of Pappoe’s friend and current Georgia Tech defensive back Kenyatta Watson II, so-happened to be a youth football coach back then.

He pushed Pappoe’s father to let him play football, as the Montgomery Advertiser detailed in 2019.

The first time he saw Pappoe, the elder Watson thought it was all a joke.

“I was driving Kenyatta to school, and he was like, ‘That’s Owen right there!’” Watson said. “And I’m looking at this kid like, ‘There’s no way that this dorky, goofy-looking kid is who Kenyatta is talking about.’”

That was October of their sixth-grade year. Fast forward to March. Watson was at the middle school watching a three-on-three basketball tournament with his son when he saw what he assumed was an eighth-grader trying to dunk. Only it wasn’t an eighth-grader; it was Pappoe, the “dorky, goofy-looking kid” Watson laughed off a few months earlier.

After the tournament was over, Watson asked Pappoe if he had ever played football before. He hadn’t — he was focused on basketball at that point. Watson went and found Pappoe’s father, Lorenzo, and told him, “Listen, if you allow this kid to play football, he’s going to change your life.”

That advice turned out quite correct.

Pappoe finished last season at Auburn with 91 tackles, three for loss, along with two forced fumbles and an interception.

At 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, his athleticism and speed stood out at the NFL Draft Combine. He believes he has a strong ability to process offenses and that a top-30 visit to the Cardinals’ facility in the draft process showcased that to the team.

“I know how to diagnose things well. (I) have a really good understanding of offensive concepts,” Pappoe said. “I remember going through the installs with (linebackers coach Sam) Siefkes and (defensive coordinator Nick Rallis) during my 30-visit.

“I’m fast and all that, super athletic, but I’m a smart player as well. I’m excited to show the state of Arizona that.”

The linebacker group will be a tough one to crack, however.

The Cardinals drafted inside linebackers with their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks, though Isaiah Simmons could see time with the defensive backs and Zaven Collins is being considered for snaps at edge.

Arizona’s most high-profile free-agent signing was Kyzir White, a starter who played on new Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon’s Philadelphia Eagles defense last year.

Knowing that, Pappoe — one of just four two-time captains in Auburn football history — knows that he can impress by contributing on special teams and leaning on his steady leadership abilities. Building depth is part of rebuilding a team where accountability is among the cornerstones for a new front office and coaching staff.

“Being on as many special teams as I can, just being a good teammate, man, doing my part in day-to-day grinding,” Pappoe said of how he’ll contribute. “Show these guys from coaches to the vets that I’m here to play ball, that I’m serious about my craft and I’ll do everything I possibly can to help us win.”

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